Oxfordshire County Council (17 017 044)

Category : Children's care services > Looked after children

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 18 Oct 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained about the way the Council dealt with indirect contact arrangements with his children. It did not send him some minutes of meetings when it said it would. It has apologised for this, which is a suitable remedy. The Ombudsman has not found evidence of further fault in the way the Council dealt with the arrangements.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complained that the Council has failed to:
    • ensure contact with his children as ordered by the courts;
    • involve him in the Looked After Child Review process; and
    • send him copies of Looked After Child Review meeting minutes despite agreeing to do so.

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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 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, sections 26(1), 26A(1) and 34(3), as amended)
  2. 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)
  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)
  4. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I discussed the complaint with Mr X and considered the information he provided. I considered the information the Council provided in response to my enquiries. I shared my draft decision with the Council and the complainant and considered the comments I received.
  2. Mr X complained about events dating back to 2012. I have not investigated matters from that point. This is because Mr X made a complaint to the Council in July 2016 and I consider he could reasonably have been expected to complain before that about matters from 2012. The Council put the complaint on hold during a police investigation. Mr X resubmitted the complaint to the Council in July 2017 when the police investigation was over. As the delay in dealing with the complaint was not of Mr X’s making I have treated it as made in July 2016 and investigated matters from 12 months before then.

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What I found

  1. A child in the care of the Council under a Care Order is known as a ‘Looked After Child’. Looked After Child (LAC) Review meetings to review the child’s progress and the care plan must take place at least every six months. A Looked After Child will have an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO). The IRO’s main role is to monitor and review the child’s care plan to ensure the care provided is suitable for the child’s needs and to ensure the Council properly considers the child’s wishes and feelings about their care. Statutory guidance ‘Children Act 1989 guidance and regulations volume 2 care planning, placement and case review’ and the ‘IRO Handbook’ set out how reviews should be carried out. The guidance says:
    • The “review is the child’s meeting” and must be child-centred.
    • There should be discussion in advance between the child and the social worker about who the child would like to attend the meeting.
    • It is expected that the parents and the child (if they are of sufficient age and understanding) will be present at the whole of the review, but this will depend on the circumstances of each individual case.
    • In exceptional circumstances the social worker, in consultation with the IRO, may decide it would not be appropriate for the parent to attend all or part of the review meeting. This could be if it would not be in the interests of the child or if there was a conflict of interest between the parent and the child. In these cases alternative arrangements should be made to involve the parent in the review process.

What happened

  1. Mr X has three teenaged children. They are all in the care of the Council and placed with foster carers. The Care Plan the court approved in 2012 said the children should have indirect contact with Mr X through Children’s Services up to three times a year. The arrangement was to be kept continually under review through the Looked After Child review process.
  2. The court did not agree to direct contact with Mr X, either supervised or unsupervised, because it considered he presented a risk to the children. Indirect contact may take the form of letters, photographs, gifts, or information being passed on through Children’s Services.
  3. The Council has provided the following details of contact with Mr X from June 2015.
  4. In early June 2015 one of the children made allegations against Mr X which led to a criminal investigation. Bail conditions prevented Mr X having any contact with the children.
  5. Following this the Council says it had some difficulty making contact with Mr X. It sent an email to his sister in June 2015 asking for his contact details so the Council could share information. The Council received a reply in mid-July with an apology for the delay as the sister had had to ‘track him down’. Mr X confirmed his address but failed to respond to a letter in August asking for up to date contact details. In September 2015 the LAC review minutes note that recent attempts to contact Mr X had been unsuccessful.
  6. In January 2016 Mr X replied to the Council’s letter of August 2015. He gave his current contact details and said he had been moving around a lot.
  7. The children’s IRO had a meeting with Mr X in March 2016 and gave him updates on the children.
  8. Following this Mr X made a complaint to the Council saying this was the first time he had heard about the IRO who he said had been ‘assigned to his case’ since 2011. He complained that the IRO had failed to involve him in decisions about his children’s care even though he had parental responsibility and had prevented him having contact with his children. The Council said it would not investigate his complaint while the police investigation was continuing.
  9. Mr X wrote to the Council in July 2016 asking if he could attend LAC review meetings and receive copies of the minutes. The Council considered the request, discussing it with the IRO, the safeguarding, information disclosure and legal services sections, and the police. The Council considered it would go against the direct contact restriction to invite Mr X to the LAC review meetings. It decided it would not be in the best interests of the children to provide him with notes of the LAC review meetings while the police investigation was continuing. This might reveal sensitive information and undermine the criminal investigation.
  10. Instead the IRO offered to meet Mr X after the LAC review meetings to provide updates on the children’s progress as long as the children agreed.
  11. In early August 2016 Mr X had a meeting with the IRO and one of the children’s social workers to discuss the children’s progress. The record of the meeting shows that Mr X heard information about their health, welfare, schooling and interests. The IRO explained at the meeting that after seeking further advice the Council had decided it would not provide him with copies of minutes of past LAC review meetings because of the continuing criminal investigation. They agreed the IRO would update Mr X again following the next LAC review meeting.
  12. The IRO provided an update to Mr X by email after the next LAC review meeting in October 2016. She then had a meeting with him and his sister in December 2016.
  13. In 2017 the IRO sent an email to Mr X as part of the LAC review process in February. She had meetings with him in March and August 2017 along with other members of the extended family to provide updates. At the August meeting they discussed the ground rules for family members for communicating with the children by letter.
  14. I understand that in June 2017 the police told Mr X they would no longer be pursuing the criminal prosecution. Mr X re-submitted his complaint to the Council about the lack of information about his children and the role of the IRO.
  15. The Council responded to the complaint in September 2017. It set out the history of contacts to date. It apologised if it had not sent Mr X all the past LAC review minutes it had promised but said it would now do so. It said its view based on information from the police was that the police had not stopped the investigation.
  16. Mr X was not happy with the outcome of the complaint and wrote back to the Council in November 2017. He denied there were any difficulties in contacting him. He said his family had not received the guidance on contact with the children as agreed in the meeting in August 2017. He confirmed he did not expect to be able to attend LAC reviews but said he wanted to be included in the process. He said it was left to him to arrange the meetings. He said he hoped he would now receive the minutes of the LAC review meetings.
  17. The Council responded in early January 2018. It referred to meetings he had had with the IRO which coincided with the LAC review meetings to ensure he was involved in the process. It apologised for any earlier information suggesting it would send out the LAC review minutes but said it could not do so while the police investigation was continuing. Despite this the Council said it was satisfied it had kept Mr X up to date with progress on the children through the meetings with the IRO. The Council also said it would now send him written guidance on the rules about contact for the extended family.
  18. The Council sent the guidelines shortly afterwards. It also contacted Mr X to arrange the next meeting about the LAC review. The Council sent further emails to Mr X during March 2018 with updates on the children. It invited him to contact the Council during this time for further information or to discuss the LAC review. In June 2018 the Council said it was waiting for Mr X to contact it to arrange a meeting to share updates from the most recent LAC review meetings.
  19. In April 2018 the police wrote to Mr X to say they had concluded their investigation. They would not be pursuing the case as the allegations could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt. However the letter also said the investigation may be re-opened if any further evidence emerged and warned Mr X not to intimidate or threaten the alleged victims or witnesses.

Analysis – was there fault causing injustice?

  1. The children are in the Council’s care, and the Council shares parental responsibility for them with Mr X and their mother. The Council has a duty to act in the best interests of the children and to take account of their wishes and feelings as far as their age and level of understanding allow. The IRO’s role was to protect the welfare of the children, not to act for Mr X. Because of the allegations made against Mr X the Council also had to consider the views of the police and its legal advisers to ensure it did not cause unnecessary distress to the children or compromise the criminal investigation. It also took account of the court findings in the care proceedings about the risk Mr X posed. The Council had to be vigilant about the potential effect of any contact between Mr X and the children.
  2. The Ombudsman has no power to question a council’s decisions if they are made properly. In this case I do not find the Council was at fault in balancing all these considerations and coming to the view that the best way to involve Mr X in the LAC review process was to provide updates through meetings with the IRO timed to coincide with the LAC review meetings. From June 2015 in my view the Council has taken reasonable steps to involve Mr X in the process and provide information to him about the children given the circumstances of the case.
  3. I do not consider the Council was at fault in deciding it should not send copies of the LAC review minutes to Mr X, for the same reasons. It should not have promised to send them when it had decided it could not do so. The Council has apologised for this and no further action is necessary.
  4. Mr X says the Council has not followed the court order for up to three indirect contacts a year. Based on the information I have seen contacts did not take place in 2015. The Council says it had difficulty contacting Mr X which he denies. However there is evidence of some difficulty. His sister said she had had trouble tracking him down, and Mr X did not respond to a request from the Council in August 2015 until January 2016. But in any event there is no evidence that Mr X provided any letters or any other form of communication for Children’s Services to pass on to the children during this time. I have seen nothing to suggest that the Council did anything to prevent Mr X providing contact material if he had wished to do so.
  5. During 2016, 2017 and 2018 there is evidence that indirect contact in the form of information provided to Mr X took place and that the Council invited him to get in touch for more information or to arrange meetings.
  6. I do not find that the Council was at fault in failing to ensure indirect contact as ordered by the courts or in failing to involve Mr X appropriately in the LAC review process. The Council’s apology is a sufficient remedy for its failure to send him the LAC review minutes, along with its action in keeping him informed through face to face meetings. The Council has provided a reasonable explanation as to why it does not consider it appropriate to send him copies now. It should keep the matter under review as part of the LAC review process.

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Final decision

  1. The Council has already accepted that it failed to send Mr X minutes of meetings when it said it would, but it has remedied any injustice caused by this. I have not found evidence of any other significant fault by the Council in the way it dealt with contact arrangements with Mr X’s children. I have therefore completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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