Norfolk County Council (18 002 019)

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

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 29 Oct 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss X complains the Council failed to follow the proper process in placing her half-sister with her following removal from her parents. The Council accepts it failed to follow proper procedures and failed to provide clear consistent advice about the financial assistance it would provide when placing her sister with Miss X. These faults caused Miss X considerable distress and anxiety and put her to unnecessary time and trouble. The Council has made an appropriate offer to remedy this injustice.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss X complains the Council failed to follow the proper process in placing her half-sister with her following removal from her parents. In particular she says the Council social workers pressed her into giving up work and misled her about the amount of carer's allowance she would be entitled to. This has caused her considerable distress and anxiety; and financial loss.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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. As part of the investigation, I have:
    • considered the complaint and the documents provided by Miss X;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
    • discussed the issues with Miss X;
    • sent a statement setting out my draft decision to Miss X and the Council and invited their comments. I have considered Miss X’s response.

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What I found

  1. If a child, within a council's area, needs accommodation because there is no one with parental responsibility available to provide it, the child is lost or abandoned or the current carer is prevented from providing suitable accommodation or care, a council has what is called a section 20 duty to provide accommodation for that child. (section 20, Children Act 1989, 'the Act')
  2. The child is considered 'looked after' when this duty arises. A local authority has a duty to safeguard and promote the child's welfare. It should produce a care plan for that child within ten days of the child becoming 'looked after'. The care plan should, so far as is possible, be agreed with the parents or with whoever the child is staying.
  3. A section 20 placement is deemed a foster placement under the Act. Councils can provide 'temporary approval' for a person as a foster carer for up to 16 weeks. The local authority must assess the suitability of the carer, the proposed accommodation and any persons aged over 18 years old living in the household. Foster carers are entitled to a weekly foster care allowance.

Key facts

  1. In May 2017 the Council asked Miss X look after her sister, Y. There were concerns about Mrs Z, their mother’s mental health and the impact this was having on Y. This was initially intended to be a short term arrangement but as Mrs Z was admitted to hospital the Council asked Miss X to continue to look after Y. Mrs Z agreed to this and signed the necessary s20 paperwork.
  2. At the time, Miss X had two part-time jobs, which supported her during her studies. Miss X states the social worker advised her to give up her morning job so that she would be able to get Y ready for school. The social worker agreed the Council would recompense Miss X for her lost earnings. The Council’s records state Miss X said she could continue her evening job as Y could go with her. The Council began paying Miss X £100 a week in respect of her lost earning. It also paid her £40 per week for food and provided a bus pass.
  3. Miss X states that after a few weeks the social worker told her to give up her evening job as well as she would receive £1000 per month for Y’s care.
  4. Miss X lives in a one bedroom property, so the Council provided a fold out bed for Y to sleep on in the living room. It also contacted the housing department to support Miss X in obtaining a larger property.
  5. The Council completed Y’s social care assessment on 2 July 2017 and the social worker presented the case to the Admissions to Care Panel on 6 July 2017. There was some confusion around the status of Y’s placement with Miss X. The panel decided Y was not a Looked After Child. Council officers considered Y was a Looked After Child and sought legal advice. The Council also agreed to pay Miss X the Level 1 foster carer rate of £141 per week, back dated to when she began caring for Y. But would not make any payments above this. The records also state the Council could provide child care for Y to allow Miss X to go back to work part time.
  6. Miss X was unhappy with the Council’s decision. She complained she had been misled into giving up her evening job, and expected the Council to recompense her for her lost income. The Council’s records note that there was some confusion about whether the social worker did tell Miss X to give up both jobs, but this could not be corroborated one way or the other. The Council agreed to pay Miss X her loss income for July and August 2017. But from September 2017 she would only receive the level 1 foster carer rate.
  7. With the assistance of an advocate, Miss X made a formal complaint about the misinformation she had received about the carers allowance and reimbursement of her lost earnings. Miss X was concerned the necessary paperwork confirming the fostering arrangements and payments had not been completed. And that the social worker was trying to lead her to give up her studies and seek employment so that she could look after Y.
  8. The Council’s response apologised for the delay in confirming Y’s status as a Looked After Child and for the misunderstanding over the amount of financial support it would provide. It confirmed it had paid Miss X £1000 per month in July and August 2017 as a gesture of goodwill. But that future payments would be at the Level 1 foster carer rate. It could not pay Miss X an allowance to cover her lost income and a carer’s allowance.
  9. Miss X was concerned she would not be able to afford to care for Y and continue with her education if she only received the Level 1 foster carer rate. She was also concerned Y was still sleeping in the living room of her one bedroom flat and the Council would be unable to provide a bigger property until the new year. Miss X decided she could not continue to care for Y and asked the Council to place Y with foster carers.
  10. In October 2017 Miss X for her complaint to be considered further. The stage two investigator identified Miss X’s concerns fell into three categories.:
    • Financial issues, relating to the information she received about the payments she would receive, child minder payments, the debts she had incurred and an unrealistic budgeting plan.
    • Procedure / process issues relating to a lack of paperwork and confusion around Y’s status as a Looked After Child
    • Emotional and practical support. This related to Miss X having to tell Y she was unable to care for her and she would have to go into care, and being criticised by the social worker
  11. The stage 2 investigation found that the Council had not followed the procedures for Looked After Children, and this may have led to the confusion about Y’s status. The investigating officer did not consider these failings affected the outcome. But they did consider that had the issue of finance been clarified and put in writing any disagreement and misunderstanding could have been avoided.
  12. The independent investigator noted Miss X had received a total of £3,575.98 while caring for Y between 24 May and 11 September 2017. This was made up of recurrent payments, ad hoc money and bus passes, and equated to approximately £223 per week, which is substantially more than the Level 1 foster carer rate.
  13. Miss X was not happy with the stage 2 response and asked for her complaint to be considered by the stage 3 panel. Miss X asked for an apology for the way the Council had handled the matter, counselling support for herself and Y, and compensation for the emotional stress and anxiety she had experienced.
  14. The stage 3 panel was satisfied that the social worker had agreed Miss X would receive £1000 per month. It was also satisfied that given the confused and contradictory responses around child care, Miss X was justified in believing the Council had agreed to fund child care. The panel accepted that whether or not the social worker encouraged Miss X to give up both jobs, the hours involved were not compatible with caring for a 10-year-old.
  15. In addition, the panel found that the Council’s failure to properly assess housing needs at the outset, or to secure alternative provision led to the breakdown of the arrangement and caused Miss X and Y distress.
  16. The panel recommended the Council apologise to Miss X for the way it handled the case and the length of time taken to deal with the complaint. It also recommended the Council offer Miss X counselling. The panel considered Miss X should be compensated for the financial loss and considerable emotional distress she had experienced. It noted that the difference between what Miss X had expected to receive and what she received whilst caring for Y was £600. It recommended the Council pay Miss X a minimum of £2000.
  17. The Council accepted the panel’s findings. It has apologised for the way it worked with Miss X and Y, has agreed to provide counselling and offered to pay to Miss X £2000.
  18. Miss X has accepted the £2000 on an interim basis. She does not consider this adequately compensates her and has asked the Ombudsman to investigate. Miss X states the experience has left her emotionally drained and depressed to the extent her GP has prescribed medication for her depression and anxiety. She is struggling with her studies and has gone from a position of having savings to being in debt and having to take out a student loan.
  19. Miss X believes that had the Council followed the correct procedures from the outset it would either have properly supported her and Y would not have been placed in foster care. Or it would have placed Y in foster care immediately, and Miss X would not be in the position she is now.
  20. In response to the draft decision Miss X has reiterated that prior to caring for Y, Miss X had two part-time jobs that covered her living expenses while she studied. These jobs would have continued to fit around her degree course so she would not have needed to take out a student loan. Miss X maintains that if the Council had provided the level of financial support it said it would, she would have been able to care for Y and continue with her studies. As is did not, Miss X had to choose between her studies and caring for Y. The distress caused by being put in this decision is ongoing.
  21. Miss X has been unable to find similar jobs since Y left her care she is in debt and has had to take out a student loan. Miss X believes the Council should reduce her debt and put her in the position she was in before Y came to live with her.

Analysis

  1. It is clear from the documentation provided, and the Council accept, that it failed to follow proper procedures when placing Y with Miss X. It also failed to provide clear consistent advice about the financial assistance it would provide. These failings amount to fault, and have caused Miss X a significant injustice.
  2. The Council has apologised for these failings and offered to fund counselling and pay Miss X £2000 in recognition of the financial loss and emotional distress she has experienced.
  3. I must consider whether the Council’s offer is a reasonable remedy for the injustice caused.
  4. Had the Council followed due process at the outset it is possible, given the size of Miss X’s accommodation and the unsuitable sleeping arrangements, it would not have placed Y with Miss X. Miss X would not then have given up her jobs, or incurred the level of debt that she has.
  5. Equally, if the Council had explained the financial position at the outset, Miss X would have been able to make an informed decision about whether she could afford to care for Y. This could have avoided the distress caused when the placement ended.
  6. Miss X cared for Y for approximately 20 weeks. It was inevitable that taking on the care of a young child would involve substantial changes and disruption to Miss X’s lifestyle and routine. But the faults identified above have exacerbated this and caused Miss X considerable distress and anxiety, and put her to unnecessary time and trouble.
  7. Our guidance on remedies suggests a remedy payment for distress is often a moderate sum of between £100 and £300. But in cases where the distress was severe or prolonged, up to £1,000 may be justified. Our guidance also suggests payments of between £100 and £300 are appropriate where a complainant has been put to unnecessary time and trouble.
  8. It is unfortunate that Miss X has been unable to find similar part time jobs to fit around her studies, but I do not consider this means the Council should reimburse Miss X’s student loan.
  9. In the circumstances I consider the Council’s offer to fund counselling and to pay Miss X £2000 is an appropriate remedy.

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Final decision

  1. The Council failed to follow proper procedures when placing Y with Miss X. It also failed to provide clear consistent advice about the financial assistance it would provide. These faults caused Miss X and injustice, which the Council has made an appropriate offer to remedy.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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