The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complains about the Council’s response to his concerns about a school and its decision to terminate a foster placement. The Ombudsman has not investigated the complaint relating to the school as this is outside of his jurisdiction. The Ombudsman agrees with the Council’s investigation into the other complaints. The investigation said that there was no fault in the Council’s actions except that the Council should have informed the independent reviewing officer earlier and should have held a review meeting before deciding to change the children’s placement. The Council has apologised for this and this is an appropriate remedy.
- Mr and Mrs B are foster carers. They complain about the way the Council decided to end a foster placement. They say the Council did not take the appropriate action against the children’s school even though they raised safeguarding concerns about the school.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated the complaints about the Council’s actions. Paragraphs 64 to 68 explain why I have not investigated the actions of the school or the way the Council responded to Mr B’s concerns about the school. I have also not investigated Mr B’s claim that the Council’s actions were in breach of the Human Rights Act.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We cannot investigate complaints about what happens in schools. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5, paragraph 5(b), as amended)
- The courts have said that we cannot investigate a complaint about any action by a council, concerning a matter which itself is outside jurisdiction (R (on the application of M) v Commissioner for Local Administration in England  EWHC 2847 (Admin))
- The law sets out a three stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Investigating Officer and an Independent Person (who is responsible for overseeing the investigation). If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review. If a council has investigated something under this procedure, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it unless he considers that investigation was flawed. However, he may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.
- 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)
- The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), 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
- I have discussed the complaint with Mr and Mrs B. I have considered the documents they and the Council have sent and the relevant law, guidance and policies and both sides’ comments on the draft decision.
What I found
- Regulation 14 of the Care Planning, Placement and Care Review (England) Regulations 2010 says that when a local authority wants to terminate a placement, it must, among other things:
- Carry out a review of the child’s case and ensure that the views of all the people concerned have been heard.
- Inform the IRO.
- Give notice to the person with whom the child is placed.
Agencies involved and the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction
- Mr B and his wife Mrs B are foster carers. The Council (Manchester City Council) placed four siblings with them in June 2013. The couple also have their own child.
- Mr and Mrs B live in a different council (council L) and the children’s primary school is based there.
- Mr and Mrs B are agency foster carers with Agency K.
- My current investigation only relates to Manchester City Council, not council L, agency K or the school.
Summary of events relating to the complaint
- There was an incident on 8 February 2017 when one of the foster children went missing from Mr B’s care.
- Council L received referrals from agency K and the Council regarding this incident. Council L’s Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) organised an initial allegation meeting on 17 February 2017 which the Council, agency K, the police and the school attended. The professionals upheld an allegation of neglect by Mr B relating to the incident.
- The Council held a meeting with Mr and Mrs B, agency K and the school on 1 March 2017. The Council explained to Mr and Mrs B that it was unhappy with the way they had handled the situation when the child went missing on 8 February 2017. As Mr and Mrs B were registered as foster carers with agency K, the Council said it was agency K’s role to investigate the incident and to assess the foster carers’ training needs.
- The Council said it had decided the children could continue to live with Mr and Mrs B and the matter would be dealt with by additional training. It said it had taken this decision taking into consideration that:
- The children were happy with Mr and Mrs B.
- The children had made a lot of progress in the placement.
- The children should remain together and it would be difficult to find a placement for four siblings.
- A move would be disruptive and cause distress. It may mean a move to another school.
- There had been no further incidents when the children went missing.
- The Council would give Mr and Mrs B guidelines of what was expected from them in the next few days.
- Mrs B had moved out of Mr and Mrs B’s house and had moved to a house next door. She did this to protect her own child from being removed by the Council.
- Mr B had told her he would refuse to send the children to the school after the Easter holidays as he was not able to work with the school or trust them.
- Mr B had made a complaint about the school to Ofsted.
- Agency K was concerned about the placement.
Mr B’s complaint
- The Council responded to Mr B’s complaint dated 28 April 2017 on 9 and 30 May 2017. An independent investigator and an independent person completed stage 2 reports in November 2017 and the panel considered the complaint at stage 3 on 27 April 2018.
- The complaints were:
- The Council should have investigated their complaints against the school more thoroughly.
- The Council should have shared their safeguarding concerns about the school with Council L’s LADO.
- The Council should have investigated the concerns about the school in the same way it investigated the concerns the school raised about them.
- The Council should have responded differently to the incident on 8 February 2017.
- The Council removed the children without following the correct procedure which should have included a looked after children review and the move was financially motivated.
- The IRO was not involved in the decision to remove the children and should have been.
- Mr and Mrs B offered to speak to the new foster carers and this offer was unreasonably refused.
- The Council has denied them contact with the children.
- The Council has failed to recognise their rights under Human Rights legislation.
- I have not investigated Mr and Mrs B’s three first complaints about the Council’s response to his concerns about the school or his complaint about the Human Rights Act.
- I agree with the outcomes of the investigation into Mr B’s other complaints.
- Mr B said the Council should have responded differently to the incident on 8 February 2017. He feels the matter did not meet the threshold for a referral and the Council should have challenged the outcome of the meetings which upheld the allegation.
- The Council’s investigation did not uphold the complaint in terms of the referral and the meetings but it said the Council should have informed the IRO of the incident. I agree with the findings. The incident met the threshold for a referral to the LADO. A seven year old child was missing from Mr B’s care and the Council was concerned that Mr B had not taken appropriate action when this incident took place. The Council followed the correct process by referring the matter to the LADO. Mr B was not a Council foster carer so the responsibility for the investigation into concerns about Mr and Mrs B’s practice lay with agency K, not the Council.
- Mr B says the correct procedure was not followed when the children were removed and that there should have been a LAC review There is some lack of clarity in the government’s guidance whether a LAC review is needed when a foster carer has given notice on the placement. Nevertheless, the Council’s own investigation has upheld the complaint and I agree there was fault in the process, but am of the view it did not cause any significant injustice.
- The purpose of a review meeting would have been to ensure that the views of the people involved including the children were heard before the Council made a decision about changing the placement.
- In this case, the Council knew the views of the foster carers, the children and the IRO. The decision whether to move the children or not had been taken out of the Council’s hands by Mr and Mrs B’s decision to give notice on the placement and by taking the position they would not return the children to the school. Therefore, I am of the view that the fact that the meeting was not held did not cause any real injustice as the outcome would always have been that the children would move placements.
- I also accept the Council’s reasons why they brought the date of the move forward. The Council was concerned that Mr and Mrs B were not following their request to work with the Council to make the move as painless as possible for the children. The Council was worried that the longer the children remained in the placement, the more difficult the move would be and it would make it more difficult for the children to settle in their next placement. However, it would have been good practice to give the family some notice so that the move was less traumatic for everybody.
- I agree with the investigation that there was no evidence that the move was financially motivated.
- Mr B complained that the IRO was not involved with the decision to move the children. I agree with the investigation that there was no fault here. The IRO discussed the move with the Council on 28 March 2017 and agreed with the move. She spoke to the Council again on 10 April and was clearly in agreement with the proposed actions.
- Mr B complains that his offer to talk through his experience with the new foster carers was unreasonably refused and that contact with the children after the move was unreasonably denied. The investigation did not uphold these complaints and I agree with the outcome. Mr B was in conflict with the school, agency K, council L and the Council. He made comments to the children, the children’s sibling and her foster carer which were of concern. The Council sent an email on 10 April 2017 asking Mr B not to discuss certain issues with the children, but the problem continued.
- The Council took these factors into consideration and decided that it would not be in the children’s best interest to have further contact with Mr and Mrs B and there was little to be gained from a meeting between the new foster carers and Mr and Mrs B. I find no fault in the way the Council made this decision.
- Mrs B says the independent investigation into his complaint was flawed as the investigator did not speak to the children. The Council says it made this decision in the children’s interest. It was focused on settling the children in the new placements and did not think it was in the children’s interest to revisit the issues about the old placement. I do not agree that the investigation was flawed because of this as the investigator had access to the children’s records and knew what their views were. The documents show the children wanted to remain in the placement and shared a strong sense of injustice about what happened.
- The Council has already apologised for not informing the IRO of the 8 February 2017 incident and for not holding a review meeting before its decision to end the foster placement. That is an appropriate remedy and I do not recommend any further remedy.
- I have completed the investigation. There was some fault by the Council which has already been remedied.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- The Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5, paragraph 5(b) says the Ombudsman cannot investigate complaints about what happens in schools. The actions of a council dealing with a complaint about these matters are also out of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
- This means the Ombudsman cannot look at the actions of the school or the way the Council responded to a complaint about the actions of a school.
- Mr B says that some of the school’s actions reached the threshold for a safeguarding investigation. He complains about the Council’s failure to address this. I cannot investigate this complaint without also considering the school’s actions. Therefore, this complaint is also outside of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
- In addition, most of the safeguarding concerns Mr B raises relate to events dating back to 2015 and 2016. I would not, in any event, investigate these complaints as they relate to events from more than a year ago. Mr B could have made a complaint about these matters at the time and any investigation now would be difficult because of the historical nature of the complaint.
- I have not investigated Mr B’s claim that the Council’s actions are in breach of the Human Rights Act as this claim would be better decided by a court.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman