The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms B complained the Council failed to support her and her two foster children appropriately. There is evidence of fault causing injustice both to Ms B and the children. The Council has been asked to make an apology and to provide a financial remedy to Ms B, C and D.
- The complainant, whom I shall call Ms B, says the Council has failed to support her and her foster children (C and D) appropriately by failing to give them relevant information and services.
- I have considered her complaints including about being informed of the children’s HIV status, criticism on wider caring issues, information submitted about her to annual review, relations with social workers, caring for the children in the long term, housing and about the Council’s complaints handling.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- We may investigate matters coming to our attention during an investigation, if we consider that a member of the public who has not complained may have suffered an injustice as a result. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26D and 34E, 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)
- 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.
How I considered this complaint
- I considered the information provided by Ms B and I made enquiries with the Council and assessed its response. I looked at the Council’s procedures online and accessed a number of healthcare websites. I sent Ms B and the Council a copy of my draft decision and took their comments into account before issuing my decision.
What I found
- C and D lived with their father following the death of their mother. He died suddenly in November 2014 so they were placed with Ms B in December of that year.
- Ms B had been approved to foster one child or a sibling group of two. She had previously been given an exception for a sibling group of three. Ms B had started fostering in July 2014.
- Since C and D were placed, a number of issues arose, which affected Ms B’s relationships with social workers at the Council. Ms B did not feel she had been treated fairly. She asked the Ombudsman to consider what had happened and at the key issues that her dissatisfaction with the Council centred on.
C and D’s HIV status
- The Council did not give any indication of C’s and D’s HIV status when they were placed with Ms B. It says this was not known by fostering at the time of placement. The Council, even if not fostering, was aware of C and D’s father’s HIV status at the time of his death. At the time of obtaining the care order for C and D, the Council was also pursuing court agreement to allow testing.
- Given children were involved, this information should have been passed on when C and D were accommodated and testing arranged immediately. This is fault. It caused Ms B understandable distress once she was told about the possibility of the children being HIV positive four weeks after C and D came into her care. The Council should consider amending its procedures so important information like this is traceable and can be acted upon. The Council has already apologised and acknowledged this was a ‘serious failing’. It also said at the following Annual Review this matter had not been ‘handled sensitively by professionals’ at the time.
- Ms B told the Council her decision to take C and D might have been different had she known their HIV status at placement. This may have been the case but ‘Safer Caring’ guidelines would ensure any risk was minimized. It would be highly unlikely for infection to result following slight contact even though Ms B was concerned as she had been exposed to blood.
- Once fostering was aware of the need to test C and D, it took steps to arrange blood tests. It was not for Ms B to arrange tests for the children although it would have been in C and D’s best interests to have tests as soon as possible. As it was, Ms B was able to achieve an earlier appointment for them. They tested negative.
- If Ms B was unhappy looking after the children with unknown HIV status, she could have asked the Council to find them another carer once she was told testing was required. Similarly, if she felt she could not offer the children support given their need for testing and their bereavement, because she was so unhappy and concerned about the potential risk, she should have asked the Council to identify a different carer.
Wider caring of C and D
- At one stage, Ms B took D for a haircut without the permission of the social worker (who was on leave at the time). Ms B says that ringworm was identified and, as a result, D went on medication. The social worker said Ms B should have got permission from her first and criticised her actions although I have an email from the Council commending her for taking this action. The Council’s procedures say that day-to-day decision making should be delegated to the child’s carer. They go on to say that ‘Decisions about delegation of authority should take account of the Looked After child’s views, and consideration should be given as to whether a Looked After child is of sufficient age and understanding to take some decisions themselves’.
- D wanted a haircut and he was competent to make that decision; he must also have been in some discomfort. There was no parent who could disagree. Failing to acknowledge that delay would have caused D further distress is fault. The Council should apologise for saying Ms B was wrong to take D to a hairdresser under these circumstances.
C taking D to school
- The Council was unhappy when Ms B proposed that C should take D to school rather than her taking them both. The Council said ‘foster carers are encouraged to take and collect children from school as it gives them regular contact with teachers and helps the child’s security’. The Council did not think it would be appropriate for D either. However, this request came from C. Failing to consider this as C’s request is fault and the Council should apologise to C who was caused distress. Ms B was able to make this suggestion on C’s behalf.
After school clubs
- The Council felt C and D should not attend after-school clubs but spend time with Ms B. On the balance of probabilities, C and D would have wanted to attend clubs as their school was located where they used to live, not where Ms B lived. They would not necessarily see their friends outside of school.
- The children should have been supported to attend after-school clubs by the Council, if that is what they wanted to do. Alternatively, the Council could have explained why it did not see this as a good idea and perhaps identified opportunities where C and D could see their friends outside school. C and D did not feel supported, which caused them distress. The Council should apologise to them.
- Ms B was informed that the children could go on a camping trip with a charity. The social worker discussed this with the children but not, from the evidence I have seen, with Ms B.
- Ms B was also originally asked to accompany C and D to and from the Lake District on the train (approximately a 600 mile round trip each time), which is excessive given she was not staying there and would have to come straight back once the children were dropped off. This is fault and it caused distress for Ms B as she was not in good health at the time. The social worker wrote to the organisers that ‘due to ongoing health problems, she (Ms B) will not be able to take the children to the camp…I am concerned that the carer has told me at this late stage’. It was fault for the Council to suggest Ms B should do this in the first place and it should apologise for the distress it caused.
- The Council then said to Ms B, sometime after the trip, that it was a concern C and D ‘lacked information’ about it. This was not mentioned to Ms B at the time of C and D’s conversation with the social worker, which was in August 2016. This is fault. It was not for Ms B to provide information to C and D about the trip, which she neither arranged nor paid for. Ms B explained that C and D had been worried about the accommodation so she had asked the scheme’s director about it at the time and shared this with C and D, which is appropriate.
- Ms B says this damaged her relationship with her then social worker. She says she could not have challenged this at the time as the conversation which highlighted the concerns was between the social worker and the children and not shared with her. However, the social worker said she ‘never viewed (the children not having information about the trip) as a problem’. Even though it had been expressed as a concern, this did not suggest her social worker was agreeing that it reflected badly on Ms B. Any of the children’s concerns should have been made clear to Ms B earlier than January 2017 so she could have addressed them prior to the holiday. This is fault causing distress to Ms B and the Council should apologise.
Information submitted to Annual Review
- Anxiety about wider caring of C and D prompted a social worker to raise concerns about Ms B at her first Annual Review. Neither Ms B nor her social worker had the opportunity of seeing these concerns prior to the meeting. This is fault and it caused Ms B considerable distress. The Council has apologised but it should also ensure that foster carers have the opportunity to see, and are able to challenge, issues prior to Annual Reviews if appropriate.
- The Council has also apologised that ‘information was not accurate’ and agreed it was not aware that some of the issues had already been raised with the children’s social worker ‘as...your emails had not been added to the children’s records’. This is fault. Had the Council done that sooner, some of the questions might never have arisen. The Council should consider amending its procedures so that it reflects on the knowledge of children’s social workers as well as foster carers’ social workers to write reports on standards of care. The children’s voice should also be heard in such matters, and given importance. I note C and D made a separate complaint to the Council about this.
- Ms B had evidence to dispute the findings of the Advanced Practitioner and, as a result, continued as a carer.
Relations with social workers
- Ms B has had problems with social workers she perceives as being unfair or unreasonable.
- Social workers do have to challenge carers and make recommendations on practice.
- For example, Ms B says that at one of the children’s Looked After Child Reviews, she was criticised for not getting injections for the children following a medical appointment. She explained that there had been no recommendation for an injection; just for blood testing. She had the forms as evidence. The Council should consider amending its procedures to ensure concerns are not raised about carers unless there is evidence to back them up. Failing to have this evidence before doing so is fault. The distress this caused has eroded Ms B’s confidence in the Council and the Council should apologise for this.
- In January 2017, Ms B was late for a Looked After Child Review Meeting, which was to be held at her home. The social worker acknowledged the week previously Ms B said she might not be available but Ms B had not confirmed subsequently. Everyone was waiting outside her house for Ms B to arrive. However, I have seen evidence of text messages from Ms B explaining why she and the children were running late to the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) on that occasion. At the meeting Ms B asked her supervising social worker to leave. Supervising social workers should attend reviews. Even though Ms B says there were other reviews the supervising social worker did not attend; this does not mean she should have been asked to leave. The Council says it was concerned about Ms B’s behaviour and did not feel she was able to work in partnership with professionals; especially if they were critical about her practice.
- The Council allocated Ms B a new social worker. It is not fault for the Council to assure itself she can work with professionals long-term.
Caring for the children in the long-term
- The Council asked Ms B if she wanted to be a long-term carer for the children very early on after she had accommodated them, which she did. There was a substantial delay before the Council considered this in any detail.
- The Council suggests the process was delayed because of Ms B’s actions with her previous social worker who was tasked with the assessment. There is no evidence of this except for one meeting scheduled for 16 November 2016 that neither the social worker nor Ms B could make. Discussions about permanence were ongoing since the children were placed and reference to Ms B providing permanence were ongoing for at least a year but visits were not completed. This is fault. It caused time and trouble for Ms B who wished to care for the children long term. The children also needed permanence. The Council should apologise to Ms B for this. It should also make a payment to C and D of £200 each, acknowledging their distress that permanence has not yet been achieved for them. The Council has since done an assessment on Ms B.
- The Council said, in March 2017, the decision that Ms B should be moved to Level Two as a foster carer would be presented at the Annual Review (along with appropriate evidence from Ms B) and, if that felt Ms B was a suitable candidate to move to Level Two, payment could be backdated. I have seen a file extract signed by a manager on 15 November 2016, which says ‘(Ms B) to receive notification that her Induction Standards Portfolio has passed and her financial reward to be backdated to May 2016’. There was a further note sent to her on 23 March 2017; ‘Your (portfolio) will be signed off and we are in the process of preparing your certificate’. Ms B has still not received this. It is appropriate to send Ms B her certificate and to backdate payment to May 2016, as had previously been anticipated. The Council should apologise for this delay, which is fault that has caused Ms B time and trouble in having to chase this up.
- Since I received this complaint, Ms B applied for a Special Guardianship Order (SGO) for C and D but did not receive a response from the Council. This is fault but there is no injustice to Ms B as the children are not currently in her care.
- When C and D were placed, it was accepted Ms B needed a larger property to enable them to have separate bedrooms. This was not achieved. The Council says it had meetings with senior officers with the council where Ms B lives but this did not result in Ms B being given a housing offer. The Council says it could not have arranged housing until it was agreed she would care for the children long-term. If that was the case, it is not clear why it went through options with her before assessments had been completed.
- Because Ms B lives in a different council’s area, her application for a larger property would be considered under that council’s criteria. The Council could also not intervene with the other council’s processes.
- I note that Ms B has said she wants the Council to support her children to get accommodation. She said the Council agreed to complete and submit priority forms for this. If the Council agreed she could look after C and D long term I would expect it to support Ms B to identify an appropriate property for her children (as it said it would do) and/or liaise with the other council to find her a bigger property in the same area.
- Given the lack of trust Ms B had with the department, it would have been appropriate for the person investigating her complaints to have been independent of the matters complained of. Instead, someone who had prior dealings with Ms O investigated her complaint.
- The Council also sent out the Stage One response late. This is fault and it caused time and trouble for Ms B because she wanted answers to her complaints. The Council has already apologised, which remedies the fault.
- Ms B was unhappy with the outcome to her complaint. She wanted the Council to take her complaints to the second stage. The Council refused to do this. It said it had upheld parts of her complaint, had taken action to move matters on and that she had not stated what outcomes she wanted. Ms B disagreed and pointed out that not all aspects of her complaint had been covered at Stage One. She wrote a lengthy response to the Council to explain this but the Council still refused to consider her complaint at the second stage. This is fault and the Council should apologise for this. Ms B had to come to the Ombudsman to get answers on some aspects of her complaints.
- Ms B also made a personnel complaint about her then social worker, which the Council had asked her to do so her complaint could be addressed. The Council said she would receive an answer in fifteen days but she did not. This is fault and the Council should apologise and make a payment of £150 for her time and trouble. I would not expect outcomes of personnel complaints to be shared with complainants but as the Council told her she would receive a reply, it should have provided one to her.
- The Ombudsman does not consider complaints about professional practice; this is a matter for the Health and Care Professions Council as the appropriate regulatory body.
- Ms B has said she has not received a copy of reports from social workers. She made a subject access request to find out what had been said. The Council’s policy says ‘A record of all meetings should be kept on the foster carers' file and one copy given to the foster carers’. The Council should ensure that staff are aware of its policy and that foster carers receive regular reports when meetings take place. It should apologise to Ms B that it has not done this in the past.
- For the Council to apologise to Ms B, C and D for the fault identified in this Statement, where it has not yet done so. It should ensure it writes to C and D to apologise in an age appropriate way. It should do this for Ms B within two months of my decision and for C and D, within six months of my decision.
- For the Council to consider amending its procedures so important information about children coming into foster care is traceable and can be acted upon within the Council. It should also consider amending its procedures to ensure concerns are not raised about carers unless there is evidence to support them. It should do this within six months of my decision.
- For the Council to consider amending its procedures to ensure it reflects on the knowledge of children’s social workers as well as foster carers’ social workers in order to write reports on standards of care. The children’s voice should be heard in such matters, and given importance. There should be nothing that is a surprise to foster carers when reports are written; the Council should ensure staff are aware foster carers must have copies of supervision notes and records of other meetings involving them. The Council should also accept that information given to social workers by children might need to be shared with the foster carer so the children can be appropriately reassured or supported. It should do this within six months of my decision.
- For the Council to ensure it follows the complaints process so complaints addressed at Stage One are moved on to Stage Two if the complainant wishes it. It should do this immediately.
- For the Council to backdate Ms B’s Level 2 payment to May 2016 within three months of my decision.
- For the Council to make a payment of £150 to Ms B and £200 each to C and D to remedy their injustice. It should do this within three months of my decision for Ms B and within six months of my decision to C and D.
- Fault leading to injustice and a remedy has been agreed.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman