Northumberland Council (18 008 437)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 11 Mar 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There is no evidence of unreasonable delay by the Council in progressing Ms X’s application to become a foster carer. The Council’s application form lacked clarity about how many referees Ms X needed to provide but the Council has addressed this by introducing a new form. The Council delayed in dealing with Ms X’s complaint which caused frustration and avoidable time and trouble to her which the Council has agreed to apologise for.

The complaint

  1. Ms X complains that the Council
      1. Required excessive amount of information from Ms X when dealing with her application to be a foster carer. This includes unreasonably requiring her to provide her birth certificate when she had provided her passport at an early stage of the process;
      2. Failed to keep a record of the information Ms X had provided so she was repeatedly asked to provide the same information when her case transferred between social workers;
      3. Providing an application form for Ms X to complete which was no longer used as it was out of date;
      4. Put Ms X under pressure to be a general foster carer rather than a foster carer for refugee children
      5. Delayed in dealing with her 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)
  3. 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.
  4.  

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have:
    • Considered the complaint and the information provided by Ms X;
    • Discussed the issued with Ms X;
    • Made enquiries of the Council and considered the information provided;
    • Invited Ms X and the Council to comment on the draft decision.

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What I found

  1. Ms X made an initial enquiry to be a foster carer in November 2016 as she was interested in fostering unaccompanied asylum seeking children (UASC). The Council has said that it advised Ms X when she made her initial enquires that her application may be fast tracked as four UASC required foster placements.
  2. The Council’s process for a person to become a foster carer is in two stages. The first stage involves an initial interview and a three day training course. The second stage is the Council’s assessment of the applicant’s suitability to be a foster carer. This includes visits to the applicant, obtaining references and completing a report to be considered by the Fostering Panel. The Fostering Panel will then decide if the application should be approved. The Council’s factsheet for prospective foster carers says the application process takes about seven months.
  3. In December 2016 office A, a social worker, visited Ms X to carry out an initial interview. Ms X returned the initial profile and consents form in which Ms X named her referees. She attended the training course in January 2017 and the Council sent a formal application form to her on 6 February 2017.
  4. In March 2017 officer B, a social worker, visited Ms X to carry out identity checks for her and her daughter to undertake a disclose and barring service (DBS) check. There is no written record of her visit. Ms X has said officer B was hostile to her desire to foster UASC and said ‘what is wrong with our own’ and pressured her to be a general foster carer. Officer B disputes Ms X allegation and has said she would not take this approach. The Council has said officer B did explore with Ms X the possibility of offering respite for looked after children in the Council’s area as well as UASC as there was limited demand for placements for UASC.
  5. Ms X did not return the part 2 application form to the Council. Ms X eventually returned the form in May 2017. By this time the four UASC the Council had agreed to take had been placed.
  6. In an email to officer B she apologised for the delay in returning the form. She said this was because officer B’s comments during her visit took her by surprise and led her to thinking about whether she wanted to proceed. She said she only wanted to foster UASC. Officer B responded and advised there would not be regular placements required for UASC and her assessment may not be prioritised. She asked Ms X to confirm if she wanted to be assessed for providing respite for looked after children. Ms X confirmed she only wanted to foster UASC.
  7. The Council’s records note officer A requested a reference from one of Ms X’s referees. Ms X’s case was then reallocated to another social worker, officer C.
  8. Officer C visited Ms X in July 2017 to commence the assessment. Officer C’s record of her discussion with Ms X notes she informed her that one of her referee was unable to provide a reference. Ms X said she would provide details of another referee. Ms X later sent an email to officer C with details of another referee. In her email she said she had also attached documents she sent to officer B months ago to provide the background officer C was looking for.
  9. The Council’s records note officer C contacted one of Ms X’s referees asking for a reference on 19 July 2017. The next record is dated 1 October 2017 and notes checks with another local authority. The records also show the Council chased up references it first sought in May and July 2017. In November it sought a further check with another local authority.
  10. The Council has said officer C has diary entries for visits to Ms X on 24 July, 12 September, 19 October, 7 and 14 November. These are not included in the Council’s records. The Council has also said Ms X cancelled a number of visits but it had not recorded these. Ms X has said she did not cancel any appointments but the Council cancelled meetings on at least three occasions.
  11. The Council’s records note that Ms X’s assessment was completed pending checks, birth certificate, social media and national insurance number. Officer C asked Ms X to provide her birth certificate. Ms X did not have her birth certificate and was concerned she would have to take a day off work to obtain a copy. Ms X also considered she had provided sufficient evidence of her identity earlier in the process. An email from officer C to Ms X states she had discussed the matter with her manager who advised Ms X must provide a copy of her birth certificate and number in order for her assessment to be referred to the fostering panel. Officer C said she understood Ms X was frustrated but she had to follow due process and protocol. Ms X did not provide her birth certificate so the Council has not referred her assessment to the Fostering Panel.
  12. On 20 November 2017 Ms X sent an email to her local councillor attaching a letter of complaint. Her complaints included:
  • delays in completing her assessment,
  • officers requiring her to provide the same documents and details each time her case was reallocated;
  • she had to provide an excessive number of referees including every organisation she has worked for;
  • number of identify documents she had to provide including her birth certificate which was delaying the process;
  • officers tried to dissuade her from fostering UASC only and officer B asked her ‘what was wrong with our own’.
  1. The local councillor advised Ms X that she would pass on her concerns. The Council has a two stage complaints procedure.
  2. The Council’s records note the councillor contacted a senior officer on 20 December regarding the letter. Ms X chased a response on 21 December. The Council sent a letter to Ms X apologising that she had not received an acknowledgement and that she would receive a response to her complaint by 17 January 2018. The Council did not respond by 17 January as a key officer was on leave. However, the Council did not tell Ms X there would be a delay and she contacted it on 18 January to chase for a response.
  3. The Council responded to Ms X on 7 February 2018. It said officer B explored whether Ms X would foster Northumberland children due to the demand for foster carers and apologised if Ms X had found these discussions to be offensive. The Council acknowledged that its identity requirements exceed those required by law. It said it followed Coram Baaf assessment template known as form F. This requires the Council to see the applicant’s birth certificate and other documents to verify their identity. It said officer C would be aware of various challenges by managers and the fostering panel if the applicant did not present the birth certificate. So the Council’s processes require the applicant to provide a birth certificate.
  4. The Council also explained it requires a number of references so a cross section can be gathered. It also explained Ms X had to provide the details of eight referees as two of the referees proposed declined to give a reference.
  5. The Fostering Services (England) Regulations 2011 provides an applicant should provide the names and addressed of two referees. Coram Baaf guidelines say it is good practice for councils to obtain at least one additional reference and a reference from a current employer. The Council’s procedures require four references including from a current employer. The initial consents form requests the applicant to give names of individuals who would be happy to provide personal references. The Council has said a single applicant is only required to provide three referees. The form does not specify how many referees a single applicant should provide but provides space for the details of six referees. The form also asks for the details of the applicant’s employment history.
  6. Ms X requested her complaint be escalated to stage two of the Council’s complaints procedure. She complained the officer dealing with her stage one complaint did not contact her to discuss it, that officers had given her the incorrect form to complete so she had to fill in the correct form again which took significant time and the Council required excessive information from her, including her birth certificate, which is not required by other local authorities.
  7. The Council acknowledged Ms X’s complaint and said it would respond by 12 March. The Council did not respond by this date and Ms X contacted it to chase for a response. The Council advised her that it required more time to respond. It sent the response to Ms X on 23 March 2018. The Council did not uphold her complaint but it apologised for the delay in responding. The Council also acknowledged that the process had taken longer than expected in part due to officer C working part time, annual leave and visits to Ms X needing to be rearranged.
  8. The Council’s records note that the learning from Ms X’s complaint was that all appointments and email correspondence should be uploaded onto its case management system. I note the record states Ms X’s complaint ended at stage one which is incorrect.
  9. In response to my enquiries the Council has acknowledged it should have contacted Ms X to let her know there would be delays in responding to her complaint at both stage one and stage two of its process. It now monitors complaint handling to ensure deadlines are not missed. If a delay is unavoidable the Council now ensures it notifies complainants of the delay and the reasons. The Council is also looking to include training for councillors about complaint handling.
  10. The Council has also acknowledged that it would have been better for officers dealing with Ms X’s stage one and stage two complaints to have discussed the complaint with her. It will take this point on board for future complaint handling.

My assessment

Complaint about the Council requiring an excessive amount of information

  1. The Council is not at fault in requiring Ms X to submit her birth certificate as part of its assessment requirements. Councils can set their own requirements as to the information it requires applicants to provide and this can be over and above the statutory requirements. The Council has explained it uses Coram Baaf assessment as it considers it to be good practice. This requires the applicant to provide their birth certificate. Ms X has said other councils also use the Coram Baaf assessment. But this is not evidence of fault by the Council. As I say above, it is for the Council to decide the level of information it requires. So the Council was not at fault in asking Ms X to provide her birth certificate.
  2. But the Council would have been aware earlier in the process that Ms X had not provided her birth certificate. It would therefore have been better for the Council to have asked Ms X to produce it earlier in the process. Had it done so Ms X could have made arrangements to obtain a copy of her birth certificate without delaying the assessment process. However, I am mindful that it is a usually simple and quick process to obtain a copy of a birth certificate so any delay at this stage would have been short.
  3. The Council’s initial consents form lacked clarity regarding the number of referees it required Ms X to provide. The Council has said Ms X only needed to provide three referees. Ms X says the Council asked for six referees. The initial consents form did not clearly indicate the number an applicant needed to provide. Officer C’s record of her visit in July suggests Ms X was asked to provide a further referee when named referees could not provide a reference. But Ms X had provided six referees so this should not have been necessary. Furthermore, the Council’s procedures state four referees are required. The Council no longer uses the initial consents/skills to foster form. It now uses the Coram Baaf form F which clearly sets out how many referees are required so the Council has addressed the lack of clarity regarding the number of referees required.
  4. The Council has said Ms X was asked to provide details of her employment history but it did not ask her to provide references from them. The initial consents form asks the applicant to provide employment history but it does not specifically ask the applicant to provide references from all past employers. However, Ms X has said the Council explicitly asked her to provide full contact details for all her employers to enable it to contact them which delayed the process. This contradicts the Council’s position and I cannot say whose position is correct without further investigation. But I will not investigate the matter further as it would be disproportionate to any injustice caused to Ms X, and the outcome I could achieve for her, to do so.

Failed to keep a record of the information provided by Ms X

  1. The Council’s records are poor. There is no comprehensive record of the information it obtained from Ms X at stages 1 and 2 of the fostering assessment process or the information sent to her, including which form was sent. The records do not document all the visits to Ms X. Nor do the records document appointments cancelled by either the Council or Ms X. The Council should have a comprehensive record of its contact with Ms X during the application and assessment process including the information and documents sent to her and provided by her.
  2. Ms X’s email of July 2017 to officer C shows she resent background documents provided to officer B. The Council has said it does not have a record of any background documents provided by Ms X. It has a record that she provided documents for the DBS check as this had to be undertaken again. Ms X’s email to officer C did not refer to documents for the DBS check so it seems to me that she was required to send in other documents previously sent. Ms X has said she also had to repeat information about her history and personal life each time her case was reallocated to a new social worker which she found intrusive. The Council should ensure it has a comprehensive record of its contact with applicants during the application and assessment process, including information provided orally.

Incorrect form sent to Ms X

  1. There is no record of the form sent to Ms X to complete so I cannot know if Council sent an out of date form to her. But I will not investigate this matter further as I do not consider that Ms X would have been caused significant enough injustice by having to complete the form again to warrant pursuing the matter.

Pressured Ms X to foster children other than UASC.

  1. There is evidence to show officer B discussed Ms X fostering children other than UASC both at her visit to Ms X and by email. Officer B was not at fault in exploring the options available to Ms X, including fostering other children. The emails between officer B and Ms X were an explanation that placements could be limited and the consequences of that. So I do not consider the emails show officer B was pressurising Ms X to take other foster children.
  2. I cannot, on balance, come to any conclusion as to whether officer B pressurised Ms X at her visit or said ‘what is wrong with our own’. In her email to officer B, Ms X cites her comments at the visit as a reason why she did not return the forms. But I have no means of independently establishing what officer B said or the tone of the conversation between Ms X and officer B.

Overall delay in the process

  1. Ms X’s assessment took approximately 11 months from when she had her first home visit to the assessment being ready to submit to the fostering panel pending Ms X providing her birth certificate. This is clearly much longer than the Council’s estimate of seven months as set out in its factsheet to prospective foster carers. There were times when the assessment did not progress quickly. The reallocation of Ms X’s case from officer B to officer C caused a slight delay. The Council has acknowledged it delayed in chasing up references it sought in May and July 2017. But the Council has said officer C’s diary shows she carried out a number of visits between September and November to progress Ms X’s assessment. Ms X did not return the forms by two months while she considered if she wanted to proceed. So, while the assessment took longer than seven months, I do not consider there is evidence of unreasonable delay by the Council overall.
  2. Ms X has said the Council cancelled a number of visits and she did not cancel any as the Council claims and this added to the time taken to complete the assessment. But I will not pursue this matter as further investigation will not establish if Ms X or the Council cancelled appointments.

Delay in dealing with Ms X’s complaint

  1. The Council has acknowledged it delayed in dealing with Ms X’s complaint. The local councillor did not pass Ms X’s to the Council for a month which prevented the Council from dealing with the complaint within its timescales. The Council did not meet its deadlines for responding to Ms X’s stage one and stage two complaints. The Council has explained why it could not meet the deadlines. But, as it has acknowledged, the Council should have notified Ms X of the delay in advance of the deadline for response. This would have prevented Ms X from having to chase the Council for the responses.
  2. Ms X also considers the Council’s stage two investigation should have been considered by a person who does not work for the authority in order for the investigation to be independent. Ms X’s stage two complaint was considered by an officer from a different department so I am satisfied the investigation was independent. There is no requirement for the Council to seek an investigator from outside the organisation. But, as the Council has acknowledged, it would have been better for the officer’s responding to Ms X’s complaints to have discussed matters with her to have discussed Ms X’s complaint with her.

Injustice to Ms X

  1. Ms X was caused frustration and avoidable time and trouble by the delays in the Council’s handling of her complaint and failing to inform her that its responses to her complaint would be delayed. So a reasonable and proportionate remedy is for the Council to apologise to Ms X for the frustration and avoidable time and trouble caused by the delay in the councillor passing on her complaint and failing to notify her of the delays in dealing with her complaint.

Agreed action

  1. That the Council:
      1. Sends a written apology to Ms X for the frustration and avoidable time and trouble caused by the delay in the councillor passing on her complaint and the Council failing to notify her of the delays in dealing with her complaint.
      2. Reviews its record keeping for fostering applications and assessments to ensure the Council retains all the key information on the application including documents sent to and received from the applicant, details of all contact with the applicant including records of visits and key information provided at the visits. The Council has said it is has commenced work on strengthening internal processes but it should provide evidence to the Ombudsman of the action taken to improve its practice in this area.
      3. Reviews its complaints procedures to ensure it notifies complainants of any delay in responding to their complaint and consider the circumstances of when it should contact complainants to discuss their complaints when responding to them and explain its complaint handling requirements to councillors. The Council has said it is reviewing its complaints procedures and carrying out training for staff and members. The Council should provide evidence to the Ombudsman of the action it will take to improve its practice in this area.
  2. The Council should take the action at recommendation a) within one month of my final decision. It should take the action at recommendation b), and c) within three months of my final decision.

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Final decision

  1. There is no evidence of unreasonable delay by the Council in progressing Ms X’s application to become a foster carer. The Council’s application form lacked clarity about how many referees Ms X needed to provide but the Council has addressed this by introducing a new form. The Council delayed in dealing with Ms X’s complaint which caused frustration and avoidable time and trouble to her which the Council has agreed to apologise for. I have therefore completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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