Northamptonshire County Council (17 017 287)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 14 Aug 2018

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 complaint

  1. 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.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  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. 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.
  2. 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. 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.

Background

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Analysis

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. I consider if the Council had completed the sections 47 investigation as it should have done the meeting would have had more information around the various issues. However, the meeting may still have reached the same conclusion as any extra information would not have changed the fact the child had repeated the same allegation to three different people, it would not have changed the view of the credibility of the child expressed by the police and it would not have changed the fact there was an earlier similar allegation that had been substantiated, although the meeting would have had more information about the nature of that allegation. Those were part of the meeting’s reasoning for treating the allegation as substantiated. I therefore could not say the outcome would have been different.
  4. What Mr B would like is for the Council to re-examine the evidence and reach a new decision about whether the allegation should be substantiated. However, to do that the Council would have to follow the section 47 investigation process by speaking to the child and contacting the relevant agencies. I do not consider that suitable as more than 12 months have passed and the child is now settled in a different placement. Clearly there is an injustice to Mr B though. Although I cannot reach a safe conclusion about whether the outcome would have been different had the Council followed the right process, Mr B is left with doubt about whether the Council would have reached a different conclusion if it had. I therefore consider Mr B’s injustice is that he is left not knowing whether the outcome would been different, his justifiable sense of outrage the Council failed to follow the process set down in its procedures and the time and trouble he has had to go to in complaining.
  5. In reaching that view I am aware Mr B says the Council failed to consider the evidence it had before deciding to substantiate the allegation. In particular, Mr B says the Council failed to consider the fact the child had said he lied about the allegation. I am satisfied the joint evaluation meeting discussed the allegation the child had lied as it is referred to in the minutes. However, it is clear the police checked that with the school as Mr B had said the child told the school he had lied. The police told the meeting the school said it did not know anything about the child saying he had lied. I am therefore satisfied the meeting considered the information. In those circumstances I have no grounds to criticise the Council.
  6. Mr B says the Council also failed to consider the fact the police had decided there was no case to answer. As I said, the police decided to close the criminal case with no further action as it had no evidence to support the child’s allegation against Mr B’s version of events which his partner corroborated. That is not the same as saying no case to answer. In any event, although the outcome of the police investigation is a relevant consideration the police were considering a different matter. The police were considering whether there was enough evidence to support a criminal prosecution. The joint evaluation meeting was to decide whether the threshold for significant harm had been reached. So, it is possible for the police to reach one conclusion and for the safeguarding process to reach another. What matters is whether the Council, in treating the allegation as substantiated, properly considered the information provided by the police. In this case I am satisfied it did. That is because the minutes from the joint evaluation meeting record the information provided by the police in detail. That included the fact the police had closed the case with no further action and the reasons for that decision. It also included the view of the police about the believability of the child’s allegation. As I am satisfied the joint evaluation meeting properly took the police information into account I have no grounds to criticise the Council on that point.
  7. Mr B says the Council wrongly relied on an allegation from 2016 which the school had said was malicious. I am satisfied the joint evaluation meeting considered what had happened in 2016. I cannot criticise it for doing that because it was a relevant factor. As I said earlier though, I consider it likely the meeting would have had more information about the nature of that allegation and any comments from the school about it if a section 47 investigation had taken place. I have already made clear failure to follow the process is fault.
  8. Mr B says the Council failed to respond to his complaint there was a conspiracy between Haringey and Northamptonshire to stop him being a foster carer due to his involvement in a foster carers association. I believe Mr B is referring here to the complaint he put in 6 December where he referred to his view Haringey was looking for any chance to remove him as a foster carer. I have seen no evidence the Council responded to that point when it wrote to Mr B on 19 January 2018 to respond to his complaint. Failure to do that is fault. If the Council did not consider it could respond to that point given it referred to a different council it should have made that clear in its complaint response and it failed to do so. That is fault.

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Agreed action

  1. 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.

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Final decision

  1. 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.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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