Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 06 Mar 2018
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council was not at fault in most of the actions it took when seeking to find a stable placement for Mr and Mrs B’s grandchildren in 2016. However, it did fail to arrange contact between the youngest child and Mr and Mrs B after she left their care, and some documents were not completed quickly enough (or at all) at the beginning of the placement. The Council has agreed to apologise to Mr and Mrs B for the areas in which it was at fault. This remedies their injustice.
- The complainants, whom I refer to as Mr and Mrs B, complain about actions the Council took in 2016, when it placed their three grandchildren with them before finding placements elsewhere. All the children were placed with Mr and Mrs B on 22 April 2016; the youngest child left their care on 28 April 2016 and the older two children left on 15 July 2016.
- Mr and Mrs B say the Council:
- failed to protect their grandchildren when they reported concerns about the children in June 2015;
- recorded inaccuracies in a report it prepared for court;
- pressured them into caring for their youngest granddaughter, whom I refer to as C, by promising that C would be moved to a different placement the following week, but the placement was not identified until Mr and Mrs B threatened to leave C in the Council offices;
- did not arrange any contact between Mr and Mrs B and C between April and October 2016;
- did not complete a viability assessment or placement plan when it placed the children with them, nor did it provide them with a foster carer handbook;
- did not send them, a completed safer care agreement or risk assessment for two months after it placed the children with them;
- did not allocate them a supervising social worker (SSW) until two months after the placement started;
- would not provide support or childcare to allow them to attend looked after child (LAC) reviews and other meetings; and
- delayed sending responses to their complaints.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated points (c) to (j) set out in paragraph 2, above.
- The final paragraph of this decision statement sets out why I have not investigated other matters.
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 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 cannot investigate a complaint about the start of court action or what happened in court. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5/5A, paragraph 1/3, 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)
- 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 considered information from Mr and Mrs B and the Council. I wrote to Mr and Mrs B and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
What I found
- I will look at each of Mr and Mrs B’s complaints separately, below.
C’s placement with Mr and Mrs B
- The Council placed all three children with Mr and Mrs B on 22 April 2016 – this placement was agreed by Mr and Mrs B’s daughter (the children’s mother) under s.20 of the Children Act 1989. Mr and Mrs B signed an agreement which said they would look after C for up to six weeks.
- Mr and Mrs B told the Council on the same day that they would probably be unable to care for C as well as the other two children. The Council agreed to contact them on 27 April to find out if they were sure they would not be able to care for C.
- On 26 April Mr and Mrs B told the Council they definitely could not look after C for much longer. They agreed to look after her until 28 April, which would give the Council time to find another placement.
- On 27 April Mr and Mrs B’s daughter refused permission for C to be taken from their care and placed with foster carers. The Council made several attempts to talk to her about this, but without success.
- On 28 April – the date until which Mr and Mrs B had agreed to care for C – their daughter agreed to the move and C was placed with foster carers.
- Mr and Mrs B signed an agreement to look after C for up to six weeks on 22 April. However, they say that the paperwork was generic and that the Council agreed that they would only look after C until 27 April. It is true that, shortly after the children were placed, Mr and Mrs B told the Council that they wanted it to find C a new placement.
- On 26 April Mr and Mrs B agreed to look after C until 28 April 2016. The Council, despite delays in gaining consent from C’s mother (who still had PR for C), still managed to identify a new placement and move C there on 28 April.
- As a result, I have not found fault with the Council, which acted in line with Mr and Mrs B’s wishes, and moved C to a new placement on the agreed date.
No contact between Mr and Mrs B and C from April to October 2016
- C’s placement with Mr and Mrs B ended on 28 April 2016. Before this they told the Council that they wanted to have contact with C after she left.
- As C’s two siblings were still placed with Mr and Mrs B, contact between all the children and their mother still took place at Mr and Mrs B’s house. However, this arrangement only lasted until 4 May, when Mr and Mrs B asked that contact be held somewhere else because of their daughter’s behaviour.
- On 18 May, in C’s LAC review, the Council decided that contact with Mr and Mrs B would benefit C, and that this should take place for 20 minutes before each contact C had with her mother.
- There is no evidence of any further contact taking place between Mr and Mrs B and C. On 27 May the Council asked Mr and Mrs B if they would provide respite care to C, but they refused, saying they had already made clear that they were unable to look after her. On 2 June the Council stated its intention for contact to take place, but this does not appear to have happened. The Council says it did not manage to organise contact because of the priority given to C’s contact with her mother, who was being assessed prior to the court hearing.
- In C’s LAC review on 2 November the Council decided that C would have contact with Mr and Mrs B for one hour every three weeks. After this contact began again.
- The Council’s view seems to have been that C would benefit from contact with Mr and Mrs B. This was set out in C’s care plan in May 2016. Despite this, contact apparently did not take place between early May and November.
- I acknowledge the pressures placed on the Council to provide contact between C and her mother, particularly as her mother was being assessed for a court hearing.
- Despite this, the Council had clearly agreed to facilitate contact between C and Mr and Mrs B and failed to do so at all for around six months, even though C’s care plan set out that such contact should take place and would benefit C. As a result, I consider the Council to have been at fault.
- Mr and Mrs B’s complaint is not made on behalf of C, so I cannot comment on what impact this lack of contact could have had on C. However, the lack of contact clearly caused Mr and Mrs B an injustice. The Council has agreed to apologise to them for this.
Viability assessment and placement plan not completed, and foster carer handbook not provided
- The Council completed a viability assessment for the children’s placement with Mr and Mrs B on 22 April 2016.
- The Council has confirmed that it cannot locate a placement plan, so it appears that a plan was not completed.
- LAC reviews were held for the children on 18 May, at which the children’s placement needs were discussed. By this point C was no longer in Mr and Mrs B’s care, but the other two children were.
- The Council acknowledges that there is no evidence that it sent the foster carer handbook to Mr and Mrs B. It has agreed to apologise to them for any inconvenience she may have experienced.
The Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (England) Regulations 2010
- Regulation 4(2) says that – unless a council is starting care proceedings – it should prepare a care plan for the child within 10 working days of the start of the placement.
- Regulation 9(2) says a council should prepare a placement plan for a child within five working days of the start of a placement.
- The Council completed a viability assessment of Mr and Mrs B on the day of placement, so this was not fault. However, it was eight working days late preparing a care plan, and did not prepare a placement plan at all. On these points the Council was at fault.
- Despite the fault, I do not consider Mr and Mrs B to have suffered an injustice. Although the Council delayed issuing the care plan, this was a very short delay. As part of this plan the Council set out its intentions for the placement and the children’s care. During this period Mr and Mrs B were regularly in touch with the Council so I do not accept that they were not fully aware of what was happening with the children’s placements.
- The Council has already agreed to apologise to Mr and Mrs B because there is no evidence it sent them the foster carer handbook. I do not consider a further remedy necessary.
Risk assessment and safer care agreement not provided until two months after placement started
- Evidence shows that these documents were not sent to Mr and Mrs B until at least two months after the placements began.
- The Council says this was missed in April because of the emergency nature of the placement, and it sent the documents when it realised this had not been done. When the Council sent the safer care agreement to Mr and Mrs B they refused to sign it.
- As a result, I consider there to be enough evidence to say that there was a significant delay in sending these documents, which will have caused inconvenience to Mr and Mrs B (although any further delay in signing the safer care agreement was because of Mr and Mrs B rather than the Council). The Council has agreed to apologise for this delay.
Not allocated a SSW for two months after placement started
- The Council acknowledges that it did not allocate a SSW to Mr and Mrs B for two months; however, it says they were being assessed by a different social worker, and it would be unusual for a carer to have both assessing and supervising social workers.
Local Safeguarding Children Board (SCB) procedures manual
- This manual sets out the correct procedures for the assessment, approval and support of foster carers in the Council area. It says that, after a placement with a family member starts, a social worker should be allocated to assess the family member. When this assessment is complete (and if the placement is to continue), the family member is then entitled to the same support as approved foster carers.
- The manual also says that approved foster carers are allocated a SSW, although the child(ren)’s social worker is responsible for advice and support specific to the child and their care plan.
- Mr and Mrs B were only allocated a SSW after their fostering assessment was complete. This is in line with SCB procedures. It is also clear that they went to the children’s social worker for guidance several times before their SSW was allocated, and the social worker gave them support. As a result, the Council was not at fault.
No childcare support for when Mr and Mrs B wanted to attend LAC reviews and other meetings
- The Council told Mr and Mrs B that it would not provide ‘childcare’ because it did not feel it appropriate to continually pass the children to different carers, given the amount of upheaval they had experienced.
- Having reviewed the documents from the period in which C’s two siblings were placed with Mr and Mrs B, I note that there was only one LAC review – on 18 May 2016. The record shows that Mrs B attended the meeting. I cannot find evidence of other meetings to which Mr and Mrs B were invited but could not attend.
- Given the Council’s explanation for wanting to ensure consistency for the children, and the fact that Mrs B appears to have attended the meeting which she and Mr B said they needed support to attend, I do not consider the Council to have been at fault.
Delays in the Council responding to Mr and Mrs B’s complaint
- Mr and Mrs B submitted their stage 1 complaint on 25 August 2016. The Council acknowledged the complaint the same day.
- Mr and Mrs B sent further complaint emails on 12 September, 13 September, and 30 September. On 30 September the Council asked to arrange a meeting to discuss the complaint.
- On 3 October Mr and Mrs B told the Council they did not want a meeting, they wanted a written response. The Council told them that they would receive a response within 20 working days.
- The Council responded to Mr and Mrs B’s stage 1 complaint on 31 October.
- The Council spoke to Mrs B at length on 3 November. She and Mr B submitted a further complaint on 4 November, to which the Council responded on 18 November.
- On 6 December Mr and Mrs B submitted a further complaint, which the Council accepted under stage 2 of its complaints procedure.
- The Council responded to Mr and Mrs B’s stage 2 complaint on 6 January 2017.
The Council’s complaints policy
- This policy says the Council will respond to stage 1 complaints within 10 working days and stage 2 complaints within 20 working days.
- The stage 2 response was sent to Mr and Mrs B within the correct timescale. However, the stage 1 process in late 2016 is slightly confusing. Mr and Mrs B submitted a series of complaints, but the Council did not start a 20-day time limit until 3 October – almost six weeks after Mr and Mrs B submitted their first complaint. Then, after they had complained again about the stage 1 response, the Council appears to have given a second stage 1 response rather than escalating the complaint to stage 2.
- I acknowledge that the Council did not begin responding to Mr and Mrs B until they had submitted their entire complaint and until after it had tried to meet them to clarify the complaint. This appears to have been a sensible approach, because without waiting it is likely the Council would not have been in receipt of the full complaint. I do not consider this to have been fault.
- From 3 October – when the Council began investigating the complaint – it should have responded in 10 working days, not 20 as it told Mr and Mrs B. This would have been by 17 October. As it sent two responses, I consider stage 1 to have been completed a month later, on 18 November.
- As a result, I consider that it took the Council around a month longer to process Mr and Mrs B’s complaint than it should have done, according to its own policy. However, I note that the complaint was complex and required investigation of several issues. I also note that, although it could be considered slightly unusual for Mr and Mrs B to receive two stage 1 responses, what that meant is that they got three responses rather than two, all of which sought to address the issues they raised.
- The records show that Mr and Mrs B were not left waiting for any considerable amount of time for any of the Council’s responses, so I do not consider them to have suffered an injustice, and I will not recommend that further action be taken.
- The Council has agreed to write to Mr and Mrs B and apologise for failing to arrange their contact with C, for failing to provide them with a foster carer handbook, and for a delay in sending them a risk assessment and a safer care agreement.
- The Council should send this apology within four weeks of the date of this decision statement.
- The Council was not at fault in most of the actions it took when seeking to find a stable placement for Mr and Mrs B’s grandchildren in 2016. However, it did fail to arrange contact between Mr and Mrs B and C after C left their care, and some documents were not completed quickly enough (or at all) at the beginning of the placement. The agreed action remedies Mr and Mrs B’s injustice.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I did not investigate point (a) of paragraph 2 of this decision statement because it is too old. I did not investigate point (b) because I cannot look at the content of reports which were made to court.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman