Essex County Council (19 016 035)

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

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 09 Mar 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: there is no evidence of fault in relation to Essex County Council’s involvement following X’s move to live with Mr and Mrs D after his mother became unwell

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom, I shall refer to as Mr D, complains that whilst Essex County Council placed his wife’s nephew, X, with him and his wife in 2013, it failed to provide them with any support, including financial support and advice, to assist them in their care of X.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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 discussed the complaint with Mr D and considered the information he provided. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered all the information before reaching a draft decision on the complaint.
  2. I exercised my discretion to consider Mr D’s complaint even though it concerns matters that took place several years ago. This is because Mr D was unclear of the responsibilities of Essex County Council and the council where he lives at the time. In addition Mr D did purse a complaint against the other council which he believed was responsible and has had a large number of difficult personal circumstances to manage during the intervening period.
  3. I gave the Council and Mr D the opportunity to comment on my draft decision and took account of the responses I received before reaching a final decision on the complaint.

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What I found

What should have happened

  1. Sometimes parents cannot look after their children. It may be because the parents cannot provide suitable care or have been hospitalised, for example. These children may need the council to accommodate them, making them looked after children.
  2. Section 20 of the Children Act 1989 says that a council has a duty to provide accommodation for a child in need in their area who appears to be in need of accommodation because:
    • no person has parental responsibility for them; or
    • they have been lost of abandoned; or
    • the person who has been caring for the child is prevented from providing him with suitable accommodation or care.
  3. Provision of accommodation under section 20 of the Children Act requires consent of a parent.
  4. Alternatively, another arrangement is informal family care, sometimes called a private family arrangement. This is when the child lives with a close family member, grandparent, uncle, sibling etc and it comes about by a private arrangement between the parents and the close relative. In this case the parents remain responsible for financial support for the child.
  5. When a child in need needs to be accommodated by a council the Children Act 1989 says councils should first consider placing a child with family or friends. Obviously, this will depend on those family and friends being ‘suitable’ and able to provide suitable care. If the council is considering the carer as a family and friends foster carer, the carer will be subject to the same checks as professional foster carers. If the carer becomes a family and friends foster carer, the carer is entitled to receive a fostering allowance and other practical support for them and the child from the council. The fostering allowance is provided to cover the costs of caring for the child.
  6. Councils have a duty under the Children Act 1989 to make enquiries where they suspect a child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm. If concerns are substantiated the Council may convene a child protection case conference. This is a multi-disciplinary meeting whose attendees decide what action is needed to safeguard the child. The conference may decide to make the child the subject of a child protection plan which details what action is necessary to reduce the risk of harm. A child will be made the subject of a place under a particular category of abuse/harm including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. Subsequent review child protection case conference(s) consider progress made and whether the child protection plan should be maintained, amended or discontinued.

Background

  1. X was nine years old when he went to live with Mr D and his wife, Mrs D in April 2013. Mrs D was X’s paternal aunt.
  2. The Council says it had known X and his parents since he was around two years of age as there had been a number of concerns about his welfare during that period. In 2011 X was the subject of a child protection plan under the category of neglect.
  3. Before April 2013 the Council says its most recent involvement had been up to October 2012 at which time it had ended a period of involvement with X and his parents.

What happened

  1. The Council’s records show that in late April 2013 it received a referral from the Ambulance Service to say that X’s mother had attended hospital with hallucinations and had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act. The hospital advised that X’s mother was likely to be in hospital for some time and that X had gone to stay with his paternal aunt, Mrs D.
  2. The case was allocated to a social worker two days later. The social worker spoke to X’s maternal grandmother who confirmed that X’s mother was in hospital and that X had been staying with her together with X’s mum before she was hospitalised. X’s grandmother told the social worker that X was now living with Mrs D and that she understood that Mrs D was looking for a school place for X near her.
  3. The social worker then spoke to Mrs D. The case notes made by the social worker at the time say that Mrs D told the social worker that X had been living with his maternal grandmother and mother when his mother was sectioned. She said that X’s father was in prison so unavailable to care for X. She told the social worker that X’s mother had contacted her after she was unable to locate X’s father. She was concerned that X’s grandmother was unable to cope with looking after X and so asked Mrs D is she would look after X as he was used spending time with Mrs D having spent school holidays with her previously. Mrs D confirmed she had contacted her local council for a school place for X. Mrs D told the social worker that X had said he wanted to stay with her. Mrs D told the social worker that she was concerned that X’s mother would want X to return to live with her when she was discharged form hospital. The social worker’s notes then state “I agreed with Mrs D that it appears since the age of two social care have had intermittent involvement with X who clearly needs to be provided with a safe and secure home environment, in order that he has opportunities to feel safe and reach his full potential. He was subject of a child protection plan in 2011 under the category of neglect due to both his parents misuse of alcohol and incapable of providing him with safe care…”.
  4. The social worker then spoke to the children’s social care team in the area in which Mrs D lived and agreed to make a referral to them.

Was the Council at fault and did this cause injustice?

  1. On the basis of the Council’s records from 2013 I do not consider there was fault in the Council’s actions. It seems clear that the decision for X to go and live with Mr and Mrs D was made by agreement between Mrs D and X’s mother and was therefore a private family arrangement. The Council had no involvement in this arrangement at all, did not “place” X with Mr and Mrs D and had not had any involvement with X and his parents for over six months. I do not therefore consider there are any grounds for me to conclude that the Council had any duty to accommodate X under the Children Act or consequently to then carry out checks on Mr and Mrs D as his carers or pay them as it would foster carers. I further note that Mrs D did not ask the Council for help or advice at the time she spoke to the social worker in April 2013 so there was no reason for the Council to further consider providing any advice or support for that reason.

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Final decision

  1. There is no evidence of fault in relation to the Council’s involvement following X’s move to live with Mr and Mrs D after his mother became unwell.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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