North Somerset Council (17 018 809)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 05 Dec 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Ms X complained about lack of support, bullying behaviour and delay during the Council’s investigation into her standards of care as a foster carer. The Council has already recognised some delay. the Council has agreed to apologise for further delay found. There is insufficient evidence of fault in the other areas of the complaint.

The complaint

  1. Ms X complained that the Council:
      1. delayed and used bullying and intimidating behaviour in carrying out an investigation into allegations about her as a foster carer;
      2. failed to provide adequate support to her and her family in the last few months of the final foster placement; and
      3. failed to deal properly with concerns raised about online material her daughter saw about the adoptive parents.

Back to top

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 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, sections 26(1), 26A(1) and 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. 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)

Back to top

How I considered this complaint

  1. I discussed the complaint with Ms X 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.
  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.

Back to top

What I found

  1. The Government has a set of National Minimum Standards for fostering services. Standard number 21 is that foster carers should receive the support and supervision they need in order to care properly for children placed with them.
  2. The Council issues a Foster Carers Handbook to its foster carers which sets out the support available to them. There is a section on childcare arrangements which includes the following information.
    • The Council recognises that foster carers will sometimes need a break or have other commitments which may mean they need to leave foster children with relatives or a babysitter. “It is preferred that, whenever possible, foster carers leave the foster child in the care of someone who is in their network, is familiar to the child and has already been vetted.”
    • The Council expects the foster carer to cover the cost of paid babysitting arrangements if it is for social or leisure purposes. If the foster carer has to attend training or a meeting about the children they are looking after the Council will reimburse the cost.

What happened

  1. Ms X was a foster carer for the Council and also a registered childminder. She had been carrying out both roles for several years. She also has a child of her own, D. In 2015 the Council placed three young siblings in foster care with Ms X. The long-term plan was for them to be adopted.
  2. In November 2016 the Council received an email from a medical professional who had seen the foster children, raising concerns about their care. This followed concerns raised by other professionals previously which had resulted in investigations into Ms X’s practice. The Council decided to start an investigation into Ms X’s standards of care and to keep the children in the placement while it carried out the investigation. The investigation started on 18 November 2016. It continued with meetings with Ms X, interviews with relevant staff and a series of strategy meetings held under the Council’s procedure for dealing with allegations against people who work with children. During the course of the investigation the Council also managed to match the children to suitable prospective adopters and planned for them to move to the adopters’ home in March 2017.
  3. There was then an unfortunate accident in February 2017 in which the youngest child, Z, was injured while in Ms X’s care and had to be admitted to hospital. The Council recognised it was an accident, but because of other concerns it was investigating it decided to bring the date of the adoption forward.
  4. Z was in hospital for around ten days. During that time Ms X spent long periods with him 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 the issue. 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 Ms X’s father, Mr Y. The result of the meeting was a written agreement for a plan for Ms X’s parents and neighbours to provide childcare. The agreement said the purpose was to support Ms X in her care of the children, to provide support to the children for a smooth and successful transition to their prospective adopters, to give her time to process the recent impact of the recent incident and to prepare for the adoption. The agreement ended by saying the Council was continuing to progress the children’s long-term plan for adoption. But if the plan did not work the Council would consider whether it was in the children’s best interests to bring the adoption plan forward. This meeting is the subject of complaints by Ms X and her father and is considered below. The support plan was then discussed at the hospital discharge meeting in early March which Ms X attended.
  6. At the end of March, following a decision at a strategy meeting, Officer F and a social worker had a meeting with Ms X in her home. Officer F explained the investigation process and timescales. He told Ms X the Council was suspending her from her role as a foster carer pending the outcome of the investigation. Ms X’s mother, Mrs Y, came in towards the end of the meeting.
  7. The Council wrote to Ms X to confirm the information on 3 April 2017. The letter outlined the concerns and questions about her practice as a foster carer that the Council was looking into.
  8. Shortly afterwards Mrs Y wrote to the Council to report that her granddaughter, D, had found concerning and inappropriate material online relating to the couple who were due to adopt the children. The Council looked into the matter and wrote to Ms X about it. I deal with this issue in more detail later in this statement. Mrs Y also complained to the Council about Officer F’s behaviour towards her at the meeting in March.
  9. The Council completed its investigation into Ms X’s standards of care in June 2017. It presented its report to the Fostering Panel October 2017. The Panel recommended that the Council should de-register Ms X as a foster carer. The Council confirmed the decision. Ms X applied to the Independent Review Mechanism (IRM) for a review of the decision.
  10. Ms X made a complaint to the Council about the investigation process. She also complained about feeling bullied and intimidated by Officer F, and about inadequate supervision and support for her as a foster carer during the last few months of the placement. As the complaint continued, Ms X also raised concerns about the speed of the adoption process and the way the Council had dealt with the concerns her mother had raised about the information her daughter had accessed online. The Council did not uphold the complaints about alleged lack of support or bullying and intimidation. It said other issues she had raised about the investigation into her practice would be considered by the IRM.
  11. The IRM supported the Council’s decision and recommended de-registering Ms X.

Complaint a) – that the Council delayed and used bullying and intimidating behaviour in carrying out an investigation into allegations about Ms X as a foster carer

Delay

  1. The investigation started on 18 November 2016, triggered by concerns raised by professionals. The target date for completing the draft report was 14 December 2017. The Council did not meet this target. The investigation report says this was because of unexpected safeguarding events elsewhere that the Fostering Team needed to deal with and unexpected sickness absence by key staff involved in the investigation.
  2. The Council had a meeting with Ms X on 14 December 2017 to introduce her new supervising social worker. At this meeting it told her it had set a new target date for mid-January 2018. Some of the key staff it needed to interview for the investigation were not available over the holiday period, which meant the interviews did not take place until 19 January 2017.
  3. By that time the Council had matched the children to prospective adopters and they were due to move on to the adoption placement in March 2017. The Council decided it needed to prioritise preparing for the adoption over the investigation into Ms X’s practice. So it decided to put the investigation on hold until after the children had moved.
  4. During this time concerns escalated and the accident occurred. The Council took the decision to bring forward the adoption process as it considered this to be in the children’s best interests. The children moved to the adopters’ home towards the end of March 2017.
  5. After the meeting with Ms X at the end of March when the Council told her about the decision to suspend her, the Council resumed the investigation. The letter of 3 April 2017 set out the investigation process as follows.
    • The aim was to provide a written report to Mrs X on the investigation within four weeks. If the Council needed more time it would explain the reason to her and set a new deadline. It would send a copy of the report to her independent supporter at the same time.
    • It aimed to have a meeting with Mrs X and her independent supporter to discuss the report within ten working days after she received it. She could ask for the meeting to take place sooner or later than this if she wished.
    • After considering her response the Council would amend the report as necessary and then present it with recommendations to the Fostering Panel. Mrs X would be invited to attend the Panel meeting with her supporter and see all the information in advance. The Council aimed to bring the report to the Fostering Panel within three months.
    • The Council as Agency Decision-Maker would consider the Panel’s recommendation and make its decision on whether to continue to approve her as a foster carer, with amended conditions if necessary, or to de-register her.
  6. The Council did not meet the target for producing the draft report and extended it to late May 2017. It did not complete the report until 16 June 2017, a delay the investigation report says was due to staff leave and unexpected sickness absence. The Team Leader authorised it on 20 June 2017 and Ms X received it a few days later. There was a meeting with her and her independent supporter to discuss it in early August 2017. Ms X says the Council invited her to attend the Fostering Panel in September but then cancelled the meeting on the day. The Fostering Panel meeting took place in October 2017. Ms X says it took a further four weeks for the Council to send her its decision following the Panel’s recommendations.
  7. The Council took eight months to produce the investigation report and a further four months to present it to the Fostering Panel. My understanding from the process the Council has described is that it should have taken one month to produce the draft report and a further three months to take it to Panel. So there was a delay of around nine months. The Council has explained the reasons for some of the delay. It was partly due to staff sickness and holiday absence, and partly because of decisions taken in the best interests of the children. The Council has not explained the delay during May 2017 or the delay in holding the Fostering Panel and issuing the final decision. In the absence of any explanation for these further delays I consider the Council was at fault. In the investigation report the Council apologised “unreservedly” for the delays in the process up to that point. As far as I am aware it has not apologised for any further delay.

Intimidating and bullying behaviour

  1. This allegation relates to the behaviour of Officer F at the two meetings in late February and March 2017.
  2. Ms X complains that at the February 2017 meeting Officer F forced her to sign and comply with the childcare agreement under threat that the adoption would be brought forward.
  3. Mr Y also made a complaint to the Council about Officer F’s behaviour at the meeting. He complained that:
    • Officer F bullied his daughter, causing her more distress at what was already a difficult time for her following the accident with the youngest child;
    • his conduct was intimidating and the tone of the meeting was hostile;
    • Officer F insisted Mr Y and his wife agreed to provide extra childcare to enable Ms X to attend meetings about the children’s adoption;
    • he threatened that if they did not comply with the agreement the Council would bring the adoption forward.
  4. The Council denies that Officer F’s behaviour was intimidating or bullying or that the childcare plan was imposed on the family. It says the aim of the meeting was to ensure Ms X had adequate support from her support network in caring for the children and to enable her to provide care and support to the youngest child during his hospital stay. Its view is that the agreement was a voluntary plan negotiated with her and her support network, and was not imposed on her.
  5. The Council says the decision to bring forward the adoption “was not a punitive measure towards [Ms X] but a genuine consideration of what was in the children’s best interests given [Z’s] significant injury and the previous concerns the local authority had regarding [Ms X’s] practice”. It says it was concerned about Ms X’s ability to care successfully for the children in challenging circumstances. Given the concerns the Council was investigating it says after consultation with its in-house psychologist for looked after children it reduced the adoption timescale to avoid the children having to experience a change of foster carers.
  6. I have considered the views of the Council and the complainant and looked at the written evidence in the Council’s case records. There is evidence in the telephone and email contacts with the Council that Ms X:
    • proposed her neighbours as back-up carers who could look after the other children during the first weekend that Z was in hospital;
    • said her mother would be happy to offer childcare, staying overnight if necessary, but would not want to care for Z given his need for extra care following his injury;
    • said she had spoken with her ‘back up support’ and they had confirmed they would be there to support her as and when needed;
    • said she had not put anything in place for overnight care as the two older children slept through the night;
    • said she had the support in place if she needed it as her parents lived very close by and she had a neighbour over the road, and the support they had provided while Z was in hospital had been ‘amazing’.
  7. The Council’s case record of the meeting in February 2016 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.
    • Ms X’s father said he was available frequently, although he does work and that his wife 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 the child 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 the [Ms X] cannot care for the three children without good levels of support”.
  8. The record says they did not discuss the possibility of the adoption process being brought forward as it was a late meeting and Ms X appeared tired and needed to get home. Ms X strongly disputes this. She says this issue was discussed and caused her great upset.
  9. Ms X and her father say they felt pressured and intimidated into signing the agreement. I accept this was how they experienced the meeting. There is nothing in the minutes of the meeting to show that pressure was applied or that the speeding up of the adoption process was used as a threat. It is of course unlikely that the Council would make a record that an officer behaved in an intimidating manner. But I do not consider there is sufficient evidence to allow me to find on balance Officer F employed bullying tactics at this meeting. I do not think that further investigation is likely to be productive as the officers present are unlikely to agree their conduct was poor having already denied it, and we would be left with a conflicting account of events that cannot be resolved.
  10. However there is a record that the Council agreed to keep the plan under review and look at providing extra resources itself if necessary. There is also evidence that Ms X was involved in the discussions about the support network, offered their help and said she was getting good support from her friends and family. The Council was concerned to ensure that Ms X had help with childcare. In one strategy meeting it was suggested that the Council could offer childcare support through a rota of staff who knew the children well. Ms X could have asked for extra help from the Council as explained in the agreement. She may have felt she needed more support from the Council and that the plan to provide it through her own support network inadequate. But without evidence that she made the Council aware she was not happy with the plan, I could not conclude that the Council was at fault in imposing it on her.
  11. The Council has explained that the decision to bring the adoption forward was made after consultation with relevant professionals and in the best interest of the children. It is not for the Ombudsman to question the merits of councils’ decisions if taken properly. The Council had a duty to prioritise the welfare of the children and I could not say it was at fault in taking this approach.
  12. The Council denies that Officer F behaved aggressively towards Ms X at the meeting at the end of March when it told her its decision to suspend her pending the outcome of the investigation. It says it does not recognise or agree with the complaint. 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 of inappropriate behaviour and rejected the complaint.
  13. The Council does not have notes of the meeting. The only written evidence is the letter the Council sent to Ms X confirming what was discussed at the meeting. This does not refer to any issues concerning officer conduct, and it would be unlikely to do so. There is therefore a conflict of evidence between two sets of participants and witnesses which I am unable to resolve. Hearing that the Council would be suspending her was likely to have been a very difficult message for Ms X to receive. She was faced with a number of concerns the Council had about her practice, which she disputed. Again I do not doubt that Ms X experienced the meeting as hostile. But I do not have enough evidence to be able to conclude the officers behaved inappropriately towards her. Nor do I 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.

Complaint b) – that the Council failed to provide adequate support to Ms X and her family in the last few months of the final foster placement

  1. Ms X says she asked for help with childcare to look after the children she was fostering and childminding so she could attend meetings related to the investigation and adoption process. She also says she needed extra support when Z was in hospital as she was spending a lot of time with him there.
  2. I have discussed the question of childcare support while Z was in hospital and on his discharge above. Ms X may have felt unsupported but I have not seen evidence that she asked for extra help which the Council failed or refused to provide.
  3. There are records showing that the Council offered Ms X support with preparation for the children’s adoption, including the emotional impact of this, through her supervising social worker and adoption support groups. Regarding childcare to allow her to attend meetings the Council says it would always offer childcare support as a matter of course for foster carers to attend training or key meetings. This is reflected in the Foster Carer’s Handbook. I have seen a record of one occasion where the Council invited Ms X to attend a meeting and told her there would be a creche available. I do not have any further information about other offers of childcare for meetings. But I have not seen evidence either that Ms X asked for such help and the Council refused or ignored her requests.
  4. Ms X also complains that the Council did not provide enough support for her own daughter, D. However the Council has provided evidence that it discussed her daughter’s need for support with Ms X. It offered D the opportunity to join a support group for children of foster carers. Ms X’s supervising social worker had a discussion with D herself. She offered her support with dealing with the impact of fostering and with the children’s placement ending. I have not seen evidence that the Council failed to respond to requests from Ms X for support for D.

Complaint c) – that the Council failed to deal properly with concerns raised about online material her daughter saw about the adoptive parents

  1. Ms X’s mother wrote to the Council in April 2017 with a complaint about the way it had treated her, her husband and her daughter. As part of her complaint she raised the issue about her granddaughter finding unsuitable material online about the adoptive parents. The Council reported this in writing to Ms X. It said it would not normally disclose the content of private correspondence but this was a safeguarding matter and it felt she should be aware of what had happened.
  2. The Council looked into the complaint and considered what action it should take. It did its own research to try and replicate the search D had carried out to see if it could find the material she had seen. It wrote to Ms X with its response.
  3. The letter said Council officers had carried out online searches for the adopters which had not revealed the material Mrs Y had referred to. The Council said it would need more evidence to be able to look into the matter further. It asked for further details of the searches Ms X’s daughter had carried out. It offered a meeting for her daughter with a social worker which Ms X could attend as well to look into the matter further. It said the Council was open to any other suggestions about how to obtain further information without speaking to her daughter directly which might upset her.
  4. Ms X replied that did not feel it was appropriate to involve her daughter further as it was likely to distress her. She said her parents would be available to help the Council find the images referred to if it was having difficulty. Ms X says the Council did not take up this offer. The Council says it did not need to involve Mr and Mrs Y. The case records show the Council did its own search and considered what steps to take in relation to the material seen. It could not tell Ms X the outcome because this was confidential information.
  5. One of Ms X’s concerns was whether the adopters were suitable people to care for the children. However Ms X cannot make a complaint on behalf of the children as they are no longer in her care. So I have not investigated this issue further.

Summary

  1. The combination of the investigation into her standards of care, Z’s accident, and the transition to the adoption of the children undoubtedly caused Ms X a great deal of distress. The Council has already accepted there was delay in dealing with the investigation. I do not have sufficient evidence to conclude there was other fault by the Council as alleged by Ms X.

Back to top

Agreed action

  1. The Council has agreed to my recommendation to provide a further apology to Ms X for the delays in the investigation into her standards of care it has not recognised to date.

Back to top

Final decision

  1. I have found that the Council delayed in dealing with the investigation into Ms X’s standards of care as a foster carer. I am satisfied with the action the Council has agreed to take in relation to this part of the complaint. I have not found sufficient evidence of fault in the other areas of the complaint to make a finding against the Council.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

Back to top

Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

Print this page