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Norfolk County Council (21 000 187)

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

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 19 Sep 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains about the Council’s decision to allow his ex-partner to supervise contact between him and his children. He says the Council did not review its decision. We find fault with the Council for failing to provide Mr X with a copy of the social work assessment at the time it was completed. We have made recommendations.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains about the Council’s decision, following an assessment, to allow his ex-partner to supervise contact between him and his children. He says the Council did not review its decision and this has meant he has only had supervised contact with his children.

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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. 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)
  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 spoke with Mr X and considered the information he provided.
  2. I made enquiries with the Council and considered the information it provided.
  3. I sent two draft decisions to Mr X and the Council and considered their comments.

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What I found

Legislation and guidance

  1. The Children Act 1989 and statutory guidance ‘Working together to safeguard children 2018’ set out councils’ responsibilities to safeguard children. Councils have a duty to make enquiries where a child is considered to be suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm. The enquiries must establish the child’s situation and determine whether protective action is required (Section 47 of the Children Act 1989). Significant harm covers the risk of physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect.
  2. Section 47 of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on councils to make such enquiries as they consider necessary to enable them to decide whether to take action to safeguard or promote the welfare of a child in their area.

What happened

  1. Mr X has three children with his ex-partner.
  2. In March 2020, the Council received a referral from the children’s school noting two of the children had reported Mr X had been physically abusive towards them.
  3. The Council completed section 47 enquiries to gather more information. A Council social worker spoke with the children, their mother, and Mr X. The Council’s records noted that face to face meetings with the children was not possible as the family was isolating due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Council relied on video conferencing to speak with the children and their mother.
  4. The social worker completed an assessment. The assessment noted the following:
    • All three children made disclosures of excessive physical chastisement by Mr X. The assessment could not substantiate the disclosures due to a lack of evidence.
    • The children’s mother advised she was happy for the children to have supervised contact with Mr X, and she was happy to supervise the contact.
    • Mr X agreed to supervised contact by the children’s mother.
    • The social worker had advised both parents to seek legal advice if they cannot agree on contact arrangements.
  5. The Council closed the case at the end of April 2020. There is no evidence the Council shared the social work assessment with Mr X after it closed the case.
  6. Mr X said the Council did not tell him the supervision was advisory only. He thought the supervision had been put in place by children social services.
  7. Mr X also explained he did get legal advice and his solicitor arranged for mediation between him and his ex-partner. He said the mediation did not work as his ex-partner did not engage with the mediation. There is no evidence Mr X solicitor contacted the Council for further information about the contact arrangements.
  8. Mr X said his solicitor told him around October 2020 that his only option was to go to court if he disagreed with the contact arrangements. Mr X said he did not want to go to court because of everything the children had already been through.
  9. In response to my first draft decision, Mr X said that the social work assessment contained inaccuracies and that he did not have the opportunity to challenge the content of the assessment because it was sent to him late. Further, he says that because he received the assessment late, he had no idea of his ex-partner’s feelings and that if he had known, he would have approached the situation differently.

Analysis

  1. There is no fault with the Council for completing section 47 enquiries after it received the referral. This is because it had a duty to investigate when it received the allegation Mr X’s children were at risk of harm.
  2. There is some confusion on Mr X’s part regarding who had put in place the contact arrangements. Mr X’s view is he thought the supervised contact had been ordered by the Council. However, the Council’s records showed it was the children’s mother who wanted the children to have supervised contact due to the allegations made by the children.
  3. The Council’s records also note Mr X had agreed to the supervised contact and that he was happy with that arrangement. Mr X disputes this and says he only agreed because he thought it was the Council who had put in place the arrangement.
  4. The evidence available shows the Council had no role in arranging the supervised contact; it was not the Council’s decision. This is because the records show it was the children’s mother who wanted the children to have supervised contact with Mr X. It is also clear the Council had closed on the case as it was satisfied that, due to the agreed supervised contact, the risk of harm to the children was significantly reduced. Therefore, the case was not open to the Council as it had no further role to play.
  5. Therefore, there was nothing legally requiring Mr X to have supervised contact with his children. Instead, it was the children’s mother exercising her parental right to request supervised contact. As Mr X also had parental rights, he was entitled to disagree with his ex-partner and refuse to have supervised contact with his children.
  6. It is not clear from the Council’s records whether the Council had clearly explained the above to Mr X. Therefore, it is understandable why Mr X may have been left with the impression that it was children social services who wanted contact to be supervised.
  7. The failure of the Council to share the completed social work assessment with Mr X would have added to the confusion over the reason for the supervised contact. If the Council had shared the assessment with Mr X at the time, it would have been clearer to him that the children’s mother had requested for contact to be supervised and that children services were not involved in making that decision. This is fault.
  8. The request for supervised contact came from the children’s mother. Therefore, even though there was a delay with the Council providing a copy of the social worker assessment, it remains the case Mr X’s only option to challenge the contact arrangements was through the courts. This would have been the case even if the Council had made it clear to Mr X at the start that the supervised contact was voluntary and not required.
  9. As Mr X has indicated he was, and remains, unwilling to pursue legal action, this means that even if the Council had been clearer with him at the start, it is unlikely on balance he would have pursued legal action to challenge the contact arrangements.
  10. However, despite this, I consider the delay in issuing the social work assessment did cause Mr X some injustice. This is because he lost the opportunity to provide the Council with comments on the information contained within the assessment. The lost opportunity has also led to some distress for him as he disagrees with the content of the assessment.
  11. Further, Mr X has highlighted that as the social work assessment was sent to him late, he did not know how his ex-partner felt. Therefore, he did not have access to the same information as his ex-partner, which he should have been. This was distressing for him. It is also understandable how not having the same information as his ex-partner left him in a difficult situation.

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Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice caused by the fault identified, the Council has agreed to complete the following:
    • Apologise to Mr X for the delay in issuing the social work assessment and the distress this caused him.
    • Pay Mr X £150 to recognise the distress caused by the fault.
  2. The Council should complete the above within four weeks of the final decision.

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Final decision

  1. I find fault with the Council for failing to provide Mr X with a copy of the social work assessment at the time it was completed. The Council has accepted my recommendations. Therefore, I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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