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Calderdale Metropolitan Borough Council (21 012 502)

Category : Children's care services > Child protection

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 21 Jun 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr L complains the Council has failed to investigate and take formal safeguarding action in relation to his daughter (Child A) who he considers to be at risk of harm. He also says alleges the Council has failed to communicate with him responsibly and that the conduct of individual social workers has been inappropriate. We found the Council fully considered Mr L’s concerns relating to the welfare of Child A. There was however some fault by the Council in the way it communicated the outcome of its assessment to Mr L. That said, the Council remedied any injustice to by promptly sending him additional information, as requested. We did not identify any fault with respect to conduct issues by individual social workers.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I refer to as Mr L, is making a complaint about the Council allegedly failing to take formal safeguarding action in relation to his daughter (Child A). Between 2016 and 2021, Mr L has contacted the Council with safeguarding concerns relating to Child A. Most recently, he says he obtained an audio recording of his daughter being allegedly verbally abused by someone who she lives with. In summary, Mr L alleges the following:
      1. The Council did not ask or want to hear the evidence he had obtained. He further alleges the Council did not take his safeguarding concerns seriously.
      2. The Council closed the safeguarding case without conducting a formal investigation into the concerns raised, or making relevant enquiries.
      3. The Council failed to return his calls in relation to the safeguarding process and did not appropriately notify him of the outcome of its case assessment.
      4. The Council’s social workers were inappropriate in their dealings with him.
      5. The Council has failed to provide him with requested information and that the information it has provided has been in redacted form.
  2. In summary, Mr L says the Council’s refusal to consider his evidence of safeguarding concerns has resulted in significant distress and upset. He also feels the Council’s bias towards him compromises the wellbeing of Child A. As a desired outcome, Mr L wants the Council to address his serious concerns.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate.
  2. We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons to exercise discretion in this respect. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended).
  3. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended).
  4. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended).
  5. We normally expect someone to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner if they have a complaint about data protection. However, we may decide to investigate if we think there are good reasons. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended).

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have reviewed Mr L’s complaint to the Ombudsman and Council. I have also had regard to the responses of the Council and applicable legislation and policy. Further, I read the Council’s information record in relation to its assessments of Mr L’s safeguarding concerns, case notes and procedure for screening child protection concerns. I invited both Mr L and the Council to comment on a draft of my decision. All comments received were fully considered before a final decision was made in this case.

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My findings

Background and legislative framework

Paramountcy principle

  1. Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 (the Act) says the child’s needs and welfare are paramount and the needs and wishes of the child should be put first. This is so the child receives the support they need before a problem escalates.

Referral and assessment

  1. Anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare should make a referral to the council's children’s social care and should do so immediately if there is a concern that the child is suffering significant harm or is likely to do so. Referrals may come from the child, agencies involved with children such as health and schools, concerned family members, friends, neighbours or members of the public. When the council accepts a referral, the social worker has the lead professional role. The social worker should clarify with the referrer, where possible, what the concerns are and how and why they have arisen.
  2. The council should make initial enquiries of agencies involved with the child and family, for example, health visitor, GP, schools and nurseries. The information gathering at this stage enables the council to assess the nature and level of any harm the child may be facing.  The assessment may result in no further action or a decision to carry out a more detailed assessment of the child’s needs. The council may also decide to convene a strategy meeting. The child and family must be informed of the action to be taken. Further, the social worker should see the child as soon as possible if the decision is that the referral requires further assessment.
  3. The primary statutory guidance which governs safeguarding assessments is called ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018’. This says the council has a maximum timeframe of 45 days to complete the assessment. Assessors should consider the child’s developmental needs, parenting capacity and family and environmental factors. The child’s interests come first. Where a particular need is identified during the assessment, the council should not wait for the assessment to be completed before commissioning services.
  4. An assessor may decide that no further action is necessary, that the child is in need, or the child is in need of protection. Where the outcome is continued involvement, the council agrees a plan of action with other agencies and discusses this with the child and family.

Strategy discussion and meetings

  1. Where initial assessment shows a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm the council and the police hold a strategy discussion. This may be a telephone discussion. The purpose of a strategy discussion is to decide immediate safeguarding actions and the extent of information giving, especially to parents. A strategy meeting may include professionals involved with the child.
  2. The lead agency (generally the council) must see the child, seeking their views and record the outcome. Where the social worker decides emergency action is not needed, they will meet with the family and agree plans to safeguard the child’s welfare. The child may be considered a child in need (as opposed to a child at risk of harm) and safeguarding activity stopped. If the child is in need the council should consider what services are needed in the circumstances.

Section 45 enquiries

  1. A section 47 enquiry is carried out by undertaking or continuing an assessment. Local authority social workers have a statutory duty to lead assessments under Section 47 of the Act. In some cases, children’s services will carry out single agency enquiries. In cases where a criminal prosecution is being considered, there will be joint enquiries with the police. If the information gathered under section 47 substantiates concerns and the child may remain at risk of significant harm the social worker will arrange a child protection conference within 15 working days of the strategy meeting. 

Chronology of events

  1. By way of background, Child A lives with her mother and siblings. I understand from the information available that Mr L does not have contact with Child A and he lives in another part of the country. The family have been known by the Council’s Children’s Services team since 2016.
  2. Between 2016 and 2020, Mr L has made a number of safeguarding concerns in relation to Child A’s wellbeing. This has involved formal safeguarding assessments being completed by the Council in accordance with section 47 of the Act. The outcome of the assessment was that Child A was not at risk of harm.
  3. In mid-July 2021, Mr L made two safeguarding referrals which were received by the Council. This included an audio recording which Mr L considered showed that Child A was at risk of emotional harm. The referral was closely related to another referral the Council received from an anonymous source earlier that year.
  4. In both cases, the Council logged the referrals and conducted a number of screening exercises to assess any alleged risk to Child A. This included contacting Child A’s mother and carrying out safeguarding checks with other agencies. Following the screening of the referrals, the Council decided to take no further action. This is because the Council did not consider the threshold had been met for a full assessment of the situation on those occasions.
  5. The Council’s case notes record Mr L receiving advice about what action it proposed to take to assess his concerns. There was also lengthy dialogue between Mr L and the Council later in the year following a further and more detailed assessment in relation to Child A’s wellbeing.
  6. In September 2021, the Council commenced a Single Assessment in accordance with the overview I describe between Paragraphs 10 and 13 (above). The assessment commenced as a result of a police referral. The purpose of the assessment was to determine any alleged risk to Child A and her wellbeing.
  7. As part of the Single Assessment, the Council carried out a detailed evaluation in relation to Child A. This included gathering the views of medical and educational professionals, as well as the police. Further, the Council ascertained the views of Child A (alone) and her mother. The Council did not identify any concerns relating to the wellbeing of Child A within the family home environment, or otherwise.
  8. In addition, Mr L was contacted in September 2021 by the Council’s allocated social worker who recorded his views and comments. Mr L emphasised that he was dissatisfied with the Council over the years and believed it had left Child A down. He also referred to poor conduct by the social workers involved in the case who he alleges misrepresented that he had a criminal record. The Council’s case notes record that Mr L has become increasingly abusive and aggressive during his discussions with its social workers.
  9. In early October 2021, the Council wrote to Mr L to inform him about the outcome of the Single Assessment. The Council confirmed it would not be taking any further action. However, Mr L was dissatisfied with the level of detail provided by the Council and he therefore requested a more substantive overview as to the reasons for closing the case.
  10. In late October 2021, the Council wrote to Mr L again to provide a more detailed overview. It also enclosed a copy of the assessment report, albeit in redacted form to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of the parties involved.

My assessment

Time limits

  1. By law, I cannot accept a complaint made more than 12 months of the complaint becoming aware of the problem, unless there are good reasons to exercise discretion in this respect. In Mr L’s complaint to the Council, he has referred to alleged failings between 2016 and 2021. These complaints primarily relate to an alleged failure by the Council to take formal safeguarding action in relation to Child A. I will not investigate historical allegations prior to the year 2021. I have considered whether there are good reasons to exercise my discretion and investigate Mr L’s earlier concerns. However, my views are as follows:
      1. Given the passage of time, there would be difficulties in establishing the material facts with reasonable confidence and gathering sufficient evidence to reach a sound judgement, particularly relating to any alleged injustice.
      2. We cannot apply current standards, guidance, or professional expectations to historical situations. It is therefore likely to be more difficult to reach a firm and fair conclusion on whether there was maladministration in Mr L’s case.
      3. It is likely to be more difficult to achieve a meaningful remedy in Mr L’s case, given the length of time that has already passed, the difficulty in establishing causality over longer time periods, and changes in the situation of the parties.
  2. For these reasons, I do not consider that there is a realistic prospect of reaching a sound, fair, and meaningful decision in Mr L’s case insofar as it relates to issues earlier than 2021. This means that the remit of my investigation is assessing complaint outcomes (a) to (d) with respect to formal safeguarding concerns received by the Council in 2021 and its consideration of these.

Child protection concerns

  1. Importantly, I cannot by law question the merits of the Council’s decision absent a finding of procedural fault. This is because decisions are best made by those exercising professional judgement. My role is therefore to assess whether the Council has followed the correct child protection procedure and considered the views of all of those involved to reach a reliable and well-informed decision.
  2. On receipt of a child protection referral, the Council should assess any information provided to determine whether any formal safeguarding action should be undertaken. If, following screening of the referral, the Council holds concerns in relation to a child, it should conduct an assessment (commonly referred to as a Single Assessment). Mr L has complained the Council did not ask or want to hear the evidence he had obtained (an audio recording) which showed Child A was at risk of emotional harm. I therefore made enquiries of the Council and requested the written assessments it conducted in relation to Mr L’s concerns about Child A.
  3. In my view, the evidence clearly demonstrates the Council listened to the audio recordings provided by Mr L and that it formally considered whether to undertake formal safeguarding action. The Council’s formal record of the assessment provides a narrative of the audio recording. The views of the Council officer carrying out the assessment are appropriately recorded. I do not therefore uphold Mr L’s complaint that the Council failed to consider the evidence he provided.
  4. Moreover, Mr L has complained the Council failed to take his concerns seriously and closed the case without carrying out an investigation. To be clear, no further action (without a formal detailed assessment or “investigation”) is a perfectly legitimate outcome to a safeguarding referral. However, the Council must satisfy itself of the merits justifying this course of action. I have reviewed the formal evidence maintained by the Council. In response to Mr L’s referral, the Council held a formal meeting with Child A’s mother to discuss the concerns raised. Further, the Council conducted agency checks relating to Child A’s household. The Council also made formal enquiries of Child A’s school and medical providers. In all the circumstances, no safeguarding concerns were identified and so the Council decided to take no further action.
  5. In September 2021, the Council commenced a Single Assessment (referred to above) to identify any risks to Child A. It gathered wide ranging views of all parties involved (including those with parental responsibility) and made formal enquiries of various agencies to ascertain any concerns. Moreover, the Council engaged heavily with Child A to understand her views. I am satisfied the Council carried out a suitable and well measured assessment. I also consider the Council’s assessment was fully consistent with the standards and principles as set out in statutory guidance (Working Together 2018). I therefore have no legal jurisdiction to question the merits of the decision reached by the Council to take no further action and close the case. The restriction I outline at Paragraph 6 applies.

Communication issues

  1. I also recognise Mr L’s frustration that he feels the Council should have better maintained contact with him in relation to the concerns he raised. He alleges the Council failed to send him the outcome of its safeguarding assessment. I have reviewed the Council’s case records which show Mr L was sent a letter notifying him that it had completed its assessment and closed the case. However, Mr L told the Council he wanted more information and full details of the assessment undertaken. The Council acknowledged Mr L had been sent a standard closure letter in error and it agreed to provide him with amended letter and an anonymised copy of the assessment. There was therefore some fault by the Council in relation to the way it communicated the outcome of its assessment with Mr L. That said, I consider the Council has already remedied any injustice to Mr L by acknowledging its error and promptly providing him with further information as requested. I cannot add to the outcome already achieved by Mr L himself.
  2. I also acknowledge Mr L’s point that the Council would not return his calls to discuss his safeguarding concerns. I have reviewed the timeline of events which shows that Council officers have held multiple conversations with Mr L for the purposes of understanding his views. The case notes of the telephone calls refer to Mr L becoming abusive and aggressive towards Council officers. These case notes are recorded by various individuals over time. Moreover, these notes are consistent with those recorded by other agencies who have held conversations with Mr L. I do not intend to pass a view of whether Mr L has been abusive or not as it is not necessary to complete my investigation. However, the evidence does suggest there have been multiple and challenging telephone calls which has made the Council’s communication with Mr L particularly difficult. I have not identified any fault that the Council has failed to take Mr L’s calls with the purpose of not wanting to understand his concerns or investigate them appropriately.

Conduct concerns

  1. Separately, Mr L has raised concerns in relation to the conduct of the Council’s social workers. On one occasion, Mr L says that a social worker assumed that a person who had made an allegation against him in the past was an ex-partner. Mr L said the assumption made was inappropriate and inaccurate as the person who made the allegation was actually a customer who owed him money. Mr L said he threatened legal action to recover the amount owed which resulted in the person reporting him to the police. In summary, Mr L says the Council social worker who made the assumption was seeking to build a false narrative that there was a pattern ex-partners who had domestic abuse allegations against him.
  2. The Council is entitled to ask questions it considers are relevant to giving effect to its statutory duty to make enquiries in response to child protection concerns. If the Council considers a safeguarding referral may be relevant, it is permitted to make enquiries and challenge those involved in the process accordingly. In my view, that constitutes good administrative practice. I have not identified any evidence of fault in relation to this part of the complaint.
  3. Further, Mr L says a social worker made a comment at the Council’s offices that he has a criminal record of numerous counts. The Council accepts that Mr L does not have a criminal record. It says that during a conversation with Mr L, a social worker referenced a number of safeguarding records held on police databases. The Council later addressed Mr L’s concerns in this respect by confirming the counts referenced were of a safeguarding nature, as opposed to a criminal sanction. I have not been able to identify whether the Council’s social worker misspoke when discussing this subject with Mr L. In any event, I have not identified any evidence of fault by the Council in relation to this matter.

Data protection concerns

  1. Finally, Mr L has made requests for information relating to Child A. He says he is entitled as a matter of law to receive unredacted reports insofar as they to Child A. Mr L told me the Council has failed to provide him the information. This is a matter which properly relates to data protection as some information given to Mr L has been redacted in order to maintain the confidentiality of other parties. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) regulates data protection laws this country. Therefore, if Mr L is of the view the Council is not providing him information he is entitled to receive by law, I consider it reasonable that he complains to the ICO. This is because the ICO is the best placed body to handle such concerns. The restriction I describe at Paragraph 7 therefore applies.

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Final decision

  1. The complaint is not upheld. The Council conducted an appropriate assessment into the safeguarding concerns relating to Child A and I have no legal jurisdiction to question the merits of the officers exercising their professional judgement. I did identify some fault by the Council in relation to the way it communicated the outcome of the assessment to Mr L. However, the Council remedied any injustice to Mr L by agreeing to provide him with further details. Finally, I have not identified any evidence of fault by the Council in relation to the conduct of social workers.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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