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Southend-on-Sea City Council (20 010 865)

Category : Children's care services > Disabled children

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 03 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms X complained the Council did not provide appropriate support to meet her child, Y’s, needs. She said it also did not complete a parent carer assessment with her and about poor complaint handling. There was no fault in how the Council assessed Y’s needs and decided they were not eligible for social support. However, it failed to refer them for a mentor as agreed, did not complete an adequate parent carer assessment with Ms X and delayed investigating her complaint. The Council will offer to refer Y for a mentor if still appropriate, complete a parent carer assessment with Ms X and pay Ms X £200 in acknowledgement of the frustration and uncertainty caused.

The complaint

  1. Ms X complained the Council:
    • had not provided appropriate support to meet her child, Y’s, needs. She said it wrongly refused to provide Y with social care support after completing a needs assessment in November 2019 and did not arrange a mentor for Y as agreed.
    • did not complete a parent carer assessment with her; and
    • delayed investigating her complaint.
  2. She also said the Children with Disabilities team eligibility criteria was unlawful and because of the unlawful policy, the Council had discriminated against Y.
  3. She says the Council’s actions meant Y has missed out on support and have caused her and Y distress. She wants the Council to provide services to meet Y’s needs, backdate payments for support Y has missed out on and apologise for its poor complaint handling.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated Ms X’s complaints in paragraph 1. I have not investigated the complaints in paragraph 2 and have explained my reasons for this at the end of this statement.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply 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)
  2. 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)
  3. Under the information sharing agreement between the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), we will share this decision with Ofsted.

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I read Ms X’s complaint and spoke with her about it on the phone.
  2. I made enquiries of the Council and considered information it sent me. I also considered information provided by Ms X.
  3. Ms X and the Council had the opportunity to comment on the draft decision. I considered their comments before making a final decision.

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What I found

Background information

Child in Need

  1. The Children Act 1989, section 17, requires councils to safeguard and promote the welfare of ‘children in need’ in their area, including disabled children, by providing appropriate services for them. All disabled children are regarded as ‘children in need’ and entitled to an assessment under section 17.
  2. The expectation is that an assessment which identifies significant needs will generally lead to the provision of services, but it is not the case that there is a duty to meet every assessed need. Whether a service is required is dependent on the nature and extent of the need assessed and the consequences of not providing a service. Councils may use eligibility criteria and take into account their available resources when providing services under section 17 of the Children Act.

Parent Carer assessments

  1. The Children Act 1989 (as amended by the Children and Families Act 2014) places specific duties on councils to assess the needs of carers with parental responsibility for disabled children as well as young carers. Councils have an obligation to assess parent carers on the ‘appearance of need’ (Children Act 1989, section 17ZD/E), or if an assessment is requested by the parent, and to provide a written copy of the assessment to the parent carer.

The Children’s statutory complaints process

  1. The law sets out a three-stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. The accompanying statutory guidance, ‘Getting the Best from Complaints’, explains councils’ responsibilities in more detail.
  2. The first stage of the procedure is local resolution. Councils have up to 20 working days to respond.
  3. If a complainant is not happy with a council’s stage one response, they can ask that it is considered at stage two. At this stage of the procedure, councils appoint an investigator and an independent person who is responsible for overseeing the investigation. Councils have up to 13 weeks to complete stage two of the process from the date of request.
  4. If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage two investigation, they can ask for a stage three review by an independent panel. The council must hold the panel within 30 days of the date of request, and then issue a final response within 20 days of the panel hearing.

What happened

  1. Ms X’s child, Y, has health conditions and special educational needs.
  2. In November 2019, a Council social worker from the Children with Disabilities (CWD) team visited Ms X and Y at home to complete a needs assessment with Y. The Council said this assessment also included an assessment of Ms X’s needs as a parent carer.
  3. The assessment considered:
    • Y’s strengths and needs;
    • Y’s views;
    • Ms X’s views in relation to Y’s needs; and
    • Information from relevant health professionals.
  4. The assessment concluded that Y did not meet the eligibility criteria for support services from the CWD team. However, it did identify that they would benefit from having a mentor. The action plan said the social worker would refer Y to the mentoring service within one week of the assessment.
  5. Ms X was unhappy with the assessment and complained to the Council in December 2019. She asked the Council to provide Y with social care support.
  6. The Council accepted her complaint under the children’s statutory complaints procedure. It provided a stage one response in January 2020, 21 working days later. It said the Council acknowledged its duty to assess Y under the Children Act 1989. It said it had completed its assessment in November 2019 but concluded that Y did not meet the eligibility criteria for support.
  7. Ms X was unhappy with this and asked the Council to escalate her complaint to stage two. The Council accepted the request but told us it struggled to find an investigator available to take her case between January and March.
  8. In March 2020, the Council wrote to her and said it was pausing the stage two investigation because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  9. In July 2020, the Council asked Ms X if she would agree to an online meeting with the complaint investigator and independent person. It said they were unable to arrange face to face meetings due to the ongoing pandemic, so an online meeting would allow the investigation to progress. Ms X agreed to this.
  10. Ms X complained about the ongoing delay in August 2020. She said it was now six months since she requested the stage two investigation and it had not yet begun.
  11. At the end of September 2020, the Council allocated an investigator and independent person for the investigation. It apologised to Ms X for the delay.
  12. The Council completed the stage two investigation in December 2020 and sent Ms X its adjudication in January 2021. It did not uphold her complaint about the assessment and found no fault in how it had decided Y did not meet the criteria for ongoing services. Ms X remained unhappy and asked the Council to escalate her complaint to stage three. She also complained about delays in the complaint investigation process.
  13. The Council responded to her complaint about delays in February 2021. It apologised for the delays at stage one and stage two. It said some of the stage two delays were due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It said it was now arranging the stage three and would be in touch shortly.
  14. The Council held the panel and sent its stage three adjudication letter at the end of March 2021. The Council did not uphold the complaint about the assessment.
  15. Ms X remained unhappy and brought her complaint to us.
  16. In response to our enquiries the Council said:
    • it could not say why the recommendation that Y should have a mentor was not progressed. It said it was probable the matter was passed to Y’s school to follow up, but there were no records to show this.
    • it had assessed Ms X’s needs as a parent carer as part of its single social work assessment in November 2019.
    • it accepted there were delays during the complaint investigation but said these were due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It said it had already apologised to Ms X for the delays.

Analysis

  1. There was no fault in how the Council completed its assessment of Y’s needs in November 2019. It appropriately gathered relevant background information, information from health professionals, and visited Y and Ms X at home to gather their views. It concluded Y did not meet the eligibility criteria for support from the CWD team. We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. There was no fault it how the Council assessed Y’s needs and made this decision, so I cannot say its decision was fault.
  2. The assessment recommended Y should be referred for a mentor but there is no evidence this recommendation was progressed. This is fault. We cannot know whether the mentoring service would have been able to find Y a suitable mentor and whether Y would have found this service beneficial. However, the fact the Council did not even make the referral has caused Ms X and Y frustration and uncertainty about whether this service may have benefited Y.
  3. The Council says it assessed Ms X’s needs as a parent carer as part of the November 2019 assessment. Although I accept it is entitled to combine the two assessments, I can see no evidence of the assessment of Ms X’s needs in the assessment report. The report includes the social workers analysis of Ms X’s parenting capacity and her view of Y’s needs, but there is insufficient consideration of Ms X’s needs or whether she would benefit from any support as a parent carer. This is fault. This has caused Ms X frustration and uncertainty about whether she could receive more support.
  4. The Council delayed providing Ms X with a stage one response by one working day. I do not consider this fault and in any case, the Council has already apologised for this. There was a significant delay at Stage two. There was delay between January and March 2020, when the Council said it could not find an available investigator. The Council then paused her complaint due to COVID-19. It is reasonable there was some delay between March and July 2020, due to the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the need to put arrangements in place for online meetings. However, there was then further delay as the investigator and independent person were not allocated until September and they did not meet with Ms X until the end of October 2020. Ms X did not receive a stage two adjudication letter until January 2021, a year after she escalated her complaint after stage one. Although I accept the pandemic contributed to this delay, the delay was excessive and is fault. The delays caused Ms X frustration and uncertainty. The Council has apologised for the delays at stage two, but this is insufficient to remedy the frustration and uncertainty caused. In line with our guidance on remedies I have recommended a more suitable remedy below.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of the final decision, the Council will:
    • discuss with Ms X and Y whether Y would still benefit from a mentor. It should refer Y to the mentoring service if Ms X and Y want this and it is still appropriate;
    • offer Ms X a parent carer assessment. If Ms X accepts the Council should complete the assessment within one month of her acceptance.
    • pay Ms X £200 in recognition of the frustration caused by the delay investigating her complaint and for frustration and uncertainty caused by failing to refer Y to the mentor service and to appropriately assess her needs as a parent carer.
  2. Within three months of the final decision, the Council will review how it completes parent carer assessments. It should ensure officers who carry out the assessments:
    • appropriately assess the needs of parents as carers, and not just their views in relation to their child;
    • record consideration of the parents needs as a carer and any resulting support the Council agrees to provide.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. I have found fault and the Council has agreed actions to remedy the injustice caused and improve its services.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated Ms X’s complaint that the Children with Disabilities team eligibility criteria is unlawful and because of this, the Council discriminated against her child. This is because only a court can decide whether a policy is lawful and whether there has been unlawful discrimination.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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