Northamptonshire County Council (18 010 937)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 08 May 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs B complained the Council failed to offer an appropriate remedy when it upheld the majority of complaints about how it had dealt with her as a foster carer. It is clear the failures in this case caused Mrs B and her husband significant distress and led to them having to go to time and trouble to pursue their complaint. An increased financial remedy and apology is satisfactory remedy for the injustice caused.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mrs B, complained about the remedy the Council offered for her upheld complaints and about its failure to uphold some of her complaints.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have not reinvestigated the complaints already upheld at stage two. For the upheld complaints my only consideration has been whether the remedy offered by the Council is satisfactory. For the three complaints which were only partially upheld before I began my investigation I have considered whether those complaints should have been fully upheld.

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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 Mrs B's comments;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
    • considered the detailed report and recommendations produced by the stage two investigating officer;
    • considered Mrs B’s comments on my draft decision; and
    • gave the Council an opportunity to comment 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 stage two investigator said there were unreasonable delays completing the long-term fostering assessment. The investigator noted the Council should complete assessments within three to six months. However, in this case the long-term fostering assessment began in June 2015 and was not complete in September 2016 when the social worker told Mrs B she would not be recommending her as a long-term foster carer.
  2. Mrs B raised concerns about the Council querying use of a bedroom for fostering when that had not been highlighted as an issue when they were first approved as short-term foster carers. The stage two investigator upheld the complaint. The stage two investigator noted the original foster carer assessment failed to refer to use of the converted bathroom as a bedroom and said that was a significant oversight. The stage two investigator also raised concerns about the Council not resolving the matter until more than 12 months after it was initially raised.
  3. Mrs B says the Council breached her and her husband’s confidentiality by discussing their long-term fostering assessment with foster carers for the sibling of the child they were caring for. Mrs B says she only knew about that visit when the other foster carer spoke to her about it. The stage two investigator did not find a breach of confidentiality but upheld the complaint because the Council had not treated Mrs B the same as the other foster carer. That is because the Council included the other foster carer in a matching panel for the child residing with Mrs B but had not included Mrs B in similar meetings for the sibling. The Council had therefore not treated the two foster carers the same. The stage two investigator also said the Council should have told Mrs B about the visit either before it took place or as soon as possible afterwards.
  4. Mrs B complained the Council failed to explain why it did not recommend her as a long-term foster carer for the child she was caring for on a short-term basis. Mrs B also said the Council did not send the assessment to panel and had therefore not followed the right procedures. The stage two investigator criticised the Council for telling Mrs B about the recommendation over the phone rather than in person and for doing that before the manager had signed off the report. The Council also failed to refer the assessment to panel. That prevented Mrs B making her representations and appealing any decision.
  5. Mrs B complained the Council raised historical issues again in September 2016 which it had addressed in March 2016. Mrs B therefore says the Council misled her. The stage two investigator noted further concerns had been raised following an unannounced visit in August 2016. She therefore said the Council was not only considering matters dealt with at the March 2016 meeting. The stage two investigator upheld the complaint though. That is because the Council decided not to go ahead with a review meeting in June 2016. The investigator said this gave a mixed message to Mrs B and her husband as it suggested the Council no longer had concerns. The stage two investigator said the Council should have explained in person why it still had concerns.
  6. In a similar vein the stage two investigator upheld Mrs B’s complaint about the lack of clarity in communication from the Council. The stage two investigator again raised concerns about what happened following the meeting in March 2016. The investigator said recording progress in a review meeting in April 2016 and then cancelling the planned meeting in June 2016 gave a mixed message to Mrs B.
  7. Mrs B raised concerns about how the Council made its decisions on the information it had taken into account. In particular, Mrs B questioned how social workers had reached the conclusion she and her husband lacked emotional warmth. The stage two investigator upheld this complaint as she did not identify clear records showing concerns about lack of emotional warmth.
  8. Mrs B says the Council should have fully upheld her complaint about the way it carried out planning for the child to move to a new placement. Since I began my investigation the Council has now agreed to uphold this part of the complaint. That is because although the Council says it has some evidence of discussions with Mrs B about the proposed move, it did not actively consult her. I further note the Council did not put in place a timetable, as the looked after child review meeting recommended in October 2016. Failure to carry out appropriate planning is fault.
  9. Mrs B complained about the Council preventing the child having access to an advocate before he moved to a new placement. The stage two investigator upheld this complaint. The investigator raised concerns about social workers and managers resisting and misunderstanding the role of the advocate. The investigator noted visits to the child show the Council made him aware of his right to access advocacy.

Stage two recommendations

  1. The stage two investigator made the following recommendations:
    • she would have recommended a review of the reassessment process in fostering but noted the Council had made changes which made that recommendation unnecessary;
    • a clear division between the role of the fostering social worker in the support role and in their role as updating assessments for a change in approval is needed;
    • visits to foster carers should use a distinct approach so supervision does not evolve into an assessment and vice versa;
    • any foster carer assessment has to be written up and quality assured and signed off by a manager before any recommendations are shared with the foster carers;
    • training for social workers who supervise foster carers about how to undertake that task;
    • social workers and managers to consider accessing training on the role of the advocate;
    • training for officers dealing with complaints about how to respond to and manage those complaints.
  2. The stage two investigator also made the following observations:
    • supervision notes did not evidence what support the Council had given Mrs B as foster carer;
    • the role of an advocate for children in care should be a basic right;
    • failing to undertake supervision visits between September and November 2016 when the child was in placement is unacceptable;
    • officers need to evidence concerns more coherently;
    • it is concerning the Council raised with the child the possibility of him remaining in Mrs B’s care on a long-term basis so early in the placement; and
    • the Council should give foster carers a clear message that any reassessment to inform the long-term care of a child is dependent on that assessment being positive. There was a suggestion in this case the assessment was a formality and a foregone conclusion.

Remedy offered/action taken by the Council

  1. The Council has:
    • offered Mrs B an apology and £400;
    • introduced a new method of approval when a short-term foster carer asks to be considered as a long-term foster carer. That is now through the review process which is a shorter process;
    • completed two-day training for all supervising social workers, practice managers and the team manager in the fostering team on supervising effectively;
    • ensured there is no longer a conflict in the role of assessment and supervision and support by ensuring assessment of approved carers takes place by the fostering assessment team;
    • decided to introduce a new electronic recording and database system which is planned for 2020. That includes a shared secure portal for foster carers to use including electronic supervision notes;
    • provided briefings for managers about learning from complaint;
    • provided voice of the child bite-size training; and
    • arranged for advocates to attend team meetings

Analysis of those complaints only partially upheld at stage two/new complaints presented to the Ombudsman

  1. Mrs B says the Council revisited a lot of the historical personal information during the long-term assessment which was not necessary and was not explained to her. The stage two investigator partially upheld this part of the complaint because the Council had failed to properly explain the need for a comprehensive assessment to Mrs B. However, the complaint was not fully upheld because the investigator’s view was that it was necessary for the assessment to be thorough. I understand the point the investigator made about the need for the assessment to be comprehensive and I do not disagree with that. However, the complaint as made by Mrs B was the Council had not explained why the second assessment revisited many of the issues considered when she was approved as short-term foster carer. The investigating officer found the Council at fault here. I agree with that conclusion because although the Council says the need for a comprehensive assessment was explained to Mrs B verbally there is no documentary evidence to show that is the case and Mrs B disputes that. In those circumstances I consider the complaint should have been fully upheld.
  2. Mrs B says the stage two investigator should have fully upheld her complaint about the social worker’s failure to discuss training needs with her and her husband. The stage two investigator partially upheld this part of the complaint as although there were failings on the Council’s part Mrs B also had a responsibility to sort out training. In comparison, Mrs B says the social worker is the one with the knowledge to identify any suitable training courses and it was for the social worker to tell her about that rather than for her to identify her own training needs. While I understand Mrs B’s point, the documentary evidence shows the Council provided Mrs B and her husband, along with other foster carers, a list of courses available and asked them to sign up to any courses they wanted to attend. So, while I agree it is appropriate for the social worker to discuss any specific training needs that have been identified I also agree with the stage two investigator that some of the responsibility for identifying courses falls to Mrs B. I therefore agree with the stage two investigator partially upholding this part of the complaint.
  3. Mrs B says the Council failed to provide an officer to support her on the day the child moved to a new placement. Mrs B say she had asked for that. The Council says it did not consider it appropriate for a third person to be present at such an emotional time. While I understand the Council’s point, Mrs B had asked for support on the day. If the Council did not consider it could provide that support it should have explained that to Mrs B. Failure to do that is fault.
  4. Mrs B also says the Council in effect placed her fostering on hold following the child's moved to a new placement. Mrs B believes that is the case because she says she received no contact from the Council between November 2016 and February 2017 when she is aware there were children available for fostering during that period. The evidence I have seen though satisfies me there was some communication with Mrs B between November 2016 and February 2017. That communication satisfies me the Council wanted to meet with Mrs B in January 2017 to discuss Mrs B's availability and criteria before the Council matched her and her husband with a child. I cannot criticise the Council for that.

Appropriate remedy

  1. I welcome the action the Council has taken to put in place the recommendations following the stage two investigation. I hope this will ensure the same issues do not happen again. It is clear to me though failure by the Council to follow the right process, particularly in relation to the completion of the long-term assessment, has caused a serious injustice to Mrs B. Not only was the Council’s communication around that assessment flawed, for the reasons I have already given, but Mrs B did not have an opportunity to challenge the assessment at panel as she should have done. Mrs B was also denied her right of appeal, had panel agreed with the assessment the social worker had completed. That is a serious injustice.
  2. Alongside that, it is clear Mrs B and her husband have suffered significant distress and upset during this period. She also had to engage with a long term assessment for much longer than she should have. While I am pleased to note the problems have not irreparably the damaged the relationship as Mrs B has been able to move on to a fulfilling role within foster care it is clear she has been left feeling unsupported by the Council and judged. I do not consider £400 a sufficient remedy for that injustice. Taking into account the serious injustice I refer to in the previous paragraph I recommend the Council pay Mrs B an additional £600, on top of the £400 I understand the Council has already paid and issue her a further apology.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my decision I recommend the Council:
    • issue a further formal apology to Mrs B;
    • pay Mrs B an additional £600, on top of the £400 the Council has already paid.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and uphold the complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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