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Sunderland City Council (16 011 750)

Category : Children's care services > Looked after children

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 29 Mar 2017

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council was at fault for how it removed the complainant from his foster carers. During this investigation it has apologised and offered a remedy to the complaint which will provide a fair outcome.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I have called ‘Child Y’, is a young person now aged 15. He complains about events in June 2014 when he lived with foster carers (whom I have called ‘Mr and Mrs B’), with his brother ‘Child X’. Child X’s placement broke down. The Council decided to take Child Y into its care due to concerns about Mr and Mrs B and his home. Child Y complained the Council:
  • Falsely told him Mrs B was in hospital so he could not return to her home.
  • Denied him the opportunity to say goodbye to Mr and Mrs B. Its actions meant he only had supervised contact with them over the following four months and missed family celebrations. He also lost contact with friends.
  • Instead forced him to live with a family he did not know for four months. Child Y says while this was not a long time to him “it felt like a lifetime”

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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 the Ombudsman about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D)
  2. 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))
  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))

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How I considered this complaint

  1. Before issuing this decision statement I considered the following:
  • Child Y’s written complaint to the Ombudsman and supporting evidence; this included details of his complaint to the Council, a report into his complaint, the Council’s reply and supporting paperwork;
  • further information provided by Mr and Mrs B during a separate investigation into a complaint they have made which encompasses the Council’s decision to remove Child Y from their care;
  • information provided by the Council in reply to written enquiries;
  • comments from Child Y and the Council in response to a draft decision where I set out my thinking about the complaint.

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What I found

  1. The Ombudsman received Child Y’s complaint in November 2016. As noted above the events covered by the complaint took place more than two years previously. It was therefore a late complaint.
  2. However I decided there were good reasons to investigate the complaint despite the passage of time. First, the events covered were not so long ago that the Council would not have records of what took place. Second, I noted that before making his complaint to the Ombudsman Child Y had gone through a lengthy complaint procedure for complaints about children’s social care services (which I refer to below). He had then entered into more correspondence with the Council following the outcome of that complaint. I considered it would be unfair to penalise Child Y for the time taken for this procedure to complete.

The investigation by the Council of Child Y’s complaint

  1. The Council considered Child Y’s complaint under the law specific to complaints about children’s social care services. In brief this sets out a three stage procedure for councils to follow. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Independent Investigator and an Independent Person (who is responsible for overseeing the investigation). If a complainant is unhappy with the result of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review.
  2. Child Y’s complaint was subject to an investigation under that procedure. However, by agreement it did not go to ‘stage 3’.
  3. I see no reason to reproduce in detail all the findings of the ‘stage 2’ investigation. The report into the complaint was lengthy and detailed. But in brief Child Y’s complaint was upheld. The key findings I note are that:
  • The Council removed Child Y from Mr and Mrs B’s care “for no good reason”. A separate investigation into Mr and Mrs B’s complaint identified flaws in a meeting which decided to remove Child Y from their care.
  • The investigator believed that Child Y received false information about Mrs B being in hospital, although they could not find out who said this.
  • That while there was no fault by the Council in how it arranged for Child Y to have contact with Mr and Mrs B and friends while in care this was still distressing for him. He did not understand why the Council removed him from Mr and Mrs B’s care whom he had lived with for around 10 years previously.
  1. I note that Child Y was in the Council’s care for around four months. Before it took Child Y into care the Council had begun Court proceedings to revoke a ‘freeing order’ which would potentially allow for his adoption. Mr and Mrs B joined those proceedings after the Council took Child Y into care and argued successfully the Court should return him to their care.
  2. I note the Council accepted the findings of the complaint investigation summarised at paragraph 10 above. It then met with Child Y to give him an apology. It also agreed to consider paying Child Y some money to recognise the injustice caused to him by its actions. Child Y asked it to pay towards a family holiday which cost around £4300. The Council offered a contribution of £1500 which Child Y rejected.

My investigation

  1. I did not consider I could add to the findings of the investigation I summarised above. The complaint to this office therefore hinged on what remedy the Council should make for the injustice caused to Child Y, which was distress. My enquiries therefore focused on that matter.
  2. In response to my enquiries the Council repeated its proposed financial remedy of £1500. It also offered for Child Y to meet with one of its social workers. This was to discuss if there is any “particular equipment or event/activity to assist him in making best use of his education or leisure time”.
  3. I considered this fair taking account that the distress caused to Child Y was significant and the time it lasted. I considered the Council’s offer consistent with the Ombudsman’s published guidance on remedying complaints.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council therefore agrees that within 20 working days of a decision on this complaint it will:
      1. Pay Child Y £1500 in recognition of his injustice.
      2. Offer the meeting it has discussed to consider some extra support.
  2. In his comments on my draft decision Child Y has suggested he does not feel able to meet with the Council at this time. This is because he remains upset at its previous actions and fears a repeat. While I still consider the Council should offer a meeting, I do not consider it should rule out other ways to progress its offer of further support. For example, through written correspondence if this is what Child Y prefers. I also think it sensible the Council set a limit on the value of what “particular equipment or event/activity” it will fund. I consider a value of around £500 reasonable.

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Final decision

  1. For the reasons set out above I upheld this complaint. I find the Council acted with fault causing injustice to the complainant. But I also note the Council offered a fair remedy to the injustice. Therefore I have completed my investigation satisfied with its actions on the understanding these will complete in the next 20 working days.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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