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Cumbria County Council (17 004 456)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 02 Feb 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council was not at fault in the way it dealt with an assessment of Mr and Mrs X as foster carers and recommended their deregistration.

The complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs X complain there were failings in the way the Council dealt with them as foster carers resulting in their resignation and causing them much distress. They complain:
    • The Council’s assessment report of them was unfair and untruthful.
    • They have been caused distress by the actions of the social workers involved.
    • They disagree with the Council’s view they cancelled or failed to turn up for the assessment meetings. Mr and Mrs X say they could not attend due to other commitments and officers did not offer alternative dates.
    • The Council failed to provide supervision sessions between August to November 2015 so they lacked support.
    • Th council did not advise of their right of review at the Fostering Panel about the decision to deregister them.
    • The Council has not dealt with their complaint about the matter properly as they made a formal complaint in February 2016 and received no stage three response from Children’s services.

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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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have read the papers submitted by Mr and Mrs X and spoken to them about the complaint. I considered the Council’s comments on the complaint and the supporting documents it provided. I explained my draft decision to Mr and Mrs X and the Council and considered the comments received.

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What I found

  1. Councils only place children with approved foster carers. Councils assess and use a specialist fostering panel to approve carers. A council must review foster carers once a year. The result of the review is either to continue to approve the carers, to withdraw approval or alter the terms of the approval. Foster carers may ask for a review of a decision to withdraw approval or vary the terms of the approval.
  2. Foster carers may ask the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) to review a fostering panel’s decision. This is to either not to register them, to de-register them or to amend the terms of their approval. The IRM reviews the qualifying determinations made by fostering service providers. It does not make the final decision which is down to the fostering service provider. However, its recommendation must be considered when the service provider makes the final decision.
  3. In the Council’s area, every foster care has a Fostering social worker who visits every 4-6 weeks to provide supervision and support.

Corporate Complaints procedure

  1. The Council’s complaints procedure allows for departments to try and resolve locally any complaints they receive. If this is not possible then the complaints go to the Complaints Team to progress. The complaints go to the Resolution Stage to discuss the complaint with the complainant and an action plan agreed where possible leading to resolution of the complaint.
  2. If there is no agreement to the action plan or complaint resolved it goes to the Review stage. Here a senior manager from a different department reviews the complaint. The senior manager decides whether everything has been done to resolve the complaint or further action is appropriate. The complainant is signposted to the Ombudsman if they remain unhappy.
  3. The complaints procedure allows for the Complaints Team to deviate from the set procedures where necessary.

Events leading to the complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs X were long term foster carers until they resigned in November 2015. When they resigned Mr and Mrs X were foster carers for two children.
  2. In March 2015 two social workers met with Mr and Mrs X and explained the Council intended to reassess them as foster carers due to their relationship with a convicted child sex offender. The Council held assessment sessions with Mr and Mrs X during April, May and June. The Council arranged sessions for August and September but Mrs X cancelled them.
  3. The Council considered Mr and Mrs X may be avoiding sessions due to their concerns about addressing their relationship with the offender with social workers. It also had concerns about Mr and Mrs X’s ability to keep the children safe following some incidents. So, social workers decided to write the assessment report based on the information gained from Mr and Mrs X and records held by the Council. The Council’s records note a senior officer advised Mrs X of the Council’s decision when she cancelled a proposed assessment session. The officer explained the Council would complete the rest of the assessment without them and they could contribute anything further in writing.
  4. Mr and Mrs X received supervision sessions in March, May, June, July and August during 2015. There is no record of a supervision meeting in September although officers were in telephone contact with Mr and Mrs X.
  5. Mr and Mrs X’s fostering social worker left the Council in September 2015 but her assessments were included in the report.
  6. The new Fostering social worker contacted Mrs X in October 2015 and offered a supervision meeting if they felt they needed one. The Council’s records notes Mrs Y said, “they were ok and a visit after half term would be ok”. The social worker arranged a meeting for 6 November 2015.
  7. Social workers met with Mr and Mrs X then and explained the assessment result was to recommend their deregistration to the fostering panel. The officers gave Mr and Mrs X copies of the assessment report and advice about contacting an independent advocacy agency. The officers advised of Mr and Mrs X’s rights to independent advocacy to have their views represented at the foster panel hearing. The Council’s notes record Mr and Mrs X were already aware of the advocacy services and their rights. The officers invited Mr and Mrs X to come and talk to social workers about the assessment on 13 November 2015 once they had read the reports.
  8. The Council wrote formally to Mr and Mrs X to say the Fostering Panel would consider the recommendation in December 2015. The Council sent copies of the assessment report and advised they could make a written submission to the Panel. The Council invited them to attend the hearing and they bring support if needed. The Council gave information about the independent support available to them and said their social worker was available to discuss the procedure.
  9. The Council’s records note that during a home visit by the fostering social worker in November 2015 Mr and Mrs X confirmed they were seeking advice from the independent advocacy service.
  10. In a further home meeting Mr and Mrs X said they had sought legal advice about the recommendation and decided to resign as foster carers due to the advice received. The Council wrote in December 2015 accepting the resignation. It said if they had not resigned it would have recommended their deregistration as foster carers at the Fostering Panel. Instead the Panel would be asked to note the resignation.
  11. The Panel noted the resignation at the December meeting and the reasons for recommending deregistration. The Panel noted the registration but said it would have recommended de-registration had Mr and Mrs X not resigned.
  12. The Council held meetings with Mr and Mrs X about moving the foster children to other carers following their resignation which took 28 days to come into effect. One child was involved in a car accident and although they were not injured Mr and Mrs X offered to amend their resignation date to help. Mr and Mrs X said they wished to help and support the children. The Council records note Mr and Mrs X were receiving continuing support from the independent advocacy service. The Council arranged placements for the children to view and moved them on 1 December 2015.

Council investigation of Mr and Mrs X’s complaints

  1. Mr and Mrs X complained to the Council on 19 January 2016 about their treatment by officers and their disagreement with the assessment report. The Council dealt with Mr and Mrs X’s complaints through its corporate complaints procedure rather than the statutory children complaints procedure. It did so as the complaint fell outside the definition of those who may complain as it focused on their reputation rather than any result or fault about the best interest of a child.
  2. The Fostering and Adoption service registered the complaint and responded on 28 January 2016. It explained the council’s reasons for reassessing them as foster carers, the assessment sessions cancelled by Mr and Mrs X and the invitation to attend the Fostering Panel hearing in December 2015. But Mr and Mrs X resigned and this was noted by the Panel. Mr X asked to go to the next stage of the complaints procedure in February 2016. The Council asked Mr X to confirm which parts of the response he was dissatisfied with. Mr X wanted to know the timescales for escalating his complaint. The Council said it did not set a deadline for requesting escalation.
  3. Mr X provided evidence to support his request to escalate his complaint to the senior officer review stage on 25 February 2016. An officer emailed Mr X with a completed resolution and review plan on 1 March 2016. The complaints team checked whether the complaint had gone through the resolution stage. The officer said she had tried to discuss the complaint with Mr X but received no response. The complaints team advised Mr X should discuss his complaint at the resolution stage as he provided detailed evidence.
  4. An officer contacted Mr X on 2 March 2016 to arrange a meeting to discuss the extra evidence he had provided. And to try to resolve some of the issues raised. Mr X expressed concern he complaint was not going to Senior Officer Review stage. The Council apologised for any confusion. It explained Mr X needed to complete the resolution stage first and arrange a meeting to do so.
  5. The officer emailed a copy of the resolution and review plan to Mr X on 2 March 2016 asking him to complete it as fully as possible and return it to the complaints team. The Council’s records do not show any action until 13 September 2016 when Mr X emailed an officer about a meeting due on 22 September 2016. Mr X also referred to previous meetings held with officers. An officer emailed Mr X to rearrange a meeting to discuss his view of mistakes in the assessment report.
  6. In November 2016, the Council considered the best way to resolve Mr X’s concerns. It noted Mr X should have raised his concerns about alleged mistakes in the assessment report at the Fostering Panel hearing but he resigned before the recommendation to deregister went to the Panel. In January 2017, the Council asked Mr X to provide details of the mistakes in the fostering assessment, giving a deadline for the information and confirming a meeting on 6 March 2017.
  7. The Council wrote to Mr X on 15 March 2017 saying that information received related to issues already discussed and dealt with in a previous meeting. The Council asked Mr X to send information by 23 March 2107 or it would close the complaint. Mr X did not respond so the Council closed the complaint on 29 March 2017. Mr X contacted the Council on 30 March 2017 saying Mrs X had hand delivered the information sought but did not give a date.
  8. The Council responded that it had received the information but it related to issues dealt with in October 2016 and responded to in a letter dated 15 March 2017.

My assessment

  1. The Council’s records show that officers met with Mr and Mrs X to discuss concerns about them as foster carers and gave them a copy of the assessment report. Mr and Mrs X consider he Council’s assessment report of them as foster carers to be unfair and untruthful. The Council’s documents show it did discuss its concerns about Mr and Mrs X as foster carers with them in assessment meetings. Officers also took Mr and Mrs X’s views into account and gave them a copy of the assessment report. I am aware Mr and Mrs X disagree with the Council’s comments. But the means to dispute them if they disagreed was to go to the Fostering Panel which could have considered any comments they wished to make. Unfortunately, Mr and Mrs X chose to resign after seeking their own legal advice. This was a decision Mr and Mrs X made. If Mr and Mrs X had not chosen to resign and attend the Fostering Panel they could have then appealed to the IRM if they disagreed with any decision of the Panel.
  2. Mr and Mrs X dispute that they cancelled some assessment meetings. But the Council’s records show Mr and Mrs X said they could not attend the meetings so did, in my view, cancel the meetings. The officers considered Mr and Mrs X were reluctant to attend so decided to write up the report based on the information received so far. The records show officers advised Mr and Mrs X of the decision and they could send anything further in writing. This is a decision the Council was entitled to make to progress the assessment. So, I do not consider it fault by the Council not to offer alternative dates. This is especially as the Council advised Mr and Mrs X of its decision and that they could still contribute towards the assessment in writing.
  3. Mr and Mrs X complained the Council failed to supervise them between August and November 2015 so they lacked support. The Council records show a supervision session in August. There was no session organised for September 2015 although the records show telephone contact with Mr and Mrs X. The records Mr and Mrs X declined a supervision meeting in October 2015 in a telephone conversation with a social worker. Mr and Mrs X then attended a meeting in November 2015 to discuss the assessment report.
  4. While there was no supervision session noted for September 2015 the records show telephone contact with Mr and Mrs X. So, I do not consider there has been any fault by the Council over supervision. The Council did not leave Mr and Mrs X without any support by social workers although it may not have been in the form they wanted. Mr and Mrs X then declined a meeting in October 2015.
  5. The documents I have seen show the Council advised Mr and Mrs X of their right of review against the decision to recommend deregistration and officers advised of advocacy support. Mr and Mrs X confirmed they were aware of this and they were seeking advice. The records show the Council also wrote to Mr and Mrs X advising of the date of the Fostering Panel hearing, their rights and ability to send comments and attend the hearing. So, I do not consider there has been any fault by the Council in failing to advise Mr and Mrs X of their review rights. Mr and Mrs X decided to resign so they did not follow the appeal option available to them at the Fostering Panel hearing.
  6. Mr and Mrs X refer to the lack of a stage three response to their complaint but stage three response is part of the statutory children’s complaints procedure. The documents about the complaints procedure show the Council dealt with Mr and Mrs X’s concerns under the Corporate Complaints procedure. There was no requirement for the Council to carry out a stage three review under its Corporate Complaints procedure so I do not consider there has been any fault by the Council.
  7. I note the complaints procedure took time to complete and it is not documented what happened between March and September 2016. But Mr and Mrs X have not raised complaints about the time taken or lack of progress with their concerns so I do not intend to pursue this further. In any event Mr and Mrs X had been signposted to the Ombudsman’s service early in the complaints procedure. And so, could have complained to the Ombudsman sooner if they were unhappy with any delay or the Council’s handling of their complaints.

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Final decision

  1. I am completing my investigation. I have found no evidence of fault by the Council in the way it dealt with Mr and Mrs X as foster carers and recommended their deregistration.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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