Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 27 Aug 2019
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The complainant is concerned that the Council is failing to abide by the contact arrangements to her granddaughter, as ordered by the Court. The Ombudsman does not find fault in the Council’s earlier actions but there is now an opportunity to improve contact arrangements for the complainant if in the interests of her granddaughter. The Council has accepted this. The Ombudsman has therefore completed his investigation and is closing the complaint.
- The complainant, who I refer to as Mrs X, complains about the contact arrangements the Council has made for her to see her granddaughter, (Child B), who is looked after by the Council. Mrs X is also concerned about the services provided to her granddaughter. The complaint covers the period of April 2017 to the current day.
- Specifically, Mrs X says the Court ordered monthly contact and weekly telephone calls, none of which has happened since December 2017.
- Mrs X does not have parental responsibility for Child B. This rests with Child B’s mother and the Council. This means Mrs X is not entitled to have information about Child B. But we have accepted that Mrs X has sufficient interest in her granddaughter’s welfare and therefore we have looked at Mrs X’s specific complaints about Child B’s contact arrangements which directly affect her.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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)
How I considered this complaint
- I have obtained written information from the Council, including copies of Child B’s care reviews and other significant documents. Mrs X has also provided written information. I have spoken to Mrs X on the telephone.
- I issued a draft decision statement to both the Council and to the complainant. I have taken into account additional comments when reaching my final decision.
What I found
- Parents and carers can request a child is accommodated by a council under s20 of the Children Act 1989. Parents retain parental responsibility and can remove the child at any time. Once a child is accommodated by a council, that child becomes a looked after child (LAC).
- A Family Court can make a Care Order when it is considered the child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm attributable to care provided by the parent. Under a Care Order, a council shares parental responsibility with the parents. But it has the final decision on matters affecting the child.
- A council should have an individual care plan for all children in care and a process to review those plans. The planning about the child should be with the aim of safeguarding and promoting the child’s welfare, preventing drift and ensuring the work needed is carried out. Reviews of children’s cases are commonly referred to as LAC reviews and should take place every six months unless there is a need to consider the child’s needs before then.
Contact with a child in care
- Courts can make an Order about the contact arrangements, which a child in care should have with parents or any other significant adults, often grandparents or aunts and uncles. Alternatively, the Court can leave contact to be arranged at the discretion of the council.
- Child B had two periods in s20 accommodation in 2015 and 2016 and was placed with foster carers. In between these placements, she had a period at home with her mother.
- The Council started care proceedings in early 2017. Child B’s mother was involved in these proceedings. Mrs X asked the Council to consider her as a carer for Child B, under a Special Guardianship Order. The Council says that Mrs X subsequently withdrew her request.
- Contact issues were discussed at Court and, after an alleged concern was raised by Child B’s then foster carers, when Child B had contact with Mrs X, it was decided that contact with Mrs X should be supervised.
- Mrs X emailed the Council to explain that she was disappointed with this decision as it meant Child B could not come on holiday with them. She also had concerns about the restrictions imposed in respect of taking photographs. She considered it was unfair to supervise her contact when the paternal grandparents’ contact was not supervised.
- The Court made a final Care Order in November 2017. The care plan submitted to the Court by the Council stated contact with extended family members, ie Mrs X, would take place in the school holidays in agreement with the Council and Child B’s wishes and feelings. This was to be reviewed through the LAC process. The Court made no specific Order regarding Child B’s contact with Mrs X. and it was left at the discretion of the Council.
- The Council says that there was a significant gap in contact between Mrs X and Child B during April 2017 and October 2018. This was because of Mrs X’s decision. Mrs X says that the restrictions imposed by the Council, and the fact contact had to be supervised, was unfair and not in her granddaughter’s interests. In addition, Mrs X’s husband was and is unwell and Child B’s placement was some distance away. This made contact difficult for her.
- In July 2018, Child B stated she wanted to have contact with her grandparents. On 13 October 2018, Child B saw Mrs X at a restaurant, supervised by the Council. It was reported Child B was very happy to see Mrs X and asked for the contact to continue.
- Since then, contact between Mrs X and Child B has continued on a monthly basis except when the weather has prevented Mrs X travelling to see Child B. Mrs X also did not see Child B in June 2019 because she wanted to reinforce to Child B that she should not have misbehaved at the Home, where she is living. The Council did not endorse this as an appropriate behaviour management approach and explained this to Mrs X.
- However, Mrs X says that it is also difficult to travel to see Child B. She lives about 80 miles from Child B’s residential Home and also Mr X is very unwell. Mrs X also requires an eye operation (and so driving is difficult). The Council says that it was only aware of this difficulty for Mrs X in May 2019 and it is open to consider ways of supporting Mrs X’s contact with Child B.
- The Council has been considering whether Child B could be taken to see her grandparents at their home and there was a recent contact planning meeting. Mrs X was unable to attend this planning meeting. The Council says it is now undertaking a risk assessment to see how best to promote Child B’s contact with her grandparents.
Complaints about Child B’s care
- Mrs X is also concerned about the poor care her granddaughter has received since being in care. Child B has had seven care placements and is now residing in a specialist residential Home. The Council has provided information about the reasons for these moves and evidence of Child B’s significant needs.
- I cannot share this information with Mrs X because she does not have parental responsibility. The Council regrets the placement moves but says that Child B’s behaviours have been difficult for carers.
- Mrs X made a complaint in March 2017 about the lack of telephone contact with Child B and the arrangements for supervised contact at a contact centre; in August 2017, Mrs X complained about the conduct of a social worker in respect of her assessment and, in September 2018, Mrs X made four complaints specifically about the care provided to Child B by the Council . She also complained that her granddaughter had a change of social workers many times.
- Within the limits of what could be disclosed to Mrs X, the Council recognised that Child B’s time in care had resulted in multiple placement moves and changes of social workers. It explained that these changes are not always within the Council’s control and it is recognised generally that there is a shortage of social workers. All councils have difficulties in retaining them.
- More recently, Mrs X has complained about a contact visit in April 2019, which the Council is considering.
- Child B’s mother has also made complaints about Child B’s care by the Council. It would be open to her to escalate her complaint to the Ombudsman if she receives no response, or is not satisfied with the response, from the Council.
- The Council says it has responded to all Mrs X and Child B’s mother complaints appropriately. As these had not been escalated, the Council considered that they were satisfied with the explanations provided.
- Child B has significant needs which result in her sometimes behaving in a risky and impulsive way. Foster carers have found it difficult to manage Child B and the plan has been that she should now remain in the residential Home. However, recent events at the Home may mean the Council will have to reconsider the placement. The Council is working with its partner agencies to try to reduce Child B’s placement moves and provide her with stability.
- But the focus of my investigation is on Mrs X’s concerns about the contact arrangements, which the Council has for her to see Child B. There is evidence that Child B values this contact, and the Council has a duty to promote contact with significant others if in a child’s best interests.
- I cannot see evidence of fault in the way the Council has managed Mrs X’s contact with Child B during the period of April 2017 and 2018. The initial decision to supervise contact was made within the legal proceedings and the gap in contact in 2017/2018 was a result of Mrs X’s decision.
- However, there is now a fresh opportunity to develop the contact Mrs X is having with Child B and the Council is considering whether it is time to change the arrangements and allow Mrs X unsupervised contact. It is also difficult for Mrs X to travel to the Home and her husband is unwell. The Council has agreed to take into account these factors when making decisions about Child B’s contact with her grandparents.
- There was a recent meeting to discuss future contact arrangements. Mrs X says that the Council remains unwilling to change the current contact arrangements. But the Council has provided evidence to say that this is not the case and it is looking at ways to promote the contact while it remains in Child B’s interests to do so.
- I cannot see fault in the way the Council has managed Mrs X’s contact with Child B in 2017/2018. But contact has now been re-established and the Council is considering how this contact can be developed taking account of both Child B’s needs primarily but also considering Mrs X’s circumstances.
- In respect of the concerns about the Council’s care to Child B, I cannot investigate these as Mrs X does not have parental responsibility. But it would be open to Child B’s mother to complain to us as she shares parental responsibility with the Council.
- However, it is known that Child B has extensive needs and her behaviours can be impulsive and risky. The Council is currently doing what it can to maintain her placement.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman