Kingston upon Hull City Council (17 004 897)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 05 Oct 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council failed, over a long period of time, to follow appropriate procedures when supervising foster carers, Mr C and Mr D. Appropriate procedures would have highlighted any concerns sooner and afforded the Council, Mr C and Mr D an opportunity to address them. However, the Independent Review Mechanism has since decided Mr C and Mr D are not suitable to be foster carers.

The complaint

  1. Mr C and Mr D complain the Council used inaccurate and misleading information in reports to an ad hoc fostering review, a Fostering Panel and the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) which resulted in their de-registration as foster carers. In particular, they complain the Council presented information about historic allegations for which there were no contemporaneous records, and about which they knew nothing before the de-registration process began. They also complain the Council presented the views of other foster carers as fact. Mr C and Mr D complain the Council decided to de-register them before the IRM had considered their case, and before considering their complaints.
  2. Mr C and Mr D complain about the lack of support from the Council during the investigation of allegations against them and the subsequent de-registration process.
  3. Mr C and Mr D complain the Council has not made the payments it promised in respect of foster care they provided (soiling payments, mileage and babysitting allowance), and payments while they were suspended from foster caring and under investigation.

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What I have investigated

  1. Mr C and Mr D made many detailed and specific complaints to the Council. They are dissatisfied with the Council’s response. I have carefully considered everything they said, but I have not addressed every complaint they made. I focused my investigation on the things that went wrong and those where the Council has not considered the impact of its mistakes on Mr C and Mr D.

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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 complainants disagree 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. 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)
  3. We can decide whether to start or discontinue an investigation into a complaint within our jurisdiction. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 24A(6) and 34B(8), as amended)
  4. 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 considered:
    • information provided by Mr C and Mr D;
    • information provided by the Council including all supervision records, annual reviews and home visit records for Mr C and Mr D in their role as foster carers between 2010 and 2016, Looked After Child reviews for the children in Mr C and Mr D’s care since 2014, child protection strategy meetings in May and June 2016, LADO records, policies and procedures, and complaint correspondence;
    • Fostering Services: National Minimum Standards published by the Department for Education in 2011;
    • the papers, minutes and recommendations of the Independent Review Mechanism Panel which considered Mr C and Mr D’s deregistration.
  2. I invited Mr C and Mr D and the Council to comment on my draft decision.
  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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What I found

  1. Mr C and Mr D were foster carers for the Council. They were de-registered in 2017 following allegations made by children they had fostered.
  2. They have complained to the Council about the Council’s handling of the allegations, and appealed the Fostering Panel’s decision to de-register them through the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM).
  3. The Independent Review Mechanism is an independent body which considers a foster carer’s suitability to foster. A panel of up to eight people with personal or professional experience of foster care reviews the Fostering Panel’s decision to de-register foster carers. The IRM considers all the evidence anew. It questions both the Council and the foster carers and takes its own independent legal advice if necessary. The IRM makes a fresh decision about the foster carer’s suitability to foster and makes a recommendation to the Council. The Council must consider, but is not bound by, the IRM recommendation.
  4. The IRM decided by a majority of five to two that Mr C and Mr D were unsuitable to be foster carers. The two panel members who considered Mr C and Mr D were suitable to be foster carers expressed concern about the Council’s handling of the allegations against them.

Complaint 1: inaccurate and misleading information

  1. Mr C and Mr D complain the Council, and subsequently the IRM, based their decisions on inaccurate and misleading information. In particular, they complain the Council decided to de-register them based on historic allegations for which there were no contemporaneous records, and about which they knew nothing before the de-registration process began. They also complain the Council presented the views of other foster carers as fact.
  2. I am satisfied Mr C and Mr D had an opportunity to put their concerns about the historic allegations and the Council’s evidence to the IRM, both in their written submissions and in person at the Panel hearing. The minutes of the Panel hearing satisfy me the Panel considered their concerns. Further investigation by the Ombudsman will not lead to a different outcome.
  3. However, both the Council and the IRM identified significant failings by the Council’s fostering service.
  4. The Council acknowledged the following areas of concern in the report to the Fostering Panel recommending Mr C and Mr D’s deregistration:
    • Mr C and Mr D’s fostering social worker failed to keep appropriate records of supervision or share them with Mr C and Mr D;
    • the Council failed to hold disruption meetings following placement breakdowns and as a result missed opportunities to review Mr C and Mr D’s parenting capacity, stress factors and coping mechanisms, training and development needs, and matching criteria;
    • consequently, the Council failed to spot patterns in placement breakdown, in particular relating to parenting style (boundary setting and appropriate sanctions) that should have been addressed through the safe caring policy and the foster carer agreement;
    • the Council failed to carry out an assessment when there were significant changes in the fostering household, for example when Mr C and Mr D became a couple.
  5. These are significant failures which have had an impact on Mr C and Mr D. Reading the records, Mr C and Mr D received nothing but praise for the work they did with often very demanding children placed in their care until the allegations in 2016 which led to the removal of their “forever family”. They showed great commitment to the children in their care, even moving to a new house for the welfare of one child they fostered. Their fostering social worker nominated them for an award, which they received, for their fostering. Mr C and Mr D fostered challenging children, including difficult-to-place sibling groups. The records show they were candid about the difficulties they faced caring for the children. They described the ‘highs’ but also the ‘extreme lows’ and difficulties they faced. There is no suggestion in the records the Council was unhappy with the care they provided. They are described as ‘a pleasure to work with’ and open and honest in their dealings with social workers.
  6. It is understandable, then, why the 2016 allegations and the removal of their children should come as such a shock to Mr C and Mr D. Following the 2016 allegations, the Council looked back over previous years and found reasons for concern which it had not previously recognised. This is not, in itself, fault. The Council is responsible for the welfare of foster children and must consider any evidence which calls that into question. The fault was the Council’s failure, over a long period of time, to follow appropriate procedures which should have highlighted any concerns sooner and afforded the Council, Mr C and Mr D an opportunity to address them.
  7. Following the 2016 allegations and the removal of the children, the relationship between Mr C and Mr D and the Council rapidly deteriorated. In the report to the Fostering Panel recommending their de-registration, the Council made very serious allegations that Mr C and Mr D had been dishonest in their dealings with social workers. At the same time, Mr C and Mr D made formal complaints to the Council.
  8. The IRM made further criticism of the Council. It observed:
    • annual reviews were inadequate and lacked analysis;
    • there were significant shortcomings in professional practice;
    • Council representatives were unable to answer some questions at the IRM Panel hearing with evidence, analysis and clarity;
    • the Council told Mr C and Mr D they had been de-registered before the process was complete;
    • significant concerns about negligent practice in the supervision of foster carers and recording of those meetings which left vulnerable children at risk;
    • the Council did not provide Mr C and Mr D information in writing about the allegations after the investigation.
  9. I found other causes for concern when reading the records. For example:
    • a child’s Independent Reviewing Officer acknowledged having “filed” a foster child’s contribution to a looked after child review without reading it;
    • the fostering service appeared to have considered de-registering Mr C and Mr D at the second strategy meeting following the allegations. The Chair of the meeting, an officer from another Council, had to remind the fostering service of the need to follow ‘due process’;
    • a social worker told the IRM Panel the Council had not used the “planned ignore” strategy for dealing with challenging behaviour for a long time. The Council’s records show an officer recommended this strategy to Mr C during a supervision in February 2016. The social worker’s comments to the IRM are misleading and unfairly discredit Mr C.
  10. However, the IRM concluded that Mr C and Mr D are not suitable to be foster carers because:
    • similar allegations were made by a number of children, some who did not know each other, over an extended period of time;
    • the children’s comments after leaving the placement caused the Panel concern, as did the fact they did not want contact with Mr C or Mr F;
    • Mr C and Mr D demonstrated naivety regarding safer caring and safeguarding;
    • they appeared to minimise some of the effects of some of their actions on the children.

Conclusion

  1. There were significant failings in the Council’s supervision of Mr C and Mr D as foster carers which were detrimental to Mr C and Mr D and, potentially, the children they fostered. Mr C and Mr D have been criticised for their parenting style, yet throughout their fostering career they have been praised for their approach to caring for challenging children. The Council is entitled to change its mind, but it is at fault for failing to follow procedures which would have highlighted the concerns earlier and at a time when Mr C and Mr D could have changed their parenting style.
  2. However, I cannot say they would still be foster carers if there had been no fault by the Council. The Ombudsman is not another appeal and does not decide whether the Council’s concerns were justified or Mr C and Mr D should remain as foster carers. This was the IRM’s job. The IRM has decided that Mr C and Mr D are not suitable to be foster carers.

Complaint 2: lack of support

  1. Mr C and Mr D complain about the lack of support from the Council during the investigation of allegations against them and the subsequent de-registration process.
  2. Fostering services must make independent information and support, including emotional support, available to foster carers who are the subject of allegations and investigation. (Fostering Services: National Minimum Standards, Standard 22.12)
  3. The Council provides independent support to foster carers through membership of Foster Talk. When foster carers are subject to allegations and investigations and need additional support, the Council purchases additional, face-to-face support from Foster Talk.
  4. Mr C and Mr D were told they were the subject of allegations and investigations on Friday 6 May 2016. The Council authorised the purchase of additional face-to-face support from Foster Talk on 10 May 2016 following the first strategy discussion. The Council accepts that Mr C and Mr D were without independent face-to-face support until 10 May 2016.
  5. Mr C and Mr D complain about the lack of support from the Council. It appears their relationship with the supervising social worker deteriorated sharply following the allegations and the removal of the children. The social worker acknowledges she did not provide the level of support she would have liked, but blamed the breakdown in her relationship with Mr C and Mr D. It appears from the records that Mr C and Mr D wanted to know more about the allegations and the wellbeing of the children they had fostered. The Council was unable to give them the information they wanted, and this contributed to the deterioration in their relationship. This was not fault, but it underlines the importance of the availability of independent support that was lacking immediately after the allegations.

Complaint 3: payments

  1. Mr C and Mr D complain the Council has not made the payments it promised in respect of foster care they provided (soiling payments, mileage and babysitting allowance), and payments while they were suspended from foster caring and under investigation.

Fostering allowance payments during suspension

  1. On 6 May 2016, the Council told Mr C and Mr D that an allegation had been made against them and the children would not be returning home after school while the Council investigated the allegation. On 13 June 2016, the Council told Mr C and Mr D the children would not be returning to their care. The Council collected the children’s belongings on 16 June 2016. On 17 June 2016, Mr C and Mr D complained about the financial impact of the children’s removal.
  2. Fostering allowance has two elements: a basic maintenance allowance for the care and maintenance of the child, and a skills element. When children are removed following allegations, the Council says it pays foster carers the ‘skills’ element of their fostering allowance until the Council decides whether the children will return. This is a policy decision the Council is entitled to take and there are no grounds for the Ombudsman to question it. However, the policy is not explained in the Council’s Fostering Handbook. The Council should record the policy so that foster carers know what payments they will receive if their children are removed following allegations.
  3. The Council has paid Mr C and Mr D the skills element of their fostering allowance for the children from 6 May 2016, when the children were removed, until 21 January 2017 following the Fostering Panel’s decision to de-register them. This is longer than the Council said it would normally pay. The Council also offered an additional payment for the period 6 May to 13 June in recognition of the financial stress Mr C and Mr D suffered as a result of the children’s removal. Mr C and Mr D have not accepted the payment, but the Council says it remains on offer. There are no grounds for the Ombudsman to criticise the Council.

Soiling payments, mileage and babysitting allowance

  1. Mr C and Mr D complain the Council has rejected claims they made for mileage, babysitting and soiling allowance. Mr C submitted the claims on 14 April 2016. The claims date from 2015. He said he mistakenly thought he had already received payment.
  2. The Council declined to pay the claims because they were late. The Council wrote to foster carers on 30 December 2015 to explain that from 1 February 2016, the Council would no longer process claims over 3 months old.
  3. It appears from the records that Christmas 2015 was a particularly challenging time for Mr C and Mr D and the children they fostered. Nevertheless, the Council followed its policy, so the Ombudsman cannot question its decision not to pay Mr C’s claims.

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Agreed action

  1. I recommended the Council apologise to Mr C and Mr D for the failure, over a long period of time, to follow appropriate procedures to supervise their foster placements and hold disruption meetings.
  2. The Council accepted my recommendations. The Council has also explained the steps it has already taken to improve the supervision of foster carers.

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Final decision

  1. The Council accepts my recommendations, so I have ended my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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