The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: the Council failed to follow its procedures when considering a safeguarding issue and failed to address all of Mr B’s complaint. An apology, payment to reflect Mr B’s doubt about whether the outcome would have been different, placing a copy of this statement on Mr B’s fostering file and a reminder to officers is satisfactory remedy for the injustice caused.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr B, complained about the way the Council dealt with a safeguarding investigation. Mr B complained the Council:
- failed to properly investigate the safeguarding concerns;
- failed to consider the evidence before deciding the allegation was substantiated; and
- failed to respond to all his complaints.
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)
- 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
- As part of the investigation, I have:
- considered the complaint and Mr B's comments;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
- considered the Council’s comments on my draft decision; and
- considered Mr B’s comments on my draft decision.
What I found
- The Council’s procedure says:
- any decision to begin an enquiry under section 47 must follow a strategy meeting.
- Responsibility for undertaking section 47 enquiries lies with the local authority children’s social care in whose area the child lives or is found. Social care is the lead agency for section 47 enquiries and the children’s social care manager has responsibility for approving a section 47 enquiry following a strategy discussion.
- A qualified social worker must lead the section 47 enquiry assessment.
- The social worker must consult with other agencies involved with the child and family to gain a fuller picture of the circumstances of the children in the household, identifying parenting strengths and any risk factors.
- Where there is a joint investigation the police will establish the facts about any offence that may have been committed and collect evidence as they lead the criminal investigation.
- The social worker must contact the other agencies involved with the child to tell them a section 47 enquiry has begun and to seek their views.
- Police and children’s social care must coordinate their activities to ensure a parallel process between the section 47 enquiry and the criminal investigation.
- A social worker should see children who are the subject of section 47 enquiries alone.
- The assessment must include parents and any other carers.
- Strategy discussions must consider the need for and timing of a medical assessment. A medical assessment should always be considered necessary where there has been a disclosure or there is a suspicion of any form of abuse to a child.
- At completion of the section 47 enquiry children’s social care must evaluate and analyse all the information gathered to decide if the threshold for significant harm has been reached.
- Mr B is a foster carer. In 2017 Mr B was caring for a foster child placed with him by Haringey Council. On 28 February 2017 Northamptonshire County Council (the Council) received a referral. The referral involved the child’s school which said the child had disclosed Mr B had hit and pushed him. A social worker had spoken to the child and arranged for Mr B to leave the family home while Haringey Council sought a new placement.
- The Council held a strategy discussion on 1 March. The meeting agreed the threshold was met for a section 47 investigation. The police agreed to conduct a criminal investigation.
- The Council did not conduct a section 47 investigation. The police investigation took place. The police closed the case with no further action as there was no evidence to support the child’s allegation and it was the child word against Mr B and his partner’s account.
- A joint evaluation meeting took place on 30 March. After considering the evidence presented by the social worker and the police the meeting decided the outcome was substantiated. That was because the meeting noted the child had given a consistent story on three separate occasions, the opinion of the police was the child had not made the allegation up and there was a similar allegation made in a six month period which was substantiated.
- On 27 October Mr B put in a complaint. The Council responded to the complaint on 1 November. Mr B contacted the Council again on 6 December as he was not satisfied with the complaint response. Mr B said he felt Haringey was looking to remove him as a foster carer due to his investigation into financial discrepancies within social care in his role with a foster carers association. The Council responded to that complaint on 19 January 2018.
- I set out in paragraph 6 the steps the Council needs to undertake when a strategy discussion decides a section 47 investigation is suitable. In this case the Council failed to follow its own process because it did not begin a section 47 investigation. That meant other than the police investigation there was no investigation into the safeguarding issue the school had raised. There was no opportunity given to Mr B and his partner, except through the criminal investigation by the police, to give their version of events. The Council did not contact any agencies involved with the child’s care to get their views. The social worker did not meet with the child to carry out a proper assessment under the section 47 process. No opportunity was taken to explore the background to the case or the previous substantiated allegation. There is no evidence of any risk assessment leading up to the joint evaluation meeting, other than removing the child from Mr B’s care. The Council failed to consider whether to arrange a medical for the child. Failure to follow the Council’s procedure is fault. What that meant is the joint evaluation meeting did not have the information it should have had to decide whether to substantiate the allegation. All the meeting had was historical information about the positive nature of the placement to that point, details from the criminal investigation by the police and brief details of the previous substantiated allegation. While I am satisfied the police provided information at the meeting the Council’s procedure is clear a section 47 investigation must take place alongside the police investigation. Failure to do that is fault. The Council has accepted that point and apologised, which I welcome.
- It is clear Mr B’s view is because the Council did not carry out the section 47 investigation its decision to treat the allegation as substantiated was flawed. However, I cannot agree with Mr B that because the Council failed to follow the right process the outcome should change to not substantiated. That is because I cannot speculate about whether the joint evaluation meeting would have reached a different conclusion had it received more information following a section 47 investigation. The meeting might have reached a different conclusion. However, it might not. It is clear from the notes from the joint evaluation meeting that those present decided to treat the allegation as substantiated because:
- the child had been consistent in his story which he had given on three separate occasions;
- the police expressed the view that they did not feel the child had made up the allegation;
- there was doubt about what Mr B’s partner did or did not see;
- this was a second similar allegation made against Mr B in a six month period which could suggest a pattern; and
- Mr B had received training which had not made any difference.
- Within one month of my decision the Council should:
- apologise to Mr B for the failures identified in this statement;
- pay him £500 to reflect his justifiable sense of outrage the Council failed to follow its procedures, his doubt about whether the outcome might have been different if the Council had conducted a section 47 investigation and the time and trouble he had to go to pursuing his complaint;
- as it is inappropriate to re-investigate the allegation more than a year after it was made I recommend the Council liaise with the London Borough of Haringey to place on Mr B’s foster care file a copy of this statement so any third party is aware of the failure to follow the correct process when considering the second allegation; and
- issue a memo to officers dealing with safeguarding cases to remind them of the need to conduct a section 47 enquiry when that is the outcome of the strategy discussion, irrespective of whether a police investigation is to take place.
- I have completed my investigation and found fault by the Council which caused an injustice to Mr B. I am satisfied the action the Council will take is sufficient to remedy Mr B’s injustice.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman