Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council (18 001 349)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 25 Oct 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Ombudsman has found no fault in the Council’s decision not to place any further children alongside the child Miss X and Mr Y currently foster. There is also no fault in the Council’s decision not to pay a solo placement fee to the foster carers, because there is no requirement for it to do so.

The complaint

  1. Miss X complains about the Council’s consideration of foster care payments. Specifically, she complains that the Council has not properly recognised the specific needs and solo placement status of the child that she fosters and that she was not properly made aware of the implications of the placement on her ability to foster other children when the placement was agreed.

What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated whether the payments made to Miss X are appropriate in the circumstances and whether the Council properly made its decision not to place other children alongside Z at this time.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
  3. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have considered all of the documents and information sent to me by the Council and Miss X. I have also discussed the complaint with Miss X. I provided Miss X and Mr Y with an opportunity to comment on my draft decision and have considered all of the comments I received.

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What I found

  1. While I cannot consider the issues that arose more than twelve months before Miss X made her complaint, I have provided some background information to provide context to Miss X’s complaint.

Background

  1. Miss X and Mr Y, were approved foster carers, employed by a private foster agency. A child, who I will refer to as Z was placed in their care.
  2. The private foster agency offered a solo placement fee for children who could not be placed with other children. The Council said it has been unable to locate any record of the private foster agency requesting a solo fee for Z. It also said that it has no record of an unwillingness by the private foster agency to place other children with Z. Miss X and Mr Y were not in receipt of a solo placement fee for Z. Miss X and Mr Y said that the reason they expressed an interest in fostering for the Council was because the private foster agency would not place other children with Z.
  3. In October 2013 Miss X and Mr Y requested an initial visit from the Council to discuss their interest in fostering for the Council instead of privately.
  4. Following this visit an initial assessment visit was undertaken. The record of assessment said that Miss X and Mr Y would like to foster for the local authority. It also said that they would like to offer placements to younger children and that the placements offered by the private fostering agency were too complex and challenging to place alongside Z. The records also suggest that Miss X and Mr Y commented on the lack of support from the private fostering agency.
  5. The Child Placement Panel considered Miss X and Mr Y’s suitability to foster. The Social Worker made a recommendation that the approval would be for three children, 0-18 years, long term, short term and respite.
  6. The Panel reached a unanimous recommendation that Miss X and Mr Y were suitable to foster. The terms of approval of this recommendation were not unanimous. The Chair was of the view that approval should be for one child only. In this case that would have meant that Z would be a solo placement. The majority recommendation was approval for one long term placement of a child up to 18 years, which in this case was Z, and one or two (if siblings) for respite, aged 0-8 years.
  7. This meant that Miss X and Mr Y were approved to have Z full time and up to two additional children for respite. It was agreed that no consideration would be given to a respite placement until the relationship between Miss X and Mr Y and Z was considered by the local authority as a long term match. In November 2014, the relationship was agreed to be a long term match by the Council scrutiny panel.
  8. Since then Miss X and Mr Y have not had any additional children placed with them for respite.
  9. In December 2014 a supervisory social worker visit took place. At this time the possibility of placing other children with Miss X and Mr Y was discussed. The Council’s records show that Miss X and Mr Y were advised that, at that time, offering respite was not being considered due to Z’s behaviour; however, it may be considered in the future. The records also show that Miss X and Mr Y were advised that at that time the Council had a number of carers without placement who would take priority. The Council has also explained that there were no placements needed for respite at that time so a suitable match would not have been possible.
  10. In May 2015 a foster care review was undertaken. The approval criteria of having Z full time and up to two additional children for respite was maintained. The recommendations explained that when considering respite Z’s needs must always be of paramount consideration and said that there were no immediate plans to place children alongside Z.
  11. Following this a number of foster care reviews and Child Placement Annual Reviews have taken place. It appears that the outcome has consistently remained that Miss X and Mr Y were approved as respite carers however due to Z’s behaviour such a placement, at that time, would not be appropriate.

The complaint

  1. The Council has explained that in August 2017, during a supervisory visit, the potential to consider a respite placement alongside Z was discussed. This was because Z had experienced a settled period.
  2. In September, the potential for a respite placement was discussed with Z. Records show that Z became distressed. Because of this, Z’s social worker confirmed that she could not support a plan for respite at that time.
  3. Following this, the Council made a decision that no other children should be placed alongside Z. It said that it made this decision because:
    • Z said that she did not want to live with other children.
    • Z’s social worker would not support additional placements because of the emotional impact on Z.
    • The fostering service’s view was that it would not be appropriate due to the impact upon any child placed alongside Z, and the duty of care to that child.
  4. Miss X and Mr Y raised their concerns with the Council that following this decision they were not being given a solo placement fee but neither were they able to foster other children for respite purposes. The Council has explained that the social worker then visited Miss X and Mr Y to discuss their request for a solo placement fee. It was outlined to them that the Council does not have a policy which allows for a solo placement fee and therefore this was not possible.
  5. Miss X formally complained to the Council in January 2018. The Council met with Miss X and Mr Y to discuss their complaint. The Council considered this as the Early Resolution stage of the corporate complaints process. It offered Miss X and Mr Y a retention payment of £40 a week in acknowledgement of the respite placement vacancy. The Council offered to backdate this to December 2017.
  6. The Council’s records show that Miss X and Mr Y declined this and instead wanted a solo placement fee, in line with that offered by the private agency, paid going forward and backdated from May 2013 when they became local authority foster carers.
  7. Miss X pursued her complained with the Council but remained unhappy with the outcome. Miss X then brought her complaint to the Ombudsman.

Analysis

  1. Miss X and Mr Y have complained that despite being approved to care for one or two children (if siblings) for respite, they have not had a child placed alongside Z and yet have also not been given a solo placement fee which was available through the private foster agency.
  2. I cannot consider the decisions made by the Council more than twelve months ago. This is because we cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. In this case, I cannot see any good reason why Miss X could not have complained sooner if she had concerns about the Council’s ongoing decision-making not to place other children alongside Z or the information provided to her prior to transitioning from the private foster agency.
  3. My role is to consider whether the Council’s decision in September 2017 not to place other children alongside Z was made properly and whether its subsequent consideration of Miss X’s request for a solo placement fee was considered properly. My investigation will also consider whether Miss X and Mr Y are in receipt of the correct payments for Z.
  4. The Council has evidenced that the placement of other children has been kept under review since the initial approval, through regular supervisory visits and joint visits with the child’s Social Worker. The Council has explained that Z’s Social Worker initially felt that the placement needed to be secured as long-term before considering introducing any other children into the home, which was done in 2015. The documents suggest that Miss X and Mr Y agreed with this recommendation and it was not complained about at the time.
  5. Following the placement being secured as long term, the Council has evidenced its periodic review of the situation. It has shown that it considered Miss X and Mr Y’s wishes to have another child placed with them and balanced this alongside Z’s wishes and behaviour. The Council has said and the documents suggest, that throughout this time, it was mutually accepted by the foster carers and Social Workers that placing other children would be detrimental to Z, however at that time it was considered as a future possibility. This decision making was not complained about at the time.
  6. The Council’s subsequent decision in September 2017 that no children should be placed alongside Z appears to have been one made without fault. The Council has evidenced its consideration of the information available to it. It has considered the foster parents wishes and balanced these with the discussions and interactions it has had with Z. It has also taken into consideration the impact the placement may have on any child placed for respite. We cannot question whether a council’s decision not to place other children alongside Z is right or wrong. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. At this time, I have found no evidence of fault in the Council’s decision making about whether or not to place another child alongside Z in September 2017.

Solo placement fee and foster care allowance

  1. In the absence of a child having been placed with Miss X and Mr Y, Miss Y complains that they should be entitled to a solo placement fee. This is because they say that if they had they known that no additional children would be placed alongside Z, they would not have transferred from the private agency as they would have been entitled to the solo placement fee had they stayed with the private agency.
  2. As I have explained previously I cannot consider the actions of the Council more than twelve months ago. My role is to consider whether the Council’s decision not to award a solo placement fee is one made without fault and whether the Council’s decision to offer a retention payment of an additional £40 a week is appropriate in the circumstances.
  3. The Council does not operate a solo placement fee policy. There is no statutory requirement for it to do so. Therefore, at this time, I have found no fault in the Council’s decision not to offer a solo placement fee as there is no requirement for it to do so.
  4. The national minimum weekly allowance for a child of Z’s age is £161. The Council has a system where foster carers are categorised into levels. Miss X and Mr Y are considered by the Council as level one foster carers. The Council’s policy means that the level of foster carer impacts of the level of payments made. The Council’s basic rate, for level one foster carers, for a child of Z’s age is £199 per week.
  5. For level two carers the Council’s weekly basic allowance rate, for a child of Z’s age, is £324 per week. The Council has explained that the additional amount paid to level two carer’s is paid in recognition of the fact that the children placed with level two foster carers will draw on extra resources and require foster carers to undertake additional tasks using the skills and experience they have developed over time.
  6. Miss X and Mr Y are currently paid £412.86 per week, not inclusive of the additional £40 a week retention fee offered to them. In order that Miss X and Mr Y were not financially disadvantaged when they transferred from the private agency the Council agreed they would transfer on the fee rate they were already receiving for the duration of Z’s placement.
  7. Regarding foster care allowances, the Government says that Councils must provide carers with at least the minimum weekly allowance. The Government says that foster carers could get a greater allowance if:
    • The child has specific needs
    • The foster carer has certain skills
    • The foster care makes a particularly large commitment to fostering.
  8. At this time, I consider that the Council has taken into consideration the specific placement. It is not my role to determine whether the level of payment is appropriate as I have found no fault in the way the Council has considered it. This is because it has adhered to government guidance. It has also offered an allowance to Miss X and Mr Y in excess of that outlined in its own policies.

Retention Fee

  1. The Council made an offer of an additional £40 per week as a good will gesture to be back dated to the point the decision was made by the Local Authority not to place other children alongside Z. The Council has said that it would be happy to continue to offer the weekly payment of £40 until a time when a second child could be placed for respite. I must consider whether this offer is appropriate.
  2. There is no statutory requirement for the Council to provide a retention fee to foster carers who have an unfilled placement available. The Council’s foster care rates for 2018 does include a retainer payment. This payment is available to level two foster carers. This payment is made for up to eight weeks per year, paid at £40 a week if no child is placed but there is placement availability. As level one foster carer’s Miss X and Mr Y are not automatically entitled to a retainer payment under this policy, the payment they have offered to Miss X and Mr Y is a discretionary payment. The Council’s decision to award a retainer payment of £40 a week until a child can be placed as a goodwill gesture goes over and above what is required of it. I find no fault in its offer.

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Final decision

  1. The Ombudsman has found no fault in the Council’s decision not to place any further children alongside the child Miss X and Mr Y currently foster. There also appears to be no fault in the Council’s decision not to pay a solo placement fee to the foster carers. This is because there is no requirement for it to do so.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. The Ombudsman cannot consider the decisions made by the Council more than twelve months ago, unless we decide there are good reasons for the person not to have complained to us sooner. I considered whether to exercise my discretion to consider the aspects of Miss X’s complaint that happened more than 12 months ago. To exercise our discretion, we must be satisfied that:
    • there is a realistic prospect of reaching a sound, fair, and meaningful decision, and
    • the complainant could not reasonably be expected to have complained sooner.
  2. I am not content that either of these tests are satisfied in this case. This is because the further away in time an investigation takes place from the events to be investigated, the more difficult it may be to establish the material facts with reasonable confidence. In older cases we are less likely to be able to gather sufficient evidence to reach a sound judgement. In this case the Council has said that it does not have some documents from when the issues raised first occurred and it has been around four years since Z was first placed in Miss X and Mr Y’s care. In many cases we cannot apply current standards, guidance, or professional expectations to historical situations. It is therefore likely to be more difficult to reach a firm and fair conclusion on whether there was fault.
  3. Furthermore, I cannot see any good reason why Miss X or Mr Y could not have complained to the Ombudsman sooner. This is because it is clear they had concerns about the information provided to them when they transferred from the private foster agency and that they were unhappy that no other children were placed alongside Z several years before they brought their complaint to us.
  4. Miss X also complains about the Council’s failure to provide support to Z to help support her in preparing for the possibility of having an additional child, either by birth or through a placement, in the family home. This aspect of Miss X’s complaint does not appear to have been considered by the Council throughout the complaints process. It is open to Miss X to make a formal complaint about this and it appears the Council should consider it through the statutory children’s complaints process.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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