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Nottingham City Council (16 014 981)

Category : Children's care services > Looked after children

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 02 Jul 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains about the arrangements for contact with his children and the Council’s response to a stage two independent investigation into the matter. The Council was entitled to change the contact arrangements. However, the Council failed to invite Mr X to the looked after children reviews and continues to do so. The Council has also failed to carry out the recommendations from the independent stage two investigation. The Council has agreed to apologise to Mr X and pay him £750. It has also agreed for a suitable person to meet with Mr X to discuss his children’s progress since 2015 and carry out the recommendations from the investigation.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains about the arrangements for contact with his children and the Council’s response to a stage two independent investigation into the matter.

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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 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)
  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 have spoken with Mr X’s representative and considered his written complaint.
  2. I have considered the stage two independent investigation and the Council’s response to my enquiries.
  3. Mr X and the Council have had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
  4. 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 the final decision with Ofsted.

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What I found

  1. The Children Act 1989 allows a court to make a care order placing a child in the Council’s care as a “looked after child”. The Council then has several duties to “safeguard and promote the child’s welfare”.
  2. All looked after children must have a care plan which the Council must keep under regular review. The plan must include any court orders, the name of the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) and details of contact with parents.
  3. Parents of looked after children keep their parental responsibility, even when a child is under a care order. They have a right to be informed and consulted about all decisions unless the court approved care plan says otherwise.
  4. The Council holds looked after child (LAC) reviews to oversee implementing the care plan, check progress and make any necessary changes. The Council must hold the first review within 20 days of the child first becoming looked after, the second review within three months of the first and later reviews within six months of the previous. These are maximum timescales and the Council should hold reviews as often as necessary.
  5. The Council has its own procedures for LAC reviews. These say the Council:
    • Should normally invite parents to looked after reviews. It should send out invitations to reviews at least ten working days before the meeting.
    • Only decide not to invite parents in exceptional circumstances and after consultation with the IRO. The Council should record the decision and its reasons.
    • Should then make alternative arrangements for the parent to contribute to the review process. It should consider a split review or for the IRO to speak to the parents separately.
    • Discuss the purpose of the review with the parents at least 20 working days before the review.
    • Ensure it tells parents in writing of the outcome of a review they cannot attend. The IRO must be satisfied the Council has considered the wishes and feelings of the child’s parents as part of the review process.

Statutory Complaints Process

  1. There is a formal procedure, set out in law, which the Council must follow to investigate certain types of children’s complaints. It involves three stages:
    • Local resolution by the Council (Stage 1);
    • an investigation by an independent investigator who will prepare a detailed report and findings (Stage 2). The Council then issues an adjudication letter which sets out its response to the findings; and, if the person making the complaint asks
    • an independent panel to consider their representations (Stage 3).
  2. Regulations set out the timescales for the process. The Council should provide a response at Stage 1 within 10 working days and at Stage 2 within 25 working days (or exceptionally within 65 working days). The Council should call a review panel at Stage 3 within 30 working days.
  3. When the Council has investigated a complaint under the Children Act complaints process, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it. We may consider whether a council has properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigator, the review panel and any remedy the Council offers.

What happened

Background

  1. Mr X is the father of three children. He is separated from their mother and now lives several hours travel time away from the children. Mr X has health issues that impact his communication, mobility and ability to drive long distances.
  2. In 2015 a court issued a care order under section 31 of the Children Act. The order placed the children in the Council’s care. The recitals to the care order gave details of the agreed contact arrangements from the care plan. This was monthly contact for a minimum of 1.5 hours during term time and a minimum of 2 hours in the school holidays.
  3. In June 2016 the Council decided to change the contact arrangements at a LAC review meeting. Mr X was not invited to the meeting. The Council changed Mr X’s contact with his children to only take place in school holidays, but to last for three hours. Mr X told the Council he was unhappy with the changes in July 2016.
  4. The Council wrote to Mr X in August. It said the children struggled to get to contact sessions on time during term time and the opening hours of the contact centre meant 1.5 hours of contact was not possible in term time. The Council said it was entitled to change the contact times. It explained the longer contact sessions reflected the wishes of the children. It allowed Mr X and the children to do more community activities and made the most of Mr X’s time.
  5. Mr X made a formal complaint to the Council in September 2016. He complained about the changes to contact arrangements. He also said the Council was not telling him about review meetings, or giving him late notice, and that it was not paying him the correct expenses. He said because of his health issues he had to arrange support with transport in advance and could not attend reviews at late notice.
  6. The Council responded to Mr X on 19 September 2016. It reiterated its reasons for the changes to contact and said it would ensure Mr X received notification of reviews in time to arrange transport in future. It said it had reimbursed Mr X’s reasonable expenses in line with the court order. Mr X remained unhappy and asked the Council to consider the matter under stage two of the Children Act statutory complaints process.

Stage two investigation and findings

  1. The Council appointed a stage two investigator in January 2016. Mr X agreed his stage two complaint statement on 13 February 2017. He complained about five issues:
    • The changes to the contact arrangements.
    • Contact sessions were being supervised by two people.
    • The Council had unreasonably rejected expense claims.
    • The Council had failed to communicate with him about his children’s care.
    • The issues he had experienced were due to the social worker’s attitude to him.
  2. The stage two report was finalised on 3 May 2017. The investigator found the Council had failed to consult Mr X about the changes to contact and failed to keep minutes of the meeting where it had made the decision. However, the investigator said the Council was entitled to change the contact arrangements in the best interests of Mr X’s children.
  3. The investigator also found:
    • There was no need for two people to supervise Mr X’s contact with his children and the Council had accepted this.
    • The Council failed to give Mr X enough notice of review meetings or reimburse his expenses appropriately.
    • The Council had failed to communicate with Mr X about the progress of his children and failed to provide copies of photos, school reports and medical reports.
  4. The investigator found no evidence this was because of the social worker’s attitude to Mr X. The investigator recommended the Council:
    • Apologise to Mr X.
    • Ensure it invited Mr X to future reviews or consulted him beforehand.
    • Write to Mr X telling him who would be supervising contact.
    • Address the issue with travel expenses.
    • Follow up on providing Mr X with copies of school photos and other information.
    • Meet with Mr X to discuss remaining issues.
  5. The Council sent its stage two adjudication to Mr X on 17 May 2017. It accepted the findings. It apologised for not inviting Mr X to the LAC review where it decided to change the contact arrangements, but maintained the changes were in the children’s best interests. It agreed to change the way it reimbursed Mr X’s expenses and invited Mr X to a meeting to discuss the remaining issues.

Events since the stage two investigation

  1. The Council met with Mr X on 30 June 2017. Mr X remained unhappy with the contact situation. The Council said this could be reviewed at future LAC reviews. Mr X agreed the expenses situation was resolved. Mr X repeated his request for copies of school photos and said he wanted to be invited to future reviews.
  2. On 11 July 2017 Mr X’s representative emailed the Council saying Mr X wished to progress his complaint to stage three. However, on 14 July 2017 Mr X’s representative emailed again saying Mr X did not wish to pursue the complaints process further.
  3. Mr X had arranged contact with his children on 3 August 2017. The case notes show the Council again arranged for two people to supervise the contact. On 17 August 2017 Mr X’s social worker texted him to ask if he could attend contact on 23 August 2017. Mr X spoke to the social worker on 18 August 2017 and said he was unhappy at the short notice. Mr X contacted the Council again on 22 August 2017 and said he could not attend the next day’s contact due to the short notice.
  4. The Council contacted Mr X 17 November 2017 and invited him to a LAC review on 22 November 2017. Mr X said he could not attend at such short notice. The Council’s notes show further review meetings in November and December 2017 which Mr X was not invited to.
  5. Mr X complained to the Ombudsman in December 2017. On 22 December 2017 he attended contact with his children and again complained that two people were supervising the contact.
  6. The Council wrote to Mr X on 2 February 2018 informing him of a contact session on 15 February 2018. On 11 April 2018 the Council invited Mr X to a LAC review on 16 April 2018. Mr X was again unable to attend due to the short notice.
  7. On 1 May 2018 the Council visited Mr X at his home. At the meeting he reiterated he was unhappy at not being kept informed about his children’s progress. The Council provided Mr X with copies of previous LAC review minutes and reports. Mr X repeated his request for a school photo of his children. Shortly after the meeting Mr X’s representative emailed the Council saying how positive the meeting was. The Council’s notes of the meeting record Mr X as commenting at the end of the meeting “I wish things were done like this all along”.

My findings

  1. The statutory guidance allows 25 working days for the Council to complete a stage two investigation and in exceptional circumstances 65 working days. Mr X asked the Council to investigate his complaint at stage two of the children’s complaints process in September 2016. The Council did not appoint an investigator until January 2017 and issued its adjudication on 17 May 2017. The Council took over 65 working days to carry out stage two of the statutory children’s complaints process. This is fault.
  2. Following the stage two investigation, Mr X remains unhappy with the changes to the contact arrangements. The contact arrangements between Mr X and his children do not form part of the court order itself, but are detailed in the recitals. The court agreed care plan gives details of the contact arrangements and the court agreed this plan should be kept under review. The Council was entitled to make changes to the contact arrangements and is not at fault for doing so. The Children Act 1989 allows Mr X to return to court if he believes the contact arrangements are unreasonable.
  3. While the Council is not at fault for the changes in the contact arrangements, its failure to consult with Mr X on the changes was fault. The stage two investigation identified failure by the Council to involve Mr X in decisions about his children’s care since 2015. The Council regularly failed to invite Mr X to LAC reviews, or gave him such short notice that his health did not allow him to travel. The Council recorded no reasons why Mr X should not be involved in LAC reviews.
  4. Unfortunately, since the stage two investigation this pattern has continued. The Council has either failed to invite Mr X to reviews or not given him at least 10 working days’ notice. Following the stage two investigation, the Council apologised to Mr X and assured him it would change its approach. This is not evident in the Council’s actions to date. The Council has repeatedly failed to follow its own procedures for LAC reviews and denied Mr X the opportunity to be involved in decisions about his children.
  5. The stage two investigation also recommended the Council told Mr X who would be supervising contact sessions. The Council says it provided Mr X a yearly planner of contact dates. However, I have seen no evidence of this. Since the stage two investigation the Council has again provided Mr X with late notice for contact sessions and supervised contact with two people.
  6. The stage two investigator also recommended the Council provide Mr X with copies of school photos. The Council has still not done this. The Council accepted the stage two findings and its recommendations in May 2017. However, over a year later the Council has still not followed these recommendations. This is fault.
  7. The guidance says the statutory complaints procedure should develop a “listening and learning culture”. It says councils should “deliver what they have promised, learn from complaints and use this learning to improve services for everyone who uses them”. By failing to act on the findings of the complaint investigation, the Council has failed to learn from past mistakes and it left Mr X feeling not listened to.

Impact on Mr X

  1. Mr X suffers from health problems that make travel and communication difficult. To pursue this complaint he has had to enlist the support of a friend to act on his behalf and explain matters. The Children Act 1989 is clear that while the Council should take all decisions in the best interests of the children, parents of children under a care plan have a right to be consulted unless the Council considers otherwise and records the reasons for that decision.
  2. Since 2015 the Council has repeatedly failed in that duty to Mr X. Because of this Mr X has had little knowledge of the events in his children’s lives. He has voiced concerns to the Council over their welfare, asked for photos, school reports, and medical reports. Left with little information Mr X has been caused distress because of fault by the Council.

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Recommended action

  1. Within one month of my final decision, the Council has agreed to:
    • Apologise to Mr X.
    • Pay Mr X £500 to recognise the distress he has faced because of fault by the Council and £250 to recognise his time and trouble in pursuing the complaint.
    • Arrange for an appropriate person to meet with Mr X and take him through the key events in his children’s lives since 2015.
    • Provide Mr X with school photos of his children.
    • Provide Mr X with the yearly planner of contact dates and clarifies who will be supervising contact. If the Council feels contact needs to be supervised by two people it should record its reasons and discuss this at the next LAC review.
    • Ensure it follows its LAC review processes and invite Mr X to future LAC reviews with at least ten working days’ notice, or give him an opportunity to comment if he cannot attend.
  2. Within three months of my final decision, the Council has agreed to:
    • Amend its procedures to ensure it carries out agreed recommendations from stage two investigations under the statutory children’s complaints process.
    • Review its learning from both the stage two findings and the Ombudsman’s findings and be able to show the Ombudsman (through action plans, training records or similar) how it has cascaded this to its children’s services staff in a suitable way.

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Final decision

  1. There was fault leading to injustice. The Council has accepted my recommendations. I have decided to complete my investigation as I consider that a suitable remedy.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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