The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs X complained the Council inappropriately placed children with complex needs into her and her husband’s foster care without providing the appropriate support or financial payment. We find the Council was not at fault in how it matched children to Mr and Mrs X’s care. However, we find the Council was at fault for delays in it holding and finalising their fostering review which delayed their opportunity to apply to be level four carers. The Council has agreed to increase the financial remedy already offered to reflect those delays.
- Mrs X complained the Council inappropriately placed children with complex needs into her and her husband’s foster care when they were generic foster carers. She said it failed to provide appropriate support and the correct level of financial payment for the placements.
- She said the impact upon them acting as these young peoples’ carers was challenging and they want financial recognition for the support they provided.
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)
- We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended). We have exercised our discretion to investigate this complaint, because Mrs X felt unable to complain previously because the Council was considering their deregistration as foster carers.
- 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 discussed the complaint with Mr and Mrs X.
- I made enquiries of the Council and considered its response.
- I have read Mr and Mrs X’s fostering records.
- I referred to the Council’s Foster Carers’ Handbook, and its policy and procedures for foster carer progression.
- Mrs X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
- The Council approves foster carers to look after a particular number of children within a specific age-range. This is known as their ‘matching preference’.
- Councils must complete at least annual reviews of foster carers. However, they may complete reviews more frequently where there are concerns or a significant change in the carers circumstances.
- The main purpose of the fostering review is to assess whether the carers and the household are still suitable to foster. It is also an opportunity for the foster carers to raise any issues with the fostering service.
- Fostering review meetings are completed by the Independent Fostering Review Officer. Where the proposal is to amend the terms of a foster carers approval, or deregister them, the review is then presented to Fostering Panel.
How the Council grades foster carers
- The Council has five levels of foster carers; these are entry level (level one) ; standard (level two); generic (level three); advanced (level four) and specialist (level five). Foster carers receive a higher fee as they progress up through the grades.
- The Council expects level three carers to look after children with ‘diverse and complex needs’. Level four foster carers are expected to be ‘very flexible’ in the children they care for. To progress to level four, the Council’s online procedure states foster carers must demonstrate the ‘willingness to work with children in the most complex and challenging circumstances’; be prepared to develop skills in working with young people whose significant issues may disrupt family life and accept children who may otherwise be in residential care.
The Council’s progression policy
- For a foster carer to progress from level three to level four the independent reviewing officer must have recommended an application to advanced level progression at the foster carers annual review.
- The carers must complete an application form and submit a portfolio of evidence to support their progression. The Council’s online procedures indicates they need a minimum of twelve months experience providing care for complex children at level three, however the 2019 policy states that is two years experiences.
- Mr and Mrs X have fostered for over a decade. They initially worked for an independent fostering agency (IFA) before moving to the Council in 2015.
- The Council approved Mr and Mrs X as generic foster carers, able to provide foster care for up to three children aged between 0 and 18 years of age. Mr and Mrs X had looked after Child A since 2015; they were a long-term placement.
- Mr and Mrs X complained to the Council at the end of 2016 about the fostering service. The Council met with Mr and Mrs X in January 2017 to discuss their complaint. In this meeting Mr and Mrs X said the Council were asking them to foster young people beyond their skills level and that the placements were not being matched properly. They asked about progression onto Level 4 as advanced carers, however the Council said that would mean “they would be approached to accept placements of children whose behaviour they have stated they cannot manage”.
- The following month Mr and Mrs X had supervision with their supervising social worker (SSW). The records state the SSW provided Mr and Mrs X the Council’s guidance for progression to level 4.
- During Easter 2017, the Council placed two young people with Mr and Mrs X in quick succession (Child B and Child C). Both young people were placed by the Emergency Duty Team. Mr and Mrs X voiced concerns about Child B’s placement. The Council offered additional support; however, the placement broke down after four days. Child C remained in Mr and Mrs X’s care.
- At the end of April 2017, the Council decided to suspend one of Mr and Mrs X’s placements, so they could only care for two children at a time. It brought forward Mr and Mrs X’s fostering review.
- Mr and Mrs X met with their SSW in April. In that supervision they said the Council provided incorrect information about the length of Child B’s placement; that Child B had been aggressive and disruptive; that they had no experience in caring for a child with autism, and that the Council should not have placed Child B and C in such quick succession of one another.
- The Council held the fostering review in May 2017. The minutes show the Council had concerns about Mr and Mrs X’s ability work in partnership. It identified several concerns about Mr and Mrs X, these included the difficulties they had experienced over Easter. The SSW did not support Mr and Mrs X’s progression to level 4. The minutes show the Council advised Mr and Mrs X they could access independent support.
- The fostering panel met in July 2017 to consider the recommended change in Mr and Mrs X’s approval. The fostering panel decided to defer for six months. It asked the Council to arrange an independent assessment to explore the difficulties that had developed between Mr and Mrs X and the Council and to consider whether they should continue as foster carers.
- In October 2017, Mr and Mrs X spoke to their SSW about becoming level 4 carers. They felt Child C’s care needs were too complex for a generic carer. In the supervision records the SSW referred to having previously given them the application form to complete.
- An independent social worker completed an assessment of Mr and Mrs X in October 2017. It identified that ‘errors’ by both Mr and Mrs X and the Council had contributed to the breakdown in the relationship. They recommended for Mr and Mrs X to continue as foster carers but with two placements instead of three. They said if a positive relationship could not be achieved, the Council would need to call an early review to reconsider its position.
- Mr and Mrs X’s relationship with the Council deteriorated further. The fostering panel met in February 2018. It considered the independent assessment and a further report from Mr and Mrs X’s SSW; that recommended Mr and Mrs X for deregistration.
- The fostering panel decided to defer. It said the Council had not identified which Fostering National Minimum Standards Mr and Mrs X had failed to meet to support its recommendation for deregistration.
- Around this time, Mr and Mrs X’s SSW left the Council and they were allocated a new social worker. This resulted in a gap of five months between supervision. The new SSW met with Mr and Mrs X in July 2018. They reported a deterioration in Child C’s behaviour that had resulted in an end to their placement.
- The Council held a fostering review meeting in October 2018 after it had reviewed the IFA file records for Mr and Mrs X. That meeting explored the difficulties between Mr and Mrs X and the Council over the previous 18 months. The reviewing officer felt the Council had placed Child B and C with Mr and Mrs X without giving them sufficient information about Child B, and that their requests for support at Easter 2018 had been wrongly interpreted by the Council. It noted that there was an overlap of one day between placements meaning the Council placed Child B despite Mr and Mrs X already having three places. One of these young people were missing. That review recommended Mr and Mrs X remain as foster carers.
- Mr and Mrs X asked the SSW in December 2018 about progressing to level 4. In February 2019, they asked about being paid the higher rate for the 15 months they had cared for Child C.
- In March 2019, Mr and Mrs X’s October review was finalised by the fostering panel.
- The Council provided the guidance on foster carer progression in April 2019. Mr and Mrs X submitted their application in July. The minutes from that progression meeting state the panel needed more information to decide whether to progress Mr and Mrs X.
- Mr and Mrs X reapplied in September. The Council considered that application in October. The Council agreed Mr and Mrs X could progress to level four foster carers. It backdated the pay to the September when the panel should have sat.
- Mr and Mrs X appealed the Council’s decision and asked it to backdate the payments till Easter 2017. The Council refused, however, there was a delay in it telling Mr and Mrs X about the outcome of their appeal.
Mr and Mrs X’s complaint to the Council
- Mr and Mrs X subsequently complained to the Council about its decision not to backdate the level 4 payments. They said the Council placed children with extreme needs with them whilst they were level three carers. The referred to Child C who had needed support for Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services and frequently self-harmed. They said Child C’s social worker failed to provide them the required level of support resulting in them complaining through the statutory complaints procedure.
- In addition, they complained about the Council’s decision to place Child B and C at the same time; about the Council’s lack of support in dealing with those placements and the Council’s decision to return them to fostering panel. They stated if the Council had not made that decision, they would have completed the level 4 application in 2017.
- They referred to a further child (Child D) that the Council had placed at the start of 2019. They said that they had been placed as a step-down from residential care.
- The Council did not uphold Mr and Mrs X’s complaint. It said the full extent of the young peoples’ needs were not possibly fully understood (by the Council) at the time of placement and that matching was a complicated process. It said the case files indicated they were offered a level of support to look after the children in their care.
- It said foster carers applying to become advanced carers needed experience of caring for children with more complex needs. It said Mr and Mrs X could have applied to become advanced carers in 2017 after the Council had provided the paperwork, and that the advanced level payment could only be paid from the time the progression panel considered the application. It apologised for the delay in notifying Mr and Mrs X about the outcome of their appeal. It made service improvements to ensure that did not reoccur.
- Mr and Mrs X asked for the Council to review their complaint. They questioned the Council’s application of its progression policy and said that by the Council giving them the application form it was giving them consent to apply. That meant it recognised they had the ability to act as advanced carers. They said the Council had failed to acknowledge that they felt unable to apply to level four carers because of the breakdown in their relationship. They accepted the Council had offered a level of support in relation to the children in their care. However, maintained the Council placed children with such complex needs in their care they were working at level four.
- The Council did not uphold the complaint. It said the Council’s fostering service had concerns and those concerns were not resolved until October 2018. It said it would not have considered Mr and Mrs X’s progression to level four carers whilst the Council was considering deregistration.
- It accepted there had been delay in finalising Mr and Mrs X’s fostering review that meant they may have applied sooner. For that delay it offered an additional three months pay at the advanced rate. Mr and Mrs X remained unhappy and brought their complaint to the Ombudsman.
The Council’s response to enquiries
- The Council said that between 2017 and 2018, the placements team used their own judgement in consultation with the children’s social worker, the supervising social worker and team manager to assess whether a carer had the skills to match the needs of a young person in foster placement. It said it did not label children as needing either generic or advanced foster carers. It said that in an emergency the Council’s Emergency Duty Team (EDT) would consider the resources available to meet the child’s needs.
- It said Mr and Mrs X’s approval was for temporary, respite and long-term placements.
- It said Child B and C were placed by the EDT over Easter. Because it was an emergency, the decision was based on foster carers availability,
- With regards to Child C the Council said:
- Mr and Mrs X described them as settled in supervision in June 2017.
- Mr and Mrs X met with a team manager in November 2017 because they said they had not received adequate information about Child C till June 2017.
- The Council asked Mr and Mrs X to consider a Special Guardianship Order for Child C in February 2018.
- Child C had a high level of involvement from social care, CAMHS and multi-agency meetings.
The Council’s placement of young people into Mr and Mrs X’s care
- Mr and Mrs X specifically feel Child C and Child D’s needs meant they should have been placed with advanced foster carers.
- Between 2017 and 2018, the Council did not label children as needing ‘generic’ or ‘advanced’ carers. The Council said its matching process involved professional judgement decisions based on the skills of the foster carer; the needs of the young person and carer availability.
- Mr and Mrs X had over ten years of foster care experience. They were approved to provide respite, short-term and long-term foster-care.
- The Council placed Child C as an emergency placement. The supervision records indicate Child C initially settled well. In October 2017, Mr and Mrs X told the Council they felt Child C’s needs meant they should be paid as level four carers. New needs emerged throughout Child C’s placement with Mr and Mrs X. That does not mean the Council incorrectly placed them at first. The Council was not at fault.
- The Council met with Mr and Mrs X to discuss Child D’s placement. They chose to accept it knowing Child D was ‘stepping down’ from residential services. If Mr and Mrs X felt caring for Child D meant they were acting outside the parameters of level three carers, they could have declined the placement. The Council was not at fault.
The Council’s payment of Mr and Mrs X
- For the Council to pay Mr and Mrs X at the advanced rate, they would have had to apply to progress to level four. Mr and Mrs X initially asked about progression in 2017. The Council provided them with the application form however, Mr and Mrs X did not apply. I recognise that they felt unable to apply because of the Council’s decision to return them to fostering panel, however, that was their choice. Mr and Mrs X could have applied and appealed if they felt the Council did not consider their application properly.
- Mr and Mrs X asked the Council about progression again in July 2018. At this time, the Council had allocated them a new SSW. The Council delayed in providing Mr and Mrs X with the requested information until March 2019. That delay was fault.
- Alongside that delay, the Council also delayed in its consideration of Mr and Mrs X’s future as foster carers. The Council held a fostering panel in February 2018 where they had recommended deregistration of Mr and Mrs X. It held a further fostering review eight months later in October 2018. However, that was not finalised until February 2019 meaning the overall process took thirteen months.
- The Council has already accepted fault for the delay and offered Mr and Mrs X an additional three-month advanced level fee to allow for lost time. However, my view is that the Council should have completed the further fostering review within six months of the fostering panel and that should have been finalised without delay. This is consistent with the timeframe the Council applied following the fostering review in May 2017. Therefore, the Council should increase its financial remedy to reflect that delay.
The Council’s support to Mr and Mrs X
- Mr and Mrs X received bi-monthly supervision where they regularly discussed their training and support needs. In 2017, there is a gap where Mr and Mrs X did not receive supervision between June and October. There was a further gap between February 2018 and July 2018. Although Mr and Mrs X have not complained about this lack of supervision specifically, the Council’s failure to ensure it took place was fault.
- With regards to Mr and Mrs X’s relationship with the Council, in the fostering review in May 2017, the Council provided information about independent support.
- Mr and Mrs X complained about support for Child C under the statutory complaint’s procedure. If Mr and Mrs X were unhappy with the outcome of that complaint, they could have escalated it further at the time. I will not consider this further.
- Within one month of my final decision, the Council has agreed to:
- Pay Mr and Mrs X a further payment of three months at the advanced carers rate.
- Confirm what steps it has taken to ensure Fostering Reviews are finalised within a timely manner.
- We find the Council was at fault for delays in holding and finalising Mr and Mrs X’s fostering review. That delayed their opportunity to apply to be advanced carers. The Council has agreed to increase the financial remedy it has already offered. Therefore, I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman