Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 07 Mar 2018
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The complainant considered the Council had failed to pay her the correct allowance or offered her sufficient support in line with Special Guardianship Order support plan. The Ombudsman is satisfied that the Council has paid the correct allowances, so there is no fault. The Council also agreed to reassess the complainant’s support needs. However, this reassessment has resulted in further concerns which will now be dealt with as a fresh complaint.
- The complainant, who I shall refer to as Ms B, complains that the Council has miscalculated her backdated Special Guardianship Order payments, so she has been underpaid by approximately £300. She is also unhappy the Council is not providing funding for a cleaner and her grandchildren’s nursery fees. Ms B further complains that the Council is not giving her enough support as a carer for her grandchildren.
The Local Government and Social Care 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)
- 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 have discussed the complaint with Ms B and considered the information she has provided.
- A previous investigator issued a draft decision statement to the complainant and to the Council. I have taken into consideration the additional information when reaching my final decision.
What I found
- The Court agreed that Ms B should become a Special Guardian for her two young grandchildren in November 2016. Both grandchildren are under the age of 5. The children and their parents lived in Hillingdon, but Ms B now lives in a different area, which I shall refer to as Area C. The Court also stated that the support plan needed to be considered by the Council.
- Children’s Services removed the children from their mother (Ms B’s daughter) due to child protection concerns. They went to stay with foster carers and the Council started court proceedings to decide where they should live permanently. Ms B put herself forward to be their carer and the Council completed a Special Guardianship assessment, which was positive. The judge agreed the children should move to Ms B under a Special Guardianship Order (SGO).
- When carrying out a SGO assessment, Children’s Services should complete an SGO support plan, which sets out the support the Council will provide to the Special Guardian and the children once the order is granted. However, this did not happen in Ms B’s case. The judge ordered the Council to finalise the plan as soon as possible after the proceedings ended.
- The Council updated the SGO support plans for both children in December. The plans stated that neither child has any health or behavioural problems and that they do not need specialist services. The plans did not include any specific support for Ms B as a carer but stated that the Council could arrange counselling sessions and provide advice and support as required.
- The Council also stated that Ms B can ask for a reassessment of her support needs, and of the services the Council is providing, at any time during the first three years after the SGO is granted. As she and the children live in a different area, the Council may provide support and assistance by making suitable referrals to local services, although it can also provide services directly.
- The SGO support plans stated that Ms B would receive a SGO allowance from the Council until the children reach the age of 18. The allowance is around £215 per week per child. The Council also agreed to pay Ms B a ‘settling in allowance’ of £500 for each child, to cover the initial costs of moving to her home. The plans did not include any other financial support.
- Ms B declined to sign the support plans because she felt that the children have special needs which have not been acknowledged in the plans. The Council says their needs were assessed as part of the court proceedings and it has shared this information with Ms B.
- There was a delay in starting Ms B’s SGO allowance, because the Council asked for updated financial information, which it later agreed was not required.
- The Council pays the allowance weekly, covering Sunday through to the following Saturday. The payments are made in arrears (that is, after the period they cover). The Council checks the amount that is due the following Tuesday and then pays this into the carer’s account on Friday (so about a week later).
- If a carer starts to look after children mid-way through the week, the Council calculates the SGO allowance for the days up to Saturday, and pays this to the carer the following Friday. Carers will then receive the full weekly allowance from the next payment date.
- The Council owed Ms B a SGO Allowance from the date of the Special Guardianship Order (25 November 2016), which was a Friday.
- By 21 December 2016, Ms B had not received any payments. The Council agreed to make an emergency payment covering one week’s allowance (£215.53 per child) and the £500 settling in allowance for each child. This was £1431.06 in total.
- On Friday 6 January 2017, the Council made another payment of £1,847.40 to Ms B to cover the outstanding SGO allowance due from 25 November. This was £923.70 per child, which covered the first two days for each child (£61.58 each) and four full weeks (at £215.53 per week).
- This meant that Ms B had received a total payment for both children of £3278.46 (five weeks and two days of SGO allowance and the £500 settling in payment each).
- From the next week, Friday 13 January, Ms B received the SGO allowance as normal for both children, and it has continued since this time. The Council has also made three payments of £150 to Ms B to cover the costs of arranging contact with their parents and an emergency payment for petrol.
- Ms B is entitled to receive Child Benefit and Child Tax Benefit for both children, which she is now claiming. The Council does not deduct these benefits from the allowance.
- In December 2016, Ms B complained to the Council about the delays in paying her SGO allowance and the amount it had calculated, which she believed should be for six weeks. She also complained about the lack of support she was receiving as a carer. Ms B says the children have emotional and behavioural problems and need specialist therapy. She feels she needs more financial assistance to be able to manage them, including funding for nursery fees. She has also asked for money towards a cleaner, because her caring responsibilities and her health problems mean maintaining the home is difficult for her.
- The Council considered Ms B’s complaint at stage 1 and 2 of its complaints procedure and sent her a final response in late January. This set out the payments Ms B had received, which it said covered the whole amount she was due. The Council said that, as the SGO support plan did not include payments for a cleaner or nursery, or any other funding, it was not responsible for providing this. However, it offered to arrange a reassessment of Ms B’s support needs, which would include consideration of further funding. It refused to consider Ms B’s request for help with the costs of moving back to Hillingdon.
- Soon after this response, a social worker from the Council met Ms B to try to finalise the SGO support plan and discuss her support needs. She advised Ms B to speak to her General Practitioner (GP) about the children’s behaviour and ask for a referral to the local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) for an assessment. The social worker told Ms B she could use her SGO allowance for nursery fees.
- The social worker visited Ms B and the children again in March 2017 to discuss how she was managing and whether she needed more support. She gave her information about resources for children and families in the area and suggested she could approach a local children’s centre for help from a family support worker. She again advised Ms B to visit her GP to share her concerns about the children’s health and behaviour, which she has now done. The social worker observed that Ms B was managing to keep her home tidy without a cleaner. She did not offer any more financial support from the Council.
- The Council says it has not identified any other areas of support that Ms B and the children need. It says the services available in Area C, plus the standard SGO allowance, are sufficient. However, it will continue to monitor this until November 2019, and Ms B can ask for a new support assessment if she thinks this would be helpful.
- Ms B says she is continuing to struggle with the children’s complex needs, which she does not feel are adequately addressed by the support plan. For this reason, she is still refusing to sign the plan and has continued to ask the Council for more help.
- Based on the information the Council has provided about its calculations, I am satisfied Ms B has received the full amount of backdated SGO allowance she was owed. Therefore, the Council was not at fault.
- This is because the amount due was for five weeks and two days, rather than six weeks, which accounts for the £300 variation. The allowance is just over £30 per day for each child, so the five extra days Ms B thought she was owed would be £150 per child. The confusion may be partly due to the Council’s system of payment, which means carers receive the allowance a week after the period it covers.
- The decision on what to include in the SGO support plan is made by social workers, based on their professional assessment of the children’s needs. The Ombudsman would not question their judgement unless there is clear evidence that medical assessments and professional recommendations have not been followed. The court proceedings involved detailed consideration of the children’s health and welfare and the Special Guardianship assessment focused on Ms B’s capacity to be their carer. While Ms B believes the Council’s assessments were flawed, the Ombudsman cannot consider matters that have been addressed in court proceedings and can only look at whether the Council is providing the support as set out in the plan.
- The Council has an ongoing duty to support Ms B over the next three years, up to November 2019, and has made it clear that it accepts this responsibility and will reassess Ms B’s needs as requested.
- The previous investigator recommended that the Council contacted Ms B again to offer her another reassessment of her support needs and those of the children. The Council has now done this but issues about the level of support required, in view of the grandchildren’s increasing needs, remain in dispute. The matter is complicated by the fact Ms B lives in Area C and it appears that there may be some dispute between the two councils as to responsibility.
- These new matters need to be fully investigated by the Ombudsman. Therefore, these outstanding issues will now be considered by the Ombudsman as a new complaint. The Council has agreed to this.
- I have not found fault with how the Council has calculated Ms B’s SGO However there remains a dispute about the support required to maintain the placement. This is now the subject of a fresh complaint.
- I have therefore completed the Ombudsman’s investigation into the financial allowances paid to Ms B and I am therefore closing this complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman