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Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council (19 010 797)

Category : Children's care services > Fostering

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 20 Mar 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr and Mrs X complained that the Council contacted another local authority and shared false allegations about them. The Ombudsman finds no fault with the Council’s decision. However, there was fault in the way the information was shared. The Council has already taken reasonable steps to remedy this.

The complaint

  1. Mr and Mrs X complain that the Council wrongly contacted another local authority (Council 2) and shared false allegations about them.
  2. They say because of this Council 2 withdrew their fostering application and this has restricted their ability to foster in the future.

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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. 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)
  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. 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. I considered Mr and Mrs X’s complaint and spoke to Mrs X on the telephone. I made enquiries of the Council and considered its response and the documents it provided. I considered relevant legislation and guidelines.
  1. I sent Mr and Mrs X and the Council a copy of my draft decision and invited their comments before issuing my final decision.

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What I found

  1. Statutory guidance ‘Working Together to safeguard children’ (March 2015, updated 2018) says “Practitioners should be proactive in sharing information as early as possible to help identify, assess and respond to concerns about the safety and welfare of children, whether this is when problems are first emerging, or where a child is already known to local authority’s children social care (e.g. they are being supported as a child in need or have an child protection plan). Practitioners should be alert to sharing important information about any adults with whom that child has contact, which may impact the child’s safety or welfare”
  2. The guidance says that practitioners should wherever possible seek consent to share personal information and be open and honest with the individual as to why, what, how and with whom their information will be shared. It says practitioners should seek consent where an individual may not expect their information to be passed on. Information may be shared without consent if a practitioner has reason to believe that there is good reason to do so, and that the sharing of information will enhance the safeguarding of a child in a timely manner.

What happened in this case

  1. This chronology includes key events in this case and does not cover everything that happened.
  2. Mr and Mrs X were registered with an independent foster agency (Agency 1). Mr and Mrs X began fostering two siblings, Child Q and Child Z in September 2014.
  3. On 2 April 2018, there was an incident with Child Q and Mr and Mrs X asked that he was removed from their care immediately. Child Q went to respite placement the next day. Child Z’s placement was terminated in July 2018.
  4. The Council completed end of placement reports for Child Q and Child Z. The reports were sent to Agency 1 in July and August. The reports detailed a number of concerns summarised as follows:
  • Lack of warmth shown towards Child Q and Child Z prior to the incident of 2 April 2018;
  • Child Q presented with insufficient clothing which was mostly too small for him;
  • The children were given £20 for their birthday;
  • Child Q left the placement with no savings;
  • Mr and Mrs X had not contributed to the children’s life story book;
  • When Chid Z left the placement Mr and Mrs X sent a bag of paperwork with her. This contained information about Child Q and Child Z and children from other local authorities;
  • Lack of leisure activities and days out as a family.
  1. The Council said that that the carers needed to be reassessed and that “the family need time to refocus as a family and placing another vulnerable child in this home may be harmful at this time”.
  2. Mr and Mrs X terminated their contract with Agency 1 and applied to become foster carers with Council 2.
  3. On 18 December 2018 Child Z told her foster carer that she had been sexually abused by Child Q whilst living with Mr and Mrs X. The Council held a strategy meeting two days later to consider the allegations and to agree the next steps. It was agreed that a referral would be made to the Local Authority Designated Officer, however because the children were no longer in the care of Mr and Mrs X it was decided that the information about Mr and Mrs X should be shared with Agency 1 and Council 2.
  4. The Council says it was aware that Mr and Mrs X’s application to be foster carers would be considered by Council 2 fostering panel in April 2019. Therefore, any relevant information needed to be provided by March 2019.
  5. In February 2019, Officer 1 made contact with Council 2 and said that the Council held information which would be helpful to the fostering panel. Council 2 contacted SW1 and concerns about the children’s placement with Mr and Mrs X was shared.
  6. On the 4 April 2019 Mr and Mrs X complained to the Council. The Council investigated the complaint at stage 2 of its corporate complaints procedure. The Council summarised Mr and Mrs X’s complaint as follows:
  • The SW1 acted vindictively in actively contacting Council 2 to share information;
  • That the information provided to Council 2 was unfounded and or untrue;
  • Mr and Mrs X had not been aware of many of the concerns prior to them being shared with Council 2.
  1. The Council did not uphold Mr and Mrs X’s complaint and said that the information sharing with Council 2 was not intended to be malicious. It said the actions of the Council including SW1 “were taken under instructions following a strategy meeting and in accordance with the Children’s Act 1989 and 2004”. However, the Council acknowledged that there was fault in the way the information was shared. The Council said:
  • A written request for information should have been requested and submitted by Council 2;
  • The method of sharing information was not secure;
  • Some of the information shared was of outstanding concerns that arose following the termination of the placement of Child Q and Child Z and if the Council deemed it necessary to share the information with Council 2 then it should have been with the caveat that this required corroboration/further investigation.
  1. The stage 2 response explained that the information shared with Council 2 was mostly available in the end of placement reports submitted to Agency 1. The Council was of the view that Agency 1 would have discussed the concerns with Mr and Mrs X. Agency 1 confirmed that the reports were not shared with Mr and Mrs X however the supervising social worker raised some concerns during supervision. The Council confirmed that as part of the investigation in the complaint it had provided Mr and Mrs X with a redacted copy of both reports and had invited their comments.
  2. The stage 2 response made the following recommendations:
  • That Mr and Mrs X’s written response to the concerns raised within the end of placement reports would be logged alongside the reports;
  • Notification to the Council’s data protection team in respect of the Council’s alleged non-compliance with information sharing processes;
  • Re-issuing/revision of information sharing processes with staff/managers;
  • Advise Council 2 that the information shared by the Council lacked context and/or was uncorroborated; given this ask if they are assured that their assessment was fully informed;
  • Advise Council 2 that should Mr and Mrs X wish to pursue their application as foster carers, that they (Council 2) request full case file access from the Council and an update on the information/concerns that it provided previously.

Analysis

  1. The role of the Ombudsman is to consider whether there was fault in the way the Council made its decision to share information with Council 2 and the process through which it shared that information.
  2. Mr and Mrs X strongly disagree with the decision to share information with Council 2. However, I have found no fault in the way the Council reached this decision. The Children’s Act 1989 and 2004 and Working Together guidance makes it clear that all organisations working with children a have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Following the incident in April 2018, the Council’s records show that it had concerns covering a range of issues about Child Q and Child Z’s placement with Mr and Mrs X. I have also reviewed the record of the strategy meeting held in December 2018. The allegation made by Child Z covers the period of the placement with Mr and Mrs X. Therefore, I do not find fault in the Council’s decision making here.
  3. Mr and Mrs X said they were not aware of many of the concerns prior to then being shared with Council 2. I have reviewed the end of placement reports and agree with the Council’s view that most of the concerns were presented in the reports and submitted to Agency 1. However, as the Council has recognised some of the information shared was of outstanding concerns that arose following the termination of the placement of Child Q and Child Z. These concerns were not included in the end of placement reports. Therefore, it would have been good practice for the Council to speak to Mr and Mrs X before sharing the information with Council 2. The Council has already taken steps to address and invited Mr and Mrs X to make comments about the information during the complaint process. In addition to this the Council has confirmed that it has completed the recommendations made by the stage 2 investigation. I am satisfied with this.
  4. The Council identified that there was fault in the way officers shared information with Council 2 and has taken action to remedy this. I therefore do not intend to investigate this any further.

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Final decision

  1. I find that while it would have been good practice for the Council to inform Mr and Mrs X of its intention to share information with Council 2, they have had the opportunity to comment on the end of placement reports and additional concerns throughout the complaint process. I recognise that Mr and Mrs X were greatly distressed by the decision to share information with Council 2. It was especially difficult for them because they had been fostering for many years and were not aware of some of the concerns about them. But based on the information I have obtained I do not find fault in the way the Council reached its decision.
  2. I have completed my investigation on this basis.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. We investigate complaints about councils and certain other bodies. We cannot investigate the actions of an independent fostering agency.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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