The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council acted with fault when managing the transfer of a foster child between foster parents and in its response to a proposal to adopt the child.
- In brief, the complaint is when considering adoption by foster parents and the transition of a foster child to a new family the Council failed to:
- Properly follow procedures and manage the transition preventing the foster family from saying goodbye to a foster child;
- Properly consider a complaint about how it handled the transition, record keeping and actions of the social workers;
- Keep a promise to offer a ‘letter box’ service through which the foster family could say goodbye to the foster child leaving their care.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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 there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- In considering this complaint I have:
- Contacted Mr and Mrs X, read the information presented with their complaint;
- Put enquiries to the Council and reviewed its response;
- Researched relevant law, regulations and guidance;
- Shared with Mr and Mrs X my draft decision and reflected on the responses received.
What I found
- Mr and Mrs X provide foster care for children placed by the Council. In September 2015, the courts granted the Council an interim care order for a baby I will refer to as AB. The Council placed AB with Mr and Mrs X while it carried on with care proceedings. In the permanence plan which the Council must draw up it recorded its plan to place AB with her siblings. In the professional judgement of officers keeping the siblings together would be in all their best interests. However, the Council recognised it may not be possible to place all the siblings or even groups of the siblings together. It may have to consider single placements.
- In October 2015 Mrs X says the Looked After Children social worker asked if Mr and Mrs X would consider adopting AB. In an email in response they explained why they could not offer adoption at that time.
- After considering the Council’s report in care proceedings, the court granted a placement order for AB and her siblings in February 2016. In the Order, the court recommended the Council placed AB in foster care while looking for an adoption placement with her siblings for six months. After that if it had not found a successful placement the Council should review whether AB should be placed with her siblings or singly.
- In Looked After Child Reviews and Permanence Planning Meetings professionals discussed where to place AB and her siblings and the recommendations to place AB with another family while waiting for adoption. In July 2016, a Permanence Planning Meeting noted that a meeting the following day would discuss a couple who could foster all three siblings before seeking to adopt them. As this was within the six-month period set out in the court order the Council had to consider the option.
- At an adoption exchange day (also in July 2016) Mrs X says social workers asked her if the family would consider adopting AB.
- Mr and Mrs X formally asked to adopt AB in August 2016. The Council rejected the application because this did not meet the recommendations of the Placement Order and was just within the six months placement period. The Council had started the process for transferring the children to the new foster family with a view to adoption. It wanted to complete that if possible because that met the objective of the Placement Order. The Council’s Resource Allocation Panel considered the recommendation to place all three siblings with the new foster family and approved the plan.
- Mrs X says the foster parent looking after AB’s siblings sent a text to Mrs X assuming she knew about this decision. The Social Worker had told her before telling Mr and Mrs X. The news caused distress and they felt it should not have come from another foster parent. The Council formally told Mr and Mrs X in a fostering supervision visit it had refused their adoption request. The Council says it felt this the best way to communicate the decision to lessen the impact on Mrs X and provide support for her. The Council recognised the family had become attached to AB and wanted to provide support for her departure. However, the Council did not issue a written formal decision setting out its reasons or Mr and Mrs X’s right to a review of the decision.
- AB had been with Mr and Mrs X and their family since 2015. During her time with the family they had become attached to her and recognised her fragility. They feared for her emotional welfare if the Council moved her. However, the Council told them AB’s birth mother wanted the children to remain together. The Council said it believed placing them with a foster family as a foster to adoption placement was in the siblings’ best interests.
- In line with usual practice the Council undertook transition planning which included arranging introductions to the new family. Officers assessed the introduction period needed would be about 8 days, culminating in the transfer of AB to the new family on 25 October 2016. It brought the day forward to 24 October 2016 because Mrs X had displayed distress the Council thought might adversely impact on her, her children and AB. Moving AB a day early meant Mr and Mrs X felt they and their family did not have enough time to say goodbye. It also meant AB moved on the day of Mr and Mrs X’s son’s birthday. The Council says it did not consider returning AB to Mr and Mrs X’s home to say goodbye would be in AB’s or the family’s best interests. The Council says it would be too emotional for Mrs X and it had concerns Mrs X’s distress might impact on AB and Mr and Mrs X’s other children.
- The County Adoption Panel approved the adoption match for AB and her siblings in October 2016.
- The family found AB’s departure difficult. The Council said that it would arrange for the family to say goodbyes but the new family did not want contact. The Council said it would provide a post drop where the family could record their goodbyes and send a message to AB. It did not arrange this post drop.
- Mrs X raised concerns about the new foster family with the Council. Mrs X says the Council ignored her concerns and this caused her distress because she had genuine concerns for AB’s welfare. A child she had been willing to keep and adopt. The Council says it considered Mrs X’s concerns. Officers balanced those concerns against observations of AB while in the care of her new prospective adoptive parents. The Council says it changed some routines during the introductory period as a result.
- As an experienced foster carer Mrs X says she became alarmed when the new foster carer clearly did not know what to do after AB had two falls within two days. Mrs X took AB to hospital. Mrs X says she (and she says the foster carer for one of the siblings) had serious concerns about the new foster carers coping with siblings with complex needs. Given her concerns Mrs X asked the Council to review the suitability of the placement. The Council refused. Mrs X took legal advice and contacted the birth mother who in a text in October 2016 said she had been more than happy to have AB stay with Mrs X. After this the Council contacted Mrs X and told her AB would not be returning to her home for the planned farewell.
- The Council says it acted in line with the court’s decision that three siblings including AB should remain together. That is why the Council rejected Mrs X’s application to adopt AB or care for her under a Special Guardianship Order. The Council recognises it could consider alternative arrangements if unable to place the siblings together within six months. However, the Council believes that time limit should not be applied too strictly. The Council had identified a foster to adoption placement for the siblings within the time frame.
- Mr and Mrs X have an adopted child. They felt they needed some support to help them with this child. However, because of the way the Council handled AB’s departure and rejected their adoption proposal they say they have been unable to seek help from the Council.
- The Council in recognition the transfer could have been better managed offered counselling to the family to help them cope with their distress.
- In commenting on my draft decision, the Council says it did not fail to properly manage AB’s departure from the family. It says it made a child centred decision to safeguard AB due to the level of distress displayed by Mrs X on the day.
Analysis – was there fault leading to an injustice?
- My role is to consider if the Council acted with fault and if so, did that cause an injustice for which I can recommend a remedy. It is not to decide where AB should be placed. The complaint is in two broad parts. The first concerns the decision on Mr and Mrs X’s application to adopt AB and its decision to move AB and how it managed that move. The second part is how the Council responded to Mr and Mrs X’s concerns about the new foster parent.
- It is not part of my role to hold individual officers to account but the Council as a corporate body. The law does not permit me to investigate issues concerning discipline. Complaints of professional misconduct can be made to the officer’s professional body.
The decision on the application to adopt AB and removal from Mr and Mrs X
- The courts decided to further AB’s best interests she and her siblings should be placed together. It set out a timeline of six months after which the Council could decide on a single placement. The time frame is not absolute but suggests a need to find a suitable placement as soon as possible.
- The Council found a couple willing to offer a foster to adoption placement for the siblings. Mr and Mrs X however wanted to adopt AB immediately and believe therefore they could offer her a stable home without disruption from further fostering.
- Refusing Mr and Mrs X’s adoption proposal reflects the Council’s view it should follow the court’s preferred plan to settle the siblings together. However, it surprised Mr and Mrs X because the Council had twice asked them if they would consider adopting her. However, the social workers working with the family considered a placement with her siblings was still in AB’s best interests. In responding to Mr and Mrs X’s application to adopt the Council did not give its decision in writing. The Council offered no right of review leaving Mr and Mrs X without any choice but to accept AB’s departure. That added to the difficulties they faced in managing AB’s departure from their family.
- In its pledge to foster carers the Council says it will treat them as professionals and with respect. Their needs as families and the impact of decisions will be considered. While the needs of AB are paramount she had lived with the family for a year. Relationships had developed not least with the children of the family. The records do not show any concerns being raised with Mrs X about her emotional responses before AB’s removal. The Council did not take contemporaneous notes of supervision meetings. Mr and Mrs X say they disagreed with them but felt their views had no importance. The Council has added notes to the record showing Mr and Mrs X disagreed with minutes of meetings. It is unclear if they were invited to comment each time or asked to sign copies to show agreement with them. They say not.
- Mr and Mrs X have adopted children. The Council had agreed with them it should avoid disrupting their son’s birthday by removing AB on that day. However, the Council decided, it says because of concerns about the emotional reaction of Mrs X, to remove AB on their son’s birthday. That caused great distress. The family had prepared for AB’s return to say farewell to her. AB did not return and the family did not get to say goodbye. Also, the Council did not provide the letter drop it had agreed or the opportunity to send a video for AB meaning they could not end their relationship with AB in a managed way. The sudden removal of AB added to the family’s distress and made it impossible for them to deal properly with AB’s departure.
- I uphold the complaint the Council failed to properly respond in writing to Mr and Mrs X’s application to adopt. The Council says it decided to remove AB on the son’s birthday as a child centred decision. It wanted to protect AB from the emotional distress displayed by Ms X on the day. I cannot dispute that judgement even though I understand Mr and Mrs X’s disagreement with it. However, the manner of departure caused the family much distress. That is exacerbated by the Council failing to provide the alternatives for saying goodbye. These faults led to avoidable distress.
- It is for the professionals to exercise their judgement on whether a placement will suit a child being transferred from one foster carer to another. At the introduction meetings Mr and Mrs X became concerned. They raised concerns following those meetings but say the Council ignored them.
- Mr and Mrs X say the family were inexperienced and over the introduction period they became increasingly concerned. They believed the family could not cope with AB and her health and wellbeing suffered.
- Councils should take any concerns be that about safeguarding or general care raised by experienced foster carers seriously.
- Mr and Mrs X believe the Council interpreted their concerns as complaints by a disappointed foster family who hoped to adopt AB and manifested from Mrs X’s inability to cope with the loss. Whatever may be the underlying reasons for an experienced foster carer to raise concerns the Council must properly consider those concerns. It has a duty to safeguard children.
- While Mr and Mrs X have no right to information once AB left their charge for reasons of confidentiality they should have been reassured by the Council’s actions it had taken their concerns seriously. The Council believes the placement met AB’s needs. That is a decision only those with professional knowledge of her needs can make.
- I find the Council acted in line with the court’s Placement Order which preferred a joint placement for the siblings. However, the Council failed to ensure the family had an opportunity to say goodbye to AB or support the family following her removal.
- We can never know if a review of the refusal to consider Mr and Mrs X’s adoption proposal would have succeeded. Given the court’s preference for a joint sibling placement it is on balance unlikely. However, they should have been given a proper written decision setting out the reasons for it and told how they might have that decision reviewed. They will never know if they might have adopted AB. That has led to Mr and Mrs X feeling they have not been treated with respect as experienced professionals and led to their resignation. They have lost a career to which they believe they had more to give. That is a significant injustice and a loss to the Council of experienced foster carers.
Recommended and agreed action
- To remedy the injustice arising out of the faults identified in this investigation I recommend and the Council agrees to within six weeks of my final decision:
- Apologise to Mr and Mrs X for the failings identified;
- Pay Mr and Mrs X £500 in recognition of the distress caused and the time and inconvenience expended in taking up the issues with the Council;
- Follow up its offer of family counselling;
- Invites Mr and Mrs X to consider mediation funded by the Council to see if there is a way back for them to continue their careers as foster carers.
- I find fault in the Council’s failure to provide the opportunities it promised for the family to say goodbye to AB. I also find fault in the Council’s failure to provide a written response to the proposal to adopt AB.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman