The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X complained that she was bullied and intimidated by her social worker and decisions the Council made about foster care arrangements were wrong. We did not find there was fault in the way the Council reached the decisions she complains about.
- Ms X is a foster carer. She complains that she was bullied, intimidated and harassed by her supervising social worker.
- She complained the social worker inappropriately removed two children from her care and pressured her to agree to a new placement for another foster child who had been with her long-term.
- Ms X also complains the social worker’s report and recommendations for a review panel were unjustified.
- Ms X complains the situation was stressful and caused financial hardship. She also considered the review panel’s decision to limit her registration was unreasonable as a result.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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 spoke to Ms X about her complaint. I considered Ms X’s complaint and a number of emails and documents she provided. I asked the Council for information and I considered its response to the complaint.
- Ms X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered the comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- Ms X has been a foster carer for some years. In September she raised a complaint about her supervising social worker (referred to in this statement as Officer A). She complained Officer A had been unsupportive and had bullied, intimidated and harassed her. Officer A had then wrongly tried to remove a long-term foster child (D) during his exams and she had removed two younger children (B & C) after telling Ms X she was being put forward for their long term care. She stated Officer A had told her this was because she did not think she could cope with B & C as teenagers.
- Ms X also complained that the social worker had inappropriately called her ex-husband to ask his view of Ms X as a foster carer. Following a report from Officer A, Ms X’s registration was changed to remove long term placements which she disagreed with. Ms X also considered the Council should not have allowed Officer A to author a report to a fostering panel about Ms X given her complaint.
- Ms X provided comments from a representative she took to meetings which included Officer A. The representative supported Ms X’s complaint.
- In response to Ms X’s complaint, the Council acknowledged that she had been upset by the way Officer A had spoken to her and she had been left hurt and distressed. However, Officer A’s team manager noted that it had been necessary to have difficult conversations with Ms X. She considered Officer A had acted professionally. The Council did not consider there was evidence Officer A behaved unreasonably but it accepted the way Officer A spoke to Ms X may have exacerbated the situation. Ms X’s supervising social worker was later changed. The Council conceded that it may have been beneficial to Ms X to change her supervising social worker earlier. It partially upheld this part of the complaint.
- The Council acknowledged it was a distressing time for Ms X when it was considering a new placement be found for D. However, it noted that the decision about D had been made by D’s social worker and their manager and not Officer A. It noted Ms X had expressed her own concerns about continuing to care for D in September 2018 when the matter was discussed. This followed her separation from Mr X. The Council understood Ms X changed her view subsequently, but the decision was taken to move D for his best interests and in view of concerns Ms X raised about her safety. It did not uphold this complaint.
- The Council stated it had been clear that B & C were placed with Ms X as a short-term bridging placement. It stated Officer A had made it known that Ms X wanted to provide a long-term home for B & C. However, there was no evidence Ms X was led to believe this would be made permanent. It noted, despite her disappointment, Ms X had been professional and committed to ensure the children had a smooth and structured move. It did not uphold this part of the complaint.
- The Council did not agree that it was inappropriate to contact Mr X as part of the review of Ms X’s foster care. The Council stated Mr X’s views were considered valid as a part of the household and his views did not have a negative impact on the review.
- The Council acknowledged there had been delays in dealing with Ms X’s complaint and it apologised for this.
- D had been with Mr and Ms X for some years as a long-term foster placement.
- In March 2018 there was an issue with D. He showed aggression at home that resulted in the police being called. He was detained overnight and the Council found a temporary alternative placement for him because Mr and Ms X were concerned about his behaviour and unsure whether they could continue to care for him. After four weeks, D returned to live with Mr and Ms X but there were continuing tensions. The Council documented various concerns about D’s placement and issues that had arisen.
- There is evidence that Mr and Ms X and D went to placement support sessions to help them work through some difficulties. During July 2018 the Council was also discussing with Ms X and D whether his placement with Mr and Ms X could continue as there were concerns about arguments in the home.
- In July 2018 the Council also noted Mr X may not be living at home any longer.
- The Council arranged a meeting to discuss their concern that Mr and Ms X’s relationship may have broken down and the impact that this had on the family. The meeting took place on 25 September 2018. Ms X told us she was unclear what was to be discussed ahead of this meeting, and felt ambushed.
- At the meeting Ms X advised the Council that, unfortunately, she had separated from her husband. Ms X stated she felt intimidated by D and felt she could no longer care for him. It was agreed that B & C would move to their long-term placement during half term. The notes reflect that Ms X’s complaint about Officer A was discussed but Officer A’s level of empathy towards Ms X was subjective. The notes stated it was considered Ms X’s distrust of the fostering service from past issues had meant Ms X and Officer A had not been able to build a trusted relationship.
- The actions from the meeting were for the Council would find D another placement. The notes explain the reasons for this. There would also be a review of Ms X’s competency as a foster carer. This would both include strengths and concerns. This would be presented to a panel. Mr X would be de-registered and his views would be sought. The notes stated Ms X accepted the outcome of the complaint investigation and would not be taking it further.
- Ms X told me she felt under pressure at the meeting and following the meeting Ms X emailed the Council to state that she did not want D to move. She also remained unhappy about the complaint she made.
- A critical case discussion took place involving several social workers and a Team Manager in November 2018 where it was decided D should move placement.
- The Council initially put paperwork to the panel in preparation for a December panel meeting. It acknowledged D was doing his A levels but proposed a new placement nearby so that D could complete his studies and still have contact with Ms X if they both wanted this. However, D had expressed a strong wish to remain with Ms X. Ms X obtained advocacy for D about the issue. His advocate helped him present a report to the Council at his ‘looked after child’ review in January 2019. In the report D supported Ms X and stated he considered she was his family and it was the best place for him. He considered she had been treated badly by social services.
- As a result of D's representations, the panel asked that the issue was reconsidered and it postponed the panel meeting. After taking account of D’s views the Council changed its view about whether D should move placements. D remained with Ms X.
- Ms X’s views were put to the panel in a foster carer’s report. Ms X explained to the panel her view that she had not been well supported with difficult behaviours that children in her care exhibited. Ms X felt that she worked and went over and above a Level 3 foster carer. Ms X was also concerned that the discussions around D’s move happened while he was studying for his A levels and as a result the disruption and stress that this caused could have been avoided.
B & C
- Documents on the Council’s files from late 2017 referred to the placement of B & C with Mr and Ms X. They stated the Council was looking to find a short-term bridging placement for them and Ms X had agreed to taken them on a temporary basis only. However, the Council stated it was possible the placement could become long term foster care if adoptive parents could not be found. Ms X told the Council she would be prepared to make the placement long term if the B & C were a good fit. It is clear that in addition to Mr and Ms X, other options for the permanent placement of the children were being considered from an early stage.
- Notes of a meeting about the children’s permanent future in early 2018 noted Ms X was experienced and caring and her home could accommodate the children if no adopters were found. The notes at that point acknowledged Ms X would like to provide a long-term home for them in the event that adoption did not proceed.
- Further permanency meetings were held about B & C in March and July 2018. Throughout their placement with Ms X, she drove B & C a considerable distance to school. B & C had remained at their old school to give them some continuity. There were concerns about the impact that the long commute to school was having on them. The Council also explained a number of other reservations about B & C remaining with Mr and Ms X long term. Following the permanence meeting in July 2018, the Council told Mr and Ms X that B & C would not be placed long term with her and other placements were being pursued.
- Following a further permanence meeting in September 2018 B & C were found an alternative long-term home.
The social worker’s report to panel/panel decision
- I have read Officer A’s report to the panel. I have not repeated the contents here. However, the report included concerns that Ms X had not told the fostering service about her separation when changes of circumstances should be disclosed. It noted Ms X has had a difficult year. The report summarises concerns about the way Ms X handled issues that occurred in relation to D. It also gave examples of Ms X’s strengths and noted her commitment to the children in her care. It stated she had tried very hard to meet D’s needs but in Officer A’s view Ms X struggled to manage some of the more challenging teenage behaviours. D’s social worker also provided a report which noted some concerns regarding D’s placement.
- The recommendation to the panel was that Ms X’s registration was changed to Level 2 for short-term and emergency placements, rather than long term foster care. Ms X explained to me that she disagreed with Officer A’s recommendations and she felt Officer A had made them because of the complaint she made against her.
- She also told me she considered the panel members did not consider her comments properly at the panel meeting and she considered the decision they reached about her registration was wrong. The minutes of the panel meeting record Ms X’s views and those put forward by her representative as well as reviewing the reports from social workers.
Was there fault by the Council
- I found there was no evidence that the Council had misled Ms X about B & C’s long-term placement. The evidence shows that their placement was stated to be short-term from the outset, with only the potential for a later change to long term foster care. There is evidence that Officer A passed on Ms X’s wish to make the placement long term. However, the Council was entitled to reach a decision to place B & C elsewhere. This is a professional judgement for social workers to take and I have seen no fault in the way this was considered.
- I understand Ms X’s concern that the Council proposed D moved while he was preparing for his A Levels. However, the Council explained the reasons for its decision. There had been issues with D’s placement in the proceeding months and changes in Ms X’s circumstances. There is evidence the Council had taken into account D was studying for his A levels, but it remained of the view that D should move in everyone’s best interests. The decision to propose and consider D’s move was not fault by the Council. Again, this is a professional judgement that officers must take in what were difficult circumstances. I also note that the Council listened to D’s view and reversed this decision. While I recognise the period was upsetting for Ms X and D, this was not fault by the Council.
- The Council’s response to Ms X’s complaint acknowledged that, with hindsight, it could have changed Officer A for another social worker sooner. However, it was not obliged to do so.
- I recognise Ms X was upset and disagreed with Officer A’s judgements about B & C’s placement and D’s proposed move and in her recommendations to limit Ms X’s registration for foster care. However, these were not decisions that were taken by Officer A alone. Her report to the panel did set out strengths as well as issues with Ms X’s foster care. The Ombudsman is not able to determine whether Ms X or Officer A’s assessment of the situation was right or wrong. Our role is to consider whether there was fault in the way these decisions were made. I found that, although the decisions were upsetting for Ms X, there was no fault by the Council and the situation was explained adequately in the report to the panel. Ms X also had the opportunity to address the panel and to provide it with information.
- I recognise that Ms X disagreed with the panel’s decision to proceed with limiting her foster care registration. However, this was a decision the panel is entitled to reach.
- The Council accepted the way Officer A spoke to Ms X on occasions could have exacerbated the difficulties there were. However, I do not consider there is evidence Ms X was bullied or intimidated by Officer A. I note that the social worker sent emails to Ms X while she was recovering from an operation, but this does not provide evidence of bullying or harassment.
- I note that Ms X did not receive the minutes of the panel meeting promptly and she should have done. However, I do not consider this was significant as the process for challenging decisions is set out in the Council’s handbook.
- I recognise the situation has been upsetting for Ms X and that she will be disappointed, but I do not consider there was fault by the Council in respect of the decisions it reached. As a result, I have completed my investigation and closed my file.
- There was not fault by the Council.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman