The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complained about the way the Council managed a disruption meeting. We find fault by the Council which caused avoidable distress and uncertainty to Mr and Mrs X. The Council has already identified a number of service improvements and has agreed to apologise and make a financial payment to remedy the personal injustice caused to Mr and Mrs X.
- Mr X complains about the way the Council managed a disruption meeting. He says the meeting was held without him and his wife and they were unable to make verbal representation. He also disputes the contents of the minutes of the meeting.
- Mr X says they were denied the opportunity to make verbal representations at the meeting and have been caused avoidable distress and uncertainty.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
- When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.
- 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)
- 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.
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the information provided by Mr X and spoken to him about the complaint. I considered the Council’s comments on the complaint and the supporting documents it provided. I wrote to Mr X and the Council and invited their comments. I considered all the comments I received before making a final decision.
What I found
- The Council’s process states consideration should always be given to convening a disruption meeting for children whose placement has ended abruptly or on an unplanned basis and foster carers should be invited or asked to contribute to the meeting.
- The chairperson should ensure the circumstances leading to the disruption are properly reviewed and that all concerned are provided with opportunities to express their views freely. The chairperson should ensure minutes are taken, which must be circulated to all concerned.
- Mr and Mrs X had been foster carers for the Council since June 2017. In September 2017 they fostered two young children. In early May 2018 Mrs X told the Council that they wished to end the foster placement.
- A social worker carried out a review of the placement and produced a report. Mr and Mrs X subsequently disputed some of the negative comments contained within the report. The fostering panel acknowledged inconsistencies between the comments provided within the report, the independent reviewing officer’s report and Mr and Mrs X’s view.
- The Council arranged a post panel meeting for 27 July 2018 to discuss the differences. Following this a disruption meeting was scheduled for 18 September 2018, which was subsequently rescheduled to the 30 October 2018.
- On 2 October 2018 the Council wrote to Mr and Mrs X inviting them to the meeting. On 5 October 2018 Mrs X told the social worker that they were unable to attend the disruption meeting. On the same day the social worker sent an email to Mrs X stating “I will inform [the team manager] that that you are not available on 30 [October] for the meeting and will get back to you with any changes she proposes. Could you return tome the updated report and the placement ending form completed as well as the disruption meeting paperwork with your views included”. The social worker also sent an email to the team manager stating “I have received a call from [Mrs X} who had notified me that her and [Mr X] are unable to make it to the Disruption meeting convened for the 30th [October]. I have requested for her to make her views available for me to complete the report for the meeting”.
- On 17 October 2018 the social worker carried out a home visit. It is recorded that Mrs X showed the social worker the disruption meeting report that she had completed. Mrs X raised concerns about one line of the report that she was not happy with. Mrs X confirmed that she would not be attending the meeting or forwarding her views as it was pointless. The social worker advised that she would notify the panel of Mrs X’s decision.
- The disruption meeting took place on 30th October 2018 without Mr and Mrs X
- On 30 November 2018 Mr and Mrs X attended a conference for foster carers. They spoke to the social worker and said they were awaiting a new date for the disruption meeting. The social worker told them the meeting had already taken place.
- Mr X received a copy of the minutes of the disruption meeting in mid-January 2019.
Mr X’s complaint
- On 29 April 2019 Mr X complained to the Council about the disruption meeting. Mr X said that it was held without him and his wife being present and was dishonest.
- Mr X said that following the email from the social worker on 5 October 2019, they were firmly of the opinion that a new date for the meeting would be arranged. Mr X said they were not informed that the meeting arranged for 30 October 2018 was going ahead. Mr X asked the Council to establish why the meeting was held without them.
- Mr X also said the minutes of the meeting were detrimental and misleading. Specifically, Mr X complained about the following three statements recorded in the minutes.
- [Mr and Mrs X’s] daughter left the family home for a period and it was at that point that the relationship deteriorated.
- It appeared [Mr and Mrs X] wanted the children but not to have involvement with parents, any parents not just [a foster child]
- With regards to family contact the minutes stated “…nor did carers wish to speak to family members”
The Council’s response Mr X’s complaint
- On 20 June 2019 the Council met with Mr and Mrs X to discuss their complaint. The Council responded to the complaint at stage one of its corporate complaints procedure on 6 August 2019. A further response at stage one was made on 21 November 2019. On 29 April 2020 the Council responded to the complaint at stage two of its corporate complaints’ procedure.
- In its response the Council said that foster carers should always be invited to disruption meetings. The Council explained the social worker and Mr and Mrs X had different recollections of what was said during the home visit on 17 October 2018 but acknowledged the email sent to Mrs X by the social worker on 30 October 2019 may have given the impression that she would get back to Mr and Mrs X with new dates for the meeting. The Council explained that the social worker did not request a new date for the meeting and therefore it was of the view that Mr and Mrs X did not want to attend.
- The Council said:
“‘I note that you disagree with my conclusion but as there were no witnesses present at that visit, and I am unable to further explore [the social worker’s] understanding or interpretation as she has left the Local Authority, I cannot provide further comment and can only deduce that there was some form of misunderstanding or miscommunication. I have no reason to believe that [the social worker] wilfully gave false information or that the meeting went ahead without you via dishonesty, but I am sorry that this is the way you felt”.
- As part of its stage two investigation the Council contacted the chair of the disruption meeting. The chair confirmed that ultimately it was his decision the meeting should go ahead. The chair was not aware Mr and Mrs X had informed the Council they could not attend the meeting. However, he said it was not uncommon for foster carers not to attend and there was no imperative for foster carers to attend.
- In response to the contents of the minutes of the disruption meeting the Council explained the minutes were not a verbatim record and consisted of notes rather than formal minutes. The Council and the chair of the meeting agreed that Mr and Mrs X were portrayed in a “negative light” and the minutes did not distinguish opinions from statements of fact and did not identify who expressed particular opinions.
- The Council identified a number of learning points and actions in how the disruption meeting process could be improved, including:
- invitations and foster carers’ replies will go directly from and to the officer responsible for making meeting arrangements on behalf of the chair. This is to ensure that it is the foster carer that replies directly to the invitation leaving no room for possible miscommunication or misinterpretation.
- a review of the disruption meeting process including when meetings take place and how they are administered and documented.
- The Council confirmed it would update its records to reflect Mr and Mrs X’s comments and all complaint correspondence. The Council apologised and offered Mr and Mrs X the opportunity to submit further views on the issues discussed at the disruption meeting and assured them that they would be placed on their file and “given full and proportionate consideration”.
The Council’s response to the Ombudsman
- The Council told the Ombudsman the social worker emailed Mrs X on the 5 October 2018 and requested that they complete and return the disruption meeting paperwork with their views included. The Council’s records show that during the home visit, Mrs X showed the social worker completed sections of the form for the meeting but said she would not be attending the meeting or forwarding her views as it was pointless. Mrs X was advised that the panel would be notified accordingly.
- With regards to the contents of the minutes of the meeting, Mr X complained specifically about three statements. The Council said it found fault with aspects of the notes, made an overall conclusion, and identified areas for improvement. The Council did not investigate each statement individually due to, limitations in the way the meeting was recorded, the social worker had left the local authority and because considerable time had passed since the meeting took place.
Was there fault leading to injustice?
- There is a conflict of views between Mr and Mrs X and the social worker about attending the disruption meeting. When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened. The Council is of the view that Mrs X informed the social worker they would not be attending the meeting. However, it accepts the email sent by the social worker may have implied that she would get back to Mr and Mrs X with new dates for the meeting. This was also Mr and Mrs X’s understanding. The Council’s records show the social worker did not request a new meeting and the chair was not aware they could not attend. On balance, I agree with Mr and Mrs X’s view that the email suggested the meeting would be rescheduled. The miscommunication was fault and meant that Mr and Mrs X did not attend the meeting. I understand that Mr and Mrs X consider the fault was deliberate however I have found no evidence to support these claims.
- The Council has already apologised and offered Mr and Mrs X the opportunity to further document and submit their views on the issues discussed at the meeting. This document would be place on Mr and Mrs X’s file. I welcome this proposal by the Council however this does not remedy the uncertainty and distress caused to Mr and Mrs X by not being involved in the discussions that took place at the time.
- It is always difficult to come to any conclusion about the conduct of individuals and context of discussions at a meeting where the investigator was not present. The minutes of the meeting do not evidence who made specific comments and why. The Council’s records of the meeting are “notes” and not verbatim therefore I cannot resolve Mr X’s complaint about the three statements he said were dishonest and misleading. I appreciate Mr and Mrs X will be disappointed however the lack of evidence means that I cannot reach any clear and safe conclusions.
- I find the Council failed to keep clear, robust, and accurate records of the meeting. This was fault. I appreciate that Mr and Mrs X were distressed at what they perceived as detrimental to them personally and as foster carers. The Council has apologised to Mr and Mrs X. I also find the Council was also a fault for failing to send a copy of the minutes to Mr and Mrs X until mid-January 2019, 10 weeks after the meeting took place.
- Our financial remedies for non-quantifiable financial loss are symbolic payments, which serve as an acknowledgement of the distress or difficulties complainants have been put through.
- The Council has agreed to my recommendations and within four weeks of my final decision will::
- apologise in writing to Mr and Mrs X;
- pay Mr and Mrs X £500 to recognise the distress and uncertainty caused by the faults identified in this statement; and
- provide the Ombudsman with evidence of the action taken by the Council to improve the disruption meeting process, as explained in paragraph 27.
- I have found fault causing injustice to Mr and Mrs X. The Council has agreed to my recommendations and I have completed my investigation on this basis.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman