Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 26 Apr 2018
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mrs B complains the Council refused to fund an extension of her home to provide more accommodation to meet the needs of her grandchildren, for whom she is a Connected Person foster carer. The Ombudsman finds no fault in the way the Council decided the current accommodation is not unsafe for the children and the placement remains in their best interests.
- The complainant, whom I shall call Mrs B, complains the Council has refused financial help for an extension to her home. She says the extension is needed to ensure her family, which includes grandchildren for whom she is a Connected Person foster carer, is not overcrowded.
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)
- 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 considered all the information provided by Mrs B about her complaint. I made written enquiries of the Council and took account of the responses it provided. I provided the Mrs B and the Council with a draft of this decision and considered comments received in response.
What I found
- Since 2012 Mrs B has been a Connected Person foster carer for her two grandchildren, a girl now aged 8 and a boy now aged 6 who are siblings. Connected Person fostering is a legal arrangement where a child who cannot be cared for by their parents, is looked after by a relative, family friend or any other person with a connection to the child in a personal or professional capacity.
- Mrs B’s home, which she owns jointly with her ex-husband, has three bedrooms. As well as Mrs B and the two grandchildren, the property is also home to Mrs B’s two adult children, a son and a daughter. The two children share a bedroom with their aunt, and Mrs B and her adult son each have one of the remaining two bedrooms.
- Mrs B asked the Council for an interest-free loan to extend the property. She cannot secure a loan herself as she works only part time, having reduced her hours of employment to look after the children. The Council refused this request.
National minimum standards in fostering
- There are National Minimum Standards (NMS) applicable to the provision of fostering services. The NMS, together with regulations relevant to the placement of children in foster care such as the Fostering Services (England) Regulations 2011 (the 2011 Regulations), form the basis of the regulatory framework under the Care Standards Act 2000 (CSA) for the conduct of fostering services. Standard 10 refers to the provision of a suitable physical environment for a foster child. This includes the following: “In the foster home, each child over the age of three should have their own bedroom. If this is not possible, the sharing of a bedroom is agreed by each child’s responsible authority and each child has their own area within the bedroom. Before seeking agreement for the sharing of a bedroom, the fostering service provider takes into account any potential for bullying, any history of abuse or abusive behaviour, the wishes of the children concerned and all other pertinent facts. The decision-making process and outcome of the assessment are recorded in writing where bedroom sharing is agreed”.
Mrs B complains to the Council
- Mrs B made a complaint to the Council and an independent investigator was assigned to investigate under the statutory procedure for children’s services complaints.
- The independent investigator’s report noted that in the earlier stages of the children’s placement with the family Mrs B and her husband had thought about the issue of bedroom space which would arise as the children grew up, and made some tentative plans for work to their home which might be needed to address this. However, although Mrs B confirms planning permission for an extension to the property had been granted in 2015, it was not implemented as the family’s circumstances changed when Mr and Mrs B separated.
- In February 2015, the minutes from the children’s statutory review meeting included a note that planning for a Special Guardianship Order should include the need for more room when the children are older and no longer able to share. A year later the annual review noted Mrs B was reluctant to pursue Special Guardianship, given that the children would need to have their own bedroom in the future and the issue of extension to the family home had not been addressed. The minutes of the meeting noted the Council needed to address the concerns about the accommodation arrangements to enable clear planning for the long term. In July 2016 the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO), whose primary role is to ensure the care plan for looked after children fully meets their needs and is consistent with the Council’s legal responsibilities for the child, also noted that “the house has insufficient bedroom space to enable the children to have a bedroom of their own. At this stage, the children share a bedroom but in the longer term and should they remain in care, they will require their own bedrooms”. Following concerns after this about the children sharing a bed with their aunt, the Council took steps to ensure the children slept in separate bunk beds and their aunt slept in an additional bed.
- In December 2016, all professionals present at the review believed the children should remain with Mrs B but all agreed the children need their own room to allow privacy and space to play. The notes of the meeting record that, “the children do not have their own room, privacy or space to play with friends, so the sleeping arrangements are not sustainable beyond the short term”.
- The independent investigator shared Mrs B’s concerns about the overcrowding and said that while the Council had suggested the adult children might at some point move out, this should not be relied upon, and it would be inappropriate for them to feel pressured into leaving their family home.
- The independent investigator noted the Council’s position was that it was not in a financial position to provide an interest free loan. It suggested Mrs B take out a private loan on which it would pay the interest as part of the Special Guardianship financial support plan, but only the level of interest that would be deemed reasonable, linked to high street lending interest rates and over the time the children remain in Mrs C’s care.
- One of the recommendations from the complaint investigation was for the Council to explore further the arrangement whereby any interest incurred on a loan secured by Mrs B could be taken into consideration by the Council. The Council agreed to do this. The Council later met with Mrs B and she confirmed she could not secure a loan privately in her own name due to her low earnings. She also confirmed she had enquired about re-mortgaging her home. But this could not be done without her ex-husband’s consent as the property and existing mortgage are in their joint names, and he would not agree to it.
The current situation
- The Council accepts the current situation in the household means that relevant minimum standard is being breached as the children do not each have their own room. However, the standards recognise that this is not always possible and sharing of a room is not unlawful. The Council’s primary responsibility is to keep the children safe from harm. The documentary evidence shows the current arrangements for the children within the home have been considered. A family safe caring policy assessment and a risk assessment have been completed. This notes that there is restricted space available to the children, for sleeping and playing and storage of their belongings, but balanced against this are the benefits of a family placement which is deemed to be the best place for them and where they receive excellent care. There are no child protection concerns. The Council has concluded, having considered all relevant facts, that while consideration needs to be given to the changing needs of the children as they grow, the current arrangement is not unsafe and remains in the best interests of the children. That is a decision it was entitled to make and I can see no fault in the way it was made.
The situation going forward
- The Council must continue to keep the matter under review. Although the children may share a bedroom until the eldest reaches ten years, which will be in November 2019, the Council will need to ensure that plans are properly in place before that time for how the children will then be suitably accommodated, because at that point the current arrangements could not be deemed to be in the best interests of the children.
- In responding to my enquiries, the Council has suggested providing a deposit if Mrs B’s adult children were minded to move to private rented accommodation. Another option might be to offer to fund a one-bedroom extension which would be proportionate in terms of providing the extra bedroom needed for the children. However, it is a matter for the Council to consider what arrangements it might reasonably make, taking account of the best interests of the children.
- For the reasons set out in paragraph 17 above, I find no fault in the Council’s decision-making in this matter. I have completed my investigation on this basis.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman