Hampshire County Council (17 011 321)

Category : Children's care services > Friends and family carers

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 31 Aug 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains that the Council upheld some of his complaints about the service he received from the children’s services department but would not consider his outstanding grievances further. There was fault by the Council which caused injustice to Mr X. The complaint was closed because the Council acted to remedy the injustice to Mr X.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains that the Council upheld some of his complaints about the service he received from the children’s services department but would not consider his outstanding grievances further.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. We have the power to start or discontinue an investigation into a complaint within our jurisdiction. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we think the issues could reasonably be, or have been, raised within a court of law. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 24A(6) and 34B(8), as amended)
  3. 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’. We provide a free service, but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
  • it is unlikely we would find fault, or
  • the fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or
  • the injustice is not significant enough to justify our involvement, or
  • it is unlikely we could add to any previous investigation by the Council, or
  • it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome, or
  • we cannot achieve the outcome someone wants, or
  • there is another body better placed to consider this complaint, or
  • it would be reasonable for the person to ask for a council review or appeal.

(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)

  1. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I considered the complaint and background information provided by Mr X and the Council. I discussed matters with Mr X by telephone. I sent a draft decision statement to Mr X and the Council and considered the comments of both parties in reply.
  2. 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.

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What I found

  1. In May 2015, Mr X and his wife were granted a Special Guardianship Order (SGO) regarding his niece. Mr X lived in Hampshire at the time but the Order and its associated support plan were granted under the auspices of a different council (Bury Council).
  2. In the autumn of 2015, Mr X contacted the social workers at Hampshire County Council as well as Bury Council because he and his wife had marital problems which affected their ability to care for his niece. Hampshire County Council moved his niece into a respite placement and then into a foster placement. Mr X’s complaints involve his dealings with the Council during the placements and afterwards.
  3. Mr X’s complaints were considered by the Council under the Children Act 1989 statutory complaints procedure. The complaints were summarised as follows:
    • Despite strenuous efforts by Mr X, the Council’s staff failed to correct lies about him asking for the first foster care placement to be terminated. This is untrue and the Council has its own written evidence about this but it still remains on record.
    • This false information was given to the Guardian and reproduced in court documents.
    • False information was given to the Guardian regarding contact arrangements with the second foster carers.
    • The Council’s staff have poor internal communication processes which resulted in undue and unnecessary distressed caused to his nephew in particular.
    • Despite the illness of a manager a message should have been relayed to a social worker not to talk to his nephew. Mr X cannot accept a hollow apology as this information should have been passed to the relevant social worker.
    • The Council ignored Mr X’s express instruction that staff should not talk to his nephew.
    • It is inappropriate that the Council accepted that his niece’s birth mother, who had severely neglected her children, could override his expressed safeguarding concerns for his niece that that he had a Special Guardianship Order for her.
    • It is unacceptable that the social worker spoke to his nephew and told him his niece would be returning home. His nephew told him that is what the social worker said but the social worker still maintained that was not what happened.
    • The Council promised to tell him the outcome of a family placement service panel review of the actions of the first respite foster carers but he heard nothing.
    • An out of hours service worker that Mr X spoke to about contact taking place for a photoshoot was ill informed and falsely accused him of not having a Special Guardianship Order nor parental responsibility for his niece.
    • The same out of hours service worker was unprofessional in making an accusation that his only concern was the cost of the photoshoot.
    • Despite contacting a family support worker weeks in advance to arrange contact with his niece for a photoshoot, the photoshoot was missed.
    • The independent reviewing officer made no attempt to contact him or gain an understanding of his concerns and thoughts.
    • It is unacceptable to receive an invitation to a Looked After Child (LAC) review with only five days’ notice.
    • It is unacceptable that the Looked After Child review notes were sent to him months after the meeting took place and only because he persisted in asking for the notes. The notes contained false information and the Council did not contact him to check for accuracy.
    • Mr X asked to meet with the independent reviewing officer and this was not arranged.
    • The Council falsely stated that he refused support offered by the intensive support service (ISS).
    • It is unacceptable that the Council was critical of him extending nursery hours for his niece only for it to extend nursery hours for his niece to support the second foster placement.
    • It is unacceptable that the Council falsely informed another council that his family did not see his niece before they moved to Shropshire.
    • The Council failed to action the provision of photographs to him despite an agreement to do so.
  4. I will not repeat the stage two independent investigator’s findings here for reasons of brevity but also because it is not necessary for the purposes of this investigation.
  5. The investigator upheld Mr X’s complaints that he was not informed of the outcome of the family placement service panel’s review of the actions of the first respite foster carers; the independent reviewing officer made no attempt to contact him; the CLA review notes were sent to him months later; and the Council did not act on his request to meet with the independent reviewing officer. The investigator partially upheld the complaint that a pre-arranged photoshoot with Mr X’s niece was missed. The investigator did not uphold the other elements of the complaint.
  6. The investigator recommended the Council apologise to Mr X for the upheld complaints. One of Mr X’s desired outcomes was to know the outcome of the family placement service’s review of the respite carer’s conduct and so the investigator asked the Council to write to him about the review. The investigator also recommended the independent reviewing officer should contact Mr X about any amendments to the CLA review notes.
  7. Mr X was dissatisfied with the investigator’s findings and so asked the Council to put the matter before a review panel at the third and final stage of the complaints process.
  8. This time the review panel upheld most of Mr X’s complaints. The panel did not uphold the complaint that undue and unnecessary distress was caused to Mr X’s nephew because of a conversation he had with a social worker. The panel felt it could not make a finding on whether the Council ignored Mr X’s instructions that its social workers should not talk to his nephew. It did not uphold the complaint that the Council accepted his niece’s birth mother could override his expressed concerns for his niece or the Special Guardianship Order (SGO) he held for her.
  9. The panel took a nuanced view on Mr X’s interaction with an out of hours service worker. It accepted the worker did not check records which could have shown that Mr X held a SGO for his niece and so upheld the part of the complaint that said the worker did not know about the SGO or parental responsibility for Mr X’s niece. But the panel did not uphold the part of the complaint that the worker falsely accused him of not having a SGO. In the absence of independent evidence on the conversation between the two parties the panel could not conclude Mr X was falsely accused and so did not uphold that aspect of the complaint. The Panel could not make a finding on Mr X’s claim the worker told him all he cared about was the cost of the photoshoot.
  10. The panel did not uphold Mr X’s complaint that it was unacceptable that the Council was critical of an extension of nursery hours for his niece while she was in his care when it accepted an extension of nursery hours for his niece when she was in the second foster placement.
  11. The panel referred to concerns set out by a social worker about the impact of extended nursery hours between November and December 2015 on Mr X’s niece’s behaviour. The social worker’s judgement was that Mr X’s niece was emotionally affected by the breakdown of Mr X’s marriage combined with the additional time she spent at nursery. This view was buttressed by the manager of the nursery who told the Council in January 2016 that Mr X’s niece’s behaviour had improved with less time at the nursery. A decision was then made to increase the nursery time for Mr X’s niece during the second foster placement in preparation for her transition to school.
  12. The panel considered the two situations were different and did not uphold the complaint.
  13. The panel recommended the Council extend its earlier apologies to Mr X to encompass the now upheld complaints. It noted the offer of the independent reviewing officer to meet with Mr X to discuss the wording of the LAC review notes. Mr X said his experiences with the Council had revealed fundamental flaws in its practice and procedures and so he wanted them to be reviewed and corrected where necessary. The panel recommended a review by senior management of any potential areas of weakness revealed by the investigation with a focus on how information contained in reports is verified.
  14. The panel asked the Council to reimburse Mr X’s travel costs in attending the stage three hearing.
  15. The Council’s stage three adjudicating officer accepted the panel’s findings and recommendations.
  16. However, Mr X remain dissatisfied. In an email to the council he made the following points:
    • He wanted confirmation that his comments and corrections for inclusion on his niece’s file would also be added to the file of the other council (Bury).
    • It was not satisfactory to hear the outcome of the family placement service panel’s review as he was not contacted during the process and until the stage 2 investigation he was not convinced the matter had been investigated. He queried the investigation and the level of information given to the stage three panel. He asked whether the complaint about the foster carer would be re-investigated by the fostering panel.
    • He asked whether he would be included in the findings of the senior management review of the Council’s procedures.
    • He queried the payments given to the stage two investigator and independent person for a poor investigation.
    • He said the stage two investigator called him a liar to the stage 3 panel.
    • He asked why the ISS did not offer him support at the point where it was appropriate.
    • He had not been contacted by the independent reviewing officer to arrange a meeting via SKYPE.
    • He wanted a response to the complaint that it was unacceptable that the Council should be critical of him extending nursery hours for his niece when it then extended nursery hours to support the second foster carer. He said the stage three panel finding was contradicted by a note on his niece’s file which stated appropriate support was offered to the carers to help sustain the placement including increasing nursery hours. He also said the statement that nursery hours were extended to help prepare his niece for school was not mentioned in his niece’s file.
    • He referred to inaccurate information on his niece’s file which was used by a social worker from Bury Council in court proceedings.
    • He sought clarification on the visit of a social worker to talk to his nephew at school. He said the social worker disregarded all safeguarding protocol and put himself in a one on one situation with a minor without a chaperone.
  17. In response, the Council’s adjudicating officer said:
    • Mr X’s comments and corrections would be placed only on the Council’s files and not on Bury Council’s files.
    • The outcome of the management review would be shared with Mr X including the details of any required actions that result from the review.
    • The meeting with the independent reviewing officer was being arranged.
    • It was not appropriate to respond to the other matters in Mr X’s letter as the statutory process was complete. Mr X was advised to contact the Ombudsman if he remain dissatisfied.
  18. Mr X remained aggrieved and wrote again to the adjudicating officer. The adjudicating officer told him the Council would not share any highlighted corrections relating to the management review with him first. His view on the other matters remained the same.
  19. Mr X then complained to this service. His numbered concerns were:
    • A social worker interviewed his nephew at his school without permission, a chaperone and without advising him that he was going to see his nephew. The interview was done with malicious intent.
    • A joint complaint was raised by him and a council manager about the foster carer in February 2016. Despite the Council’s promise to include him in the process he was not contacted. There are serious concerns about the carer’s ability to foster children that have not been heard.
    • A social worker criticised his family in relation to nursery provision.
    • There are inaccuracies in the Council’s records including statements allegedly made by his niece and attributed to his nephew.
    • The Council made a statement to Bury Council but later retracted it to a lesser extent. The retracted version is still untrue but the Council refuses to address it.
    • A social worker remains under internal investigation for breaches of data protection.
    • One resolution accepted at stage three was to provide corrections to affected agencies but the Council refused to check the corrections with him for accuracy before dissemination.
    • The council refused to allow addendums following any Ombudsman investigations and do not want the note of inclusion to be shared with Bury Council.
    • Despite an upheld outcome at stage 3 the Council retracted the point and remain neutral over a point their threshold to court document dated 18 May 2016.
  20. In terms of injustice, Mr X says he has concerns about the care being provided to children by the Council foster carer. He says he was called a liar by the stage two investigator during the stage three panel meeting. His integrity has been called into question. He says the false information provided by the Council in the threshold to court document resulted in some of his family being limited in contact with his niece. Information remains on file that could affect his nephew and niece in future

Analysis

A social worker interviewed his nephew at his school without permission, a chaperone and without advising him that he was going to see his nephew. The interview was done with malicious intent.

  1. This complaint was upheld by the Council and it apologised to Mr X. So, it falls to me to decide whether there is a degree of unremedied injustice that warrants further pursuit of the matter by the Ombudsman. I accept Mr X retains a strong sense of grievance because the social worker met with his nephew without permission from him. However, given the Council already accepted fault on this point I do not consider it warrants further consideration by the Ombudsman.
  2. I note Mr X’s query to the Council’s adjudicating officer around the issue of safeguarding which the officer did not consider warranted a re-airing of the complaint. I accept this line of enquiry was not pursued throughout all stages of the Council’s complaints process. But I consider it is a different way of making the same point which was that the social worker met with Mr X’s nephew. That was clearly considered by the Council.

A joint complaint was raised by him and a council manager about the foster carer in February 2016. Despite the Council’s promise to include him in the process he was not contacted. There are serious concerns about the carer’s ability to foster children that have not been heard.

  1. It is clear that Mr X was not included in the complaint process and only found out the outcome afterwards. The Council accepted this was fault and apologised to Mr X.
  2. Again, I do not consider Mr X suffered a degree of unremedied injustice that warrants further pursuit of this matter. I recognise Mr X was not involved in the complaint process and so there is an uncertainty about the outcome that now frustrates and annoys him. But Mr X’s feelings, though understandable, do not lead me to conclude there is a level of injustice that justifies further investigation of this point. I am guided by the fact that Mr X’s niece was removed from the care of the foster carer soon after the complaint was made. So, Mr X’s niece was not left in the care of an unsuitable foster carer such that further consideration of a complaint about that carer more than two years later is justified.
  3. I note Mr X’s concerns about the care being provided to children by the foster carer. But I am mindful that Mr X’s concerns involved his interaction with the foster carer in the early part of 2016 and do not arise from other instances independent of his own experience. I do not therefore consider there is a wider problem that suggests a public interest in pursuing this matter further.

A social worker criticised his family in relation to nursery provision.

  1. The social worker made an entry on Mr X’s niece’s case file to the effect that the marital problems experienced by Mr X and his wife contributed to his niece’s emotional problems. That was a professional judgement made by the social worker. It is their role to make judgements like that and I acknowledge that it will be difficult for anyone involved with that judgement to take. It is not for me to now say whether the officer was right or wrong because Mr X disagrees with that judgement.
  2. However, the Council has offered Mr X a remedy involving placement of his own comments on the case file. This gives him the opportunity to set out his understanding of events at the time and why he considers the officer’s judgement was wrong. That is a fair remedy for any injustice Mr X feels because of the officer’s statement.

There are inaccuracies in the Council’s records including statements allegedly made by his niece and attributed to his nephew.

  1. Mr X has the opportunity to include his comments on the case file to address any inaccuracies. I do not consider this matter warrants a further remedy.

The Council made a statement to Bury Council but later retracted it to a lesser extent. The retracted version is still untrue but the Council refuses to address it & despite an upheld outcome at stage 3 the Council retracted the point and remain neutral over a point their threshold to court document dated 18 May 2016.

  1. These two points are partly outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction because it involves the conduct of court proceedings. The provision of documents to a court and the content of those documents are matters outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
  2. However, a complaint about the Council’s decision not to address the alleged inaccuracy in the document is within jurisdiction.
  3. Mr X can provide his comments for inclusion in the case file and so make clear why he considers the Council’s statement was untrue. This is a fair and appropriate remedy.

A social worker remains under internal investigation for breaches of data protection.

  1. The Ombudsman cannot consider the internal disciplinary matters of a council. It is for the Council to decide upon the appropriate sanction for the social worker. The Information Commissioner can consider a complaint about the data breach itself.

One resolution accepted at stage three was to provide corrections to affected agencies but the Council refused to check the corrections with him for accuracy before dissemination.

  1. The stage three panel recommended a review by senior management of any potential areas of weakness revealed by the investigation with a focus on how information contained in reports is verified.
  2. This was not a recommendation that the Council’s review should be vetted by Mr X whether for accuracy or other reason. I do not find fault because the Council’s adjudicating officer refused Mr X’s request that any ‘highlighted corrections’ should be shared with him first.

The council refused to allow addendums following any Ombudsman investigations and do not want the note of inclusion to be shared with Bury Council.

  1. The adjudicating officer told Mr X that instead of addendums to the case note all Mr X’s comments could be set out in his main written submission ideally. This was not fault. It is crucial that the Council was not refusing Mr X a right to make his comments but was reacting to his request for inclusion of addendums.
  2. The Council was correct to say that it cannot include Mr X’s comments in the case file of another council.

The stage two investigator called Mr X a liar during the stage three panel hearing

  1. The stage two investigator went before the panel to explain her findings and answer the panel’s questions. In doing so, Mr X says she called him a liar.
  2. I note the panel’s conclusion on this point:

‘whilst not endorsing the use of the word lies, the panel finds the request to initiate the move did not originate with [Mr X] and that the wording used in the reports does support his contention that information provided by HCC staff suggests otherwise. Consequently, the panel does not agree with the finding at stage 2 and upholds the complaint.’

  1. The stage two investigator’s insistence on her findings before the stage three panel does not mean she called him a liar. Clearly there was a dispute about the facts between the investigator and Mr X and the panel accepted Mr X’s submission.

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Final decision

  1. I closed this complaint because the Council already found fault and acted to remedy the injustice to Mr X.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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