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Cumbria County Council (18 008 429)

Category : Children's care services > Looked after children

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 29 Mar 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained the Council failed to properly investigate a complaint his son made under the children’s statutory complaints procedure. The Council failed to meet the timescales under the statutory procedure. It has already offered Mr X’s son £250 which is sufficient to remedy any injustice caused by the delays. There was no fault in the way the Council carried out the Stage 2 investigation and Stage 3 review of the complaint.

The complaint

  1. Mr X, on behalf of his son, Z, complained the Council failed to properly investigate a complaint Z made under the children’s statutory complaints procedure. The complaint was that the Council:
      1. failed to handle events appropriately on the day the Family Court met to consider its application to take his son into local authority care. In particular, Mr X complains:
        1. the Council failed to have an appropriate plan in place if the Court decided to issue a full care order;
        2. Z's social worker was not present at Court to support him;
        3. Z was detained for two hours by two social workers who abused and bullied him;
        4. whilst Z was detained for two hours, he was not allowed to contact his father or solicitor;
      2. failed to deal with Z’s complaints about two social workers in an appropriate manner;
      3. told Z when he was placed with foster carers after the Court hearing, that he would be physically stopped from leaving his foster home for the first weekend of his placement;
      4. did not provide him with his personal possessions, including his school uniform and medical equipment; and
      5. failed to investigate his complaint within the timescales for dealing with statutory children’s complaints.
  2. Mr X said this caused him and Z avoidable distress and inconvenience and abused their human rights.

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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. 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 to Mr X and considered the information he provided. This included listening to the recordings Z made.
  2. I made enquiries of the Council and considered the information it provided. This included the Council’s Stage 1, 2 and 3 responses and reports, evidence provided by Mr X during the complaints proceedings, and other evidence relied on by the investigating officer such as interview recordings.
  3. I considered:
    • the relevant legislation including the Children’s Statutory Complaints Procedures; and
    • the Ombudsman’s Guidance on Remedies.
  4. I wrote to Mr X and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments before I made my final decision.

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What I found

  1. The law sets out a three-stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services:
    • Stage 1 – local resolution by the service area. The council should complete this within 10 days;
    • Stage 2 – investigation by an investigating officer and independent person. The IO produces a detailed report and findings which the council must respond to during the adjudication process. Stage 2 must take no longer than 25 days from when the complainant asks for the complaint to go to Stage 2. The council may extend the investigation to 65 days for complex cases. These timescales include the adjudication stage; and
    • Stage 3 – consideration by an independent review panel which may make further recommendations. The council has 30 days to call and hold a review panel.
  2. During the adjudication process, a senior council officer acts as Adjudicating Officer (AO) and considers:
    • the complaints;
    • the investigation’s findings, conclusions and recommendations;
    • the independent person’s report; and
    • the complainant’s desired outcomes.
  3. The AO must write to the complainant and include details of whether they agree or disagree with each of the investigation’s findings.
  4. When the council accepts a complaint under the children’s complaints procedures, it must ensure the complaint goes to Stages 2 and 3 if that is the complainant’s wishes.
  5. If a council has investigated something under the children’s social care complaints procedure, we would not normally reinvestigate, unless we considered the investigations were flawed.
  6. However, we may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.

Background

  1. In 2014, Z’s parents separated. In 2016, Z and his two sisters were place on child protection plans under the category of emotional abuse from Mr X. At that time, Z was living with his father and his sisters were living with their mother.
  2. The Council had additional concerns about Z living with Mr X and so in 2016, it started care proceedings. In August 2016, Z became the subject of an interim care order. He continued living with his father.
  3. In November 2016, the Court ordered that Z would be the subject of a full care order. Z was present at court for the judgement.
  4. In accordance with the terms of the care order, Z was removed from his father’s care and placed with his maternal grandmother and her partner.
  5. In February 2017, Mr X asked the Court to discharge Z’s care order. The Council was concerned the care order was not effective in meeting Z’s needs and requested the Court discharge the care order. As a result, Z returned to live with his father.

Mr X’s complaints to the Council

  1. In December 2016, Z complained to the Council. In June 2017, the Council wrote to Z through his solicitor and said that it had tried to meet with him several times to discuss his complaint. However, Z did not take these offers up. Therefore, the Council closed the case.
  2. Later in 2017, Z complained to the Ombudsman. We found much of the delay was because of Mr X and Z’s unavailability to meet with the Council. We were critical of the Council however, because it failed to provide a response to Z’s complaint.
  3. Therefore, in October 2017, we recommended the Council provide a Stage 1 response to Z’s complaint and explained he had a right to request a Stage 2 investigation.
  4. Later in October 2017, the Council told Z that it had progressed his complaint to Stage 2 of the statutory children’s complaints process.
  5. The Council appointed an Investigating Officer (IO) and an Independent Person (IP). Z signed a complaint and desired outcomes statement in December 2017. This contained the following complaints:
      1. Z was not informed of a revised care plan which was drawn up just before the Court hearing;
      2. Z was detained in a locked room for two hours by the social workers and not allowed out. During that time, he was not allowed access to his solicitor or his father. Z said he was bullied and abused by the social workers;
      3. When Z raised his concerns about the social workers to his new social worker, she did not investigate them properly and failed to take account of his wishes and feelings;
      4. His foster carers physically stopped him from leaving the foster home. When he went to his father’s home, the Police forcibly removed him and returned him to his foster home; and
      5. The Council prevented him from going to school because it removed him to a foster home immediately after the Court hearing which meant he had no suitable uniform or medical or sporting equipment.
  6. Z had a number of desired outcomes which included a thorough investigation and meaningful explanation of why:
    • the care plan changed on the day of the Court hearing;
    • his usual social worker was not present; and
    • his foster carers were told that he had to be physically restrained from leaving their home.
  7. Z also wanted confirmation that the Council would investigate his allegations against the two social workers who were in Court with him.
  8. Finally, Z wanted confirmation that the Council would take the practical and emotional impact on young people into account when they complained. He wanted an apology for the way the Council had managed the events he complained about and the distress he had been caused.

The Stage 2 investigation

  1. The IO investigated into all of Z’s complaints. He carried out interviews with Z and Mr X and ten Council staff. These included one of the social workers present at Court. He was unable to interview the second social worker for reasons outside his control.
  2. The IO also accessed Z’s case files and listened to the recordings Z had made. This included the time he had been in Court.
  3. The IO published his report on 1 May 2018. He did not uphold most Z’s complaints. However, he did uphold the following ones:
    • Z was not informed of revised care plan;
    • One of the social worker’s behaviour was of a bullying nature; and
    • The Council’s handling of Z’s complaint at Stage 1 had been flawed in several respects.
  4. The IO made a number of recommendations which included:
    • Targeted training for the social worker whose behaviour had been of a bullying nature;
    • An apology to Z where his complaints were upheld or partially upheld;
    • Changes to the way the Council dealt with complaints at Stage 1 of the children’s complaints process;
    • Procedural changes for when documents were stored electronically; and
    • All recommendations and learnings from the investigation to be cascaded to relevant staff in the Council.
  5. The Council’s Adjudication Officer considered the Stage 2 report on 17 May 2018. The Officer agreed with the IO’s findings and recommendations and apologised where Z’s complaints were upheld or partially upheld.

Stage 3 review

  1. Z remained unhappy and asked the Council to carry out a Stage 3 review of his complaint. Z asked the Panel to consider an additional complaint about the amount of time the Council took to consider his complaint.
  2. The Stage 3 Panel issued its conclusions in October 2018. It upheld the IO’s findings but also identified fault in the following areas:
    • it upheld Z’s perception that one of the social workers had behaved in a bullying and abusive manner;
    • it upheld Z’s complaint that he was physically restrained at his foster home insofar as he believed that to be the case.
  3. The review panel also found the Council had taken considerably longer than the timescales set out in legislation to consider Z’s complaint.
  4. Later in October 2018, the Council wrote to Z. It supported the Panel’s findings and apologised for the further fault it had identified. The Council offered Z £250 for the delay and any distress or inconvenience this caused him and Mr X.
  5. Z remained unhappy and complained to the Ombudsman.

My findings

The Council’s investigations into Mr X’s complaints under the statutory children’s complaints procedures

  1. As part of my investigation, I listened to the recordings made by Z and read some of the interviews the IO carried out with Council officers and Mr X and Z. I also considered the Stage 2 report, adjudication letters and Stage 3 review and final response to Z.
  2. I am satisfied the IO carried out a fair and thorough investigation. This is because:
    • The IO carried out a thorough examination of the evidence held by the Council, interviewed officers, spoke to Mr X and Z and made evidence based and reasoned findings on each of Z’s complaints.
    • The stage 3 review considered the adequacy of the stage 2 investigation, spoke to Mr X, Z and officers and reached findings on each complaint. It also made recommendations.
  3. Although the Council did not uphold all of Mr X and Z’s complaints, it was able to meet their desired outcomes. This is because it:
    • provided detailed explanations of all the events Z complained about, even where it did not uphold the complaints;
    • demonstrated it had carried out a robust investigation into all his complaints;
    • provided assurances and demonstrated that his complaints about the social workers had been investigated; and
    • apologised where it upheld Z’s complaints.
  4. In addition, the recommendations made by the Stage 2 IO were appropriate and proportionate to the fault identified. However, the Council should provide evidence that it has carried out those recommendations.
  5. The Stage 3 review considered the findings of the Stage 2 investigation. It came to a decision on each of the complaints which had not been upheld, or only partially upheld. It amended two of the IO’s decisions and explained why. The Council offered an apology for these further faults.
  6. Therefore, there was no fault in the Stage 2 investigation and Stage 3 review carried out by the Council.
  7. The Ombudsman cannot comment on whether the Council has abused Mr X or Z human rights. If they believe this to be the case, it is open to them to take private action against the Council. It is advised they take legal advice first.
  8. Mr X and Z also wish for further action to be taken against the social worker who the Council found fault with. The Council has stated what action it proposes to take. The Ombudsman cannot become involved in personnel matters. However, I am satisfied the actions it has proposed are satisfactory to help prevent the Council from repeating the same faults in the future. If Mr X or Z remain dissatisfied, they can contact the Health and Care Professions Council.

Council delayed in dealing with Mr X’s complaints

  1. The Stage 3 considered Mr X’s complaint that the Council took too long to consider his complaints under the statutory children’s complaints process. It found that it had delayed and stated “the Council by any measure has clearly not acted expeditiously in dealing with your complaint”.
  2. The Council apologised for the delays and offered Mr X and Z £250 for the delay and any distress or inconvenience this may have caused them. These actions are satisfactory.

Agreed action

  1. Within three months of the date of the final decision, the Council will provide the Ombudsman with evidence that it has carried out the recommendations made by the Stage 2 investigation.

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Final decision

  1. There was fault leading to injustice. The Council has agreed to my recommendation. Therefore, I have completed my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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