North Somerset Council (17 017 147)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 05 Dec 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs Y complained that the Council made unreasonable demands on her for looking after children in a foster placement with her daughter. She also complained about the behaviour of an officer towards her at a meeting. The Council was not at fault in relation to the childcare support plan. There is not enough evidence to say the Council was at fault concerning the officer’s behaviour.

The complaint

  1. Mrs Y complained that when she was supporting her daughter, who was a foster carer for the Council, an officer in the Fostering Team:
      1. placed unreasonable demands on her and her husband for looking after the children in the foster placement; and
      2. behaved in an aggressive manner towards her at a meeting.
  2. Mrs Y also complained about the way the Council treated her daughter during an investigation into her practice as a foster carer, and the impact on her granddaughter.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated the first part of the complaint about the Council’s actions in relation to Mrs Y. I explain at the end of this statement why I have not investigated the second part.

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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 discussed the complaint with Mrs Y and considered the information she provided. I considered the information the Council provided in response to my enquiries. I shared my draft decision with the Council and the complainant and considered their responses.

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What I found

  1. Mrs Y has a daughter, Ms X, who is a single parent. Ms X was a foster carer for the Council. The Council placed three young children with Ms X in 2015. The long-term plan for the children was adoption.
  2. In November 2016 the Council started an investigation into Ms X’s standards of care following concerns raised by professionals. The investigation led to a decision to suspend Ms X from her role as foster carer.
  3. During the course of the investigation, in February 2017, there was an unfortunate accident resulting in an injury to one of the foster children, Z, while in Ms X’s care. Z was admitted to hospital. The Council recognised the injury was accidental but felt that given other concerns raised about Ms X it would be in the children’s best interests to bring the adoption process forward. It also decided to suspend the investigation into Ms X’s practice in order to prioritise preparing for the adoption.
  4. In the meantime the Council felt Ms X was struggling to look after all the children on her own and a support plan was needed to help provide extra childcare. Z was in hospital for around ten days. During that time Ms X spent long periods with Z at the hospital and also had to ensure care for the other children. There were discussions within the Council and between the Council and Ms X about what extra support she might need to help her meet her caring responsibilities while Z was in hospital and after he returned home.
  5. At the end of February 2017 the Council held a meeting with Ms X to discuss a support plan. Also attending the meeting were a manager in the Fostering Team, Officer F, the Team Leader for the team holding the children’s social care case, and Mrs Y’s husband, Mr Y. The result of the meeting was a written agreement for a plan for Mr and Mrs Y and neighbours to provide childcare support.
  6. The Council’s case record of the meeting says its purpose was “to discuss [Ms X’s] support needs in the wake of injury to [Z]” and to “notify [Ms X] of the likelihood of the adoption being brought forward”. It notes the following.
    • Officer F explained that professionals involved felt it was too much to ask Ms X to care for all three children on her own and that it wanted to work in partnership with her to ensure an adequate level of support was in place.
    • Mr Y said he was available frequently, although he does work, and that Mrs Y was available “all the time” as she does not work.
    • The meeting agreed that Ms X would speak to all the key people in her support network to come up with a schedule to cover each day once Z was home from hospital.
    • Officer F “was clear that this schedule can be flexible and also that it will be kept under review”. “If at any point it is not felt to be enough, then children’s services will work out a way to provide further resources”.
    • “All were agreed that the needs of the children are paramount at the moment and that [Ms X] cannot care for the three children without good levels of support”.
  7. The children moved to their adoption placement in late March 2017. The Council resumed its investigation into standards of care. At the end of March 2017 Officer F visited Ms X at home with another officer for a meeting with her. Mr and Mrs Y were at their daughter’s home at the time. At the meeting Officer F told Ms X the Council had decided to suspend her from her duties as a foster carer pending the outcome of the investigation. He set out the concerns the Council was looking into and the investigation process.
  8. Part-way through the meeting Mr and Mrs Y joined their daughter. Mrs Y says that when the meeting ended she asked Officer F a question about the welfare of the children. She says his reaction was loud and aggressive.
  9. In mid-April 2017 Mrs Y made a formal complaint to the Council about the way it had treated her, her husband and her daughter. She also complained about lack of support to Ms X and about the speed of the adoption process. The complaints that affected her were those relating to the childcare support plan and Officer F’s behaviour towards her at the meeting at the end of March 2017.
  10. Regarding the childcare support, Mrs Y said she had helped her daughter out with her fostering and childcare for several years. She said she was “always around pretty much daily” and was there whenever she was needed, particularly with the last placement. However she said this was different from being treated as a ‘back-up carer’ as the Council seemed to expect. She said this was something completely unknown to her and her husband. She said the Council seemed to want considerable free childcare from her and her husband without any communication of any kind about this. Mrs Y said that when setting out the support plan in March 2017 the Council had not checked with her and her husband whether they were physically able or even available to comply with the plan.
  11. In her complaint letter Mrs Y also referred to one occasion when the Council changed the plan at short notice and she called the Council about it. She said in the end the family managed to sort out a safe and reasonable alternative, although she received no help from Officer F in doing so. She said her daughter was forced to sign the plan or the adoption would be brought forward, and she and her husband complied with it for her sake and that of the children.
  12. Regarding the behaviour of Officer F she described his response to her as a verbal attack and an outburst. She said such aggressive behaviour was unacceptable.
  13. Mrs Y was not happy with the Council’s response to her complaint and took it to stage 2.
  14. In the stage 2 response the Council said it could not respond to complaints about the investigation into Ms X’s practice as that was a matter for her. It responded to the complaint about Mrs Y’s role as ‘backup carer’. It said this was “an entirely voluntary arrangement”, commonplace with approved foster carers. It said it expected foster carers to have a robust support network in place of trusted family and friends who could help when unexpected events occurred so as not to disrupt arrangements for the children, for example by placing them with alternative short-term foster carers. It said these arrangements are negotiated “with no demands at all being placed on them in terms of the care of fostered children”.
  15. The Council referred to the record of the meeting at the end of February 2017 which noted Mr and Mrs Y’s availability. The Council’s view was that it gave them information suitable to the situation, “having volunteered themselves as people within [Ms X’s] family, routinely involved with the care of the children, and apparently willing to step up their support given these testing and unforeseen circumstances”.
  16. In response to the allegation about Officer F’s conduct the Council said it was not his intention to cause any offence or upset. It said it was sorry she felt that way and would use the complaint to inform staff learning and development.

Council’s response to the Ombudsman

  1. The Council says when it assesses foster carers it also considers their support networks to see what help they might have available to help them in their role. It says Ms X identified her parents as a key part of her support system and understood they agreed. It says it tries to ensure children in foster care have access to normal family experiences. It accepts there was no formal agreement in place but says it would consider Mr and Mrs Y to be involved with the children in the same way grandparents might be involved. It confirmed its view that the support plan after Z was admitted to hospital was voluntary and negotiated, not imposed on the family.
  2. The Council said it does not recognise or agree with the description of Officer F’s behaviour. It says the Service Leader met with Officer F and the other officer who attended the meeting when Ms X first made her complaint. It said it found no evidence suggest Officer F reacted in a way that was inappropriate or aggressive. It rejects the complaint.

Analysis – was there fault causing injustice?

Childcare support

  1. It is the case that it is normal practice when assessing and approving foster carers for councils to consider support networks available to the prospective foster carer. The Council says on Ms X’s application to become a foster carer she identified a strong support network of family and friends. It says it understood Mr and Mrs Y were willing to perform the role of back-up carers but there was no formal agreement in place. The Council says it carried out Disclosure and Barring Service checks on Mr and Mrs Y which indicates that they were considered as potential back-up carers. It would have been good practice to make it clear to Ms X at the outset that it would expect her to identify people who could provide back-up care if necessary, and ensure those people understood their role. The Council has confirmed it is willing to consider updating the foster care agreement to more clearly reflect the need for back-up carers. This is welcome. But the specific complaint here is about expectations for providing childcare following Z’s accident.
  2. Mrs Y says she felt under pressure to comply with the agreement, and I have no reason to doubt that. However I do not have sufficient evidence that this was a result of fault by the Council. The Council was already of the view it needed to bring forward adoption in the best interests of the children. This was a decision it was entitled to take. The meeting was to look at extra childcare support in the meantime. I do not agree there was no consultation, as Mr Y was at the meeting which discussed proposed arrangements, and Ms X was to discuss it further with the rest of her support network.
  3. I have also looked at the case records of Ms X’s contacts with the Council about additional support after Z went into hospital. There is evidence that Ms X said Mrs Y would be happy to offer childcare for the other children, staying overnight if necessary, although she would not want to look after Z given his need for extra care following his injury. Ms X is also noted in the written record as saying she was happy with the support her family and friends had provided while Z was in hospital, and that her mother and neighbours would provide the support she needed when he was discharged.
  4. I agree that the Council does not appear to have checked with Mrs Y specifically if she was physically capable of providing the level of care sought. But Mr Y and Ms X gave officers to understand she was willing and available to help. Mrs Y herself has confirmed she had always been prepared to offer support. The record of the meeting in February 2017 shows the Council explained it would review the plan and consider extra resources if it was not working. The agreement itself also says if Ms X was dissatisfied with the plan or wanted to change the agreement she should contact Children’s Services. I have not seen evidence that Mrs Y told the Council at the time the plan was agreed that the demands on her were too onerous, or that it failed to respond to any request to change the plan.
  5. Mrs Y has given an example of when she did contact the Council about a particular arrangement she felt was not suitable and says the Council left it to the family to find an alternative arrangement. But this does not mean the Council would not have been willing to change the plan if necessary, as it had said it would

Behaviour of Officer F

  1. It is always difficult to come to any conclusion about the conduct of individuals at a meeting where the investigator was not present. The Council says both officers present deny the allegations. The Council has confirmed there is no record of the meeting other than in the letter it sent Ms X confirming what was discussed at the meeting. The letter does not refer to any encounter with Mrs Y. There is therefore a conflict of evidence between two sets of participants and witnesses which I am unable to resolve. I appreciate that Mrs Y was upset at what she perceived as an aggressive response to her question. But there is not enough evidence to enable me to conclude on balance that the officer was at fault. I do not consider that further investigation into the matter is likely to be beneficial as it is unlikely to change the views of either side or enable me to resolve the conflict of evidence. Mrs Y may pursue a complaint about professional conduct to the Health Care Professions Council if she wishes.

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Final decision

  1. I have not found that the Council was at fault in the way it dealt with the childcare support plan. There is insufficient evidence to allow me to uphold the complaint about Officer F’s behaviour.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated parts of Mrs Y’s complaint that concern the effect on her daughter and granddaughter of the Council’s actions. This is because she has not made a complaint on their behalf and Ms X has made her own complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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