Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 15 Jan 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council considered S’s wish to increase contact with his parents and siblings, but it failed to arrange his reviews for a time and place he would be able to attend without having to miss school and did not ensure the Independent Reviewing Officer spoke to S before the reviews. The Council has agreed to take action to ensure S fully understands its reasons for not increasing contact and to prevent similar failings in future.
- Mr C is an independent advocate. He is complaining on behalf of S, who is 11 years old. S complains that the Council has reduced the amount of contact he has with his parents and siblings and will not increase it.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated S’s complaint about the Council reducing the contact sessions and its decision to not increase them. I have not investigated S’s complaints about his sisters not always attending the contact sessions for the reasons explained in the last section of this statement.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. 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, section 34(3), 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)
- 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 this decision with Ofsted.
How I considered this complaint
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by Mr C;
- discussed the issues with Mr C;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council has provided; and
- given the Council and Mr C the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
What I found
The law, government guidance and council policy
- 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.
- All looked after children must have a care plan setting out the arrangements made to meet the child’s needs. The child’s social worker is responsible for drawing up and updating the care plan.
- The Council has a duty to endeavour to promote contact between the child and their parents, and any relative, friend or other person connected with the child, unless it is not reasonably practicable or consistent with the child’s welfare.
- The care plan must set out arrangements for the promotion and maintenance of contact with brothers and sisters, so far as this is consistent with the child’s welfare.
- The Council must appoint an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) for all looked after children. The IRO’s primary focus is to quality assure the care planning and review process for each child and to ensure that his/her current wishes and feelings are given full consideration.
- The review must be child-centred and discussion should take place between the social worker and the child at least 20 working days before the meeting about who the child would like to attend the meeting and about where the meeting will be held. The involvement of the child will be subject to his/her age, understanding and welfare. Meetings should always be arranged at a place and time to meet the needs of the child. Children should not be required to miss school in order to attend their review.
- The Council’s procedures for looked after reviews states that the child should normally be invited to the review and there is a presumption that they will attend. Where the child does not wish to attend the review, the IRO must at the very least speak to the child before the review - wherever possible in a face to face meeting.
- In March 2017, S and his two younger sisters were removed from their parents’ care. S has been living with his grandfather since September 2017. His sisters are living in separate foster placements.
- Full care orders were made in respect of all three children in February 2018. The care plan which was approved during the court proceedings stated that contact with the children’s parents would be supervised and take place six times a year with an additional contact at Christmas. Sibling contact would be organised by the Council and take place on a monthly basis.
- In April 2019, S made a formal complaint to the Council with the help of an advocate, Mr C. S complained that the duration of the contact sessions with his sisters had been reduced and sometimes the sessions were cancelled at short notice. He said that he also wanted to increase the amount of contact he had with both his parents and sisters.
- Mr C told the Council that he believed increased contact should be part of care planning but S was not included in the last care planning meeting and wasn’t given the opportunity to discuss seeing his family.
- In the Council’s response, it said that it would not be appropriate for S to attend the care planning meetings but S’s social worker and grandfather could share S's wishes and feelings. It said that S could also attend his looked after review where the IRO could talk to him about contact.
- The Council explained to S that it had been working to the plans agreed in court but it had found that those plans were not always right for his sisters. It said that S’s social worker had to think about what was right for S’s sisters and that might not be what was right for S.
- The Council acknowledged there had been a period of inconsistent contact and proposed to put in place a 6 monthly contact schedule to ensure that all parties knew when contact was due to take place and could give adequate notice if they were unable to attend.
- In September 2019, the Council decided to change the contact arrangements. It decided that instead of the children having separate contact sessions with their parents and siblings, there would be whole family contact sessions every six weeks, which S’s grandfather would supervise.
- Mr C says that S’s concerns about consistent contact were resolved, but S is unhappy that the Council has reduced the amount of contact he has with his family and will not increase it. The Council says that while it understands S’s wishes, it considers the current level of contact is appropriate. It says that it may consider increasing contact in future if it continued to be beneficial and successful for all parties.
- When the Council reduced contact in March 2018, it did so in accordance with the care plan which was approved during the court proceedings. I have found no evidence of fault here.
- The Council reduced the overall number of contacts again in September 2019 when it moved from separate sibling and parent contacts to whole family contact sessions. The Council’s records show the reasons the social workers proposed this change, which included the negative impact contact was having on S’s sisters. There was a detailed discussion about it during S’s looked after review. The IRO considered the proposal was a more realistic plan and one which should better meet the needs of S and his sisters.
- The Council’s policy on looked after reviews states that the child should normally be invited to the review. Where the child does not wish to attend, the IRO should speak to the child before the review. I have not seen any evidence to show that S was asked if he wanted to attend the September 2019 review where the reduction in contact was discussed. There is also no evidence to show that the IRO spoke to S before the review, or that S was asked how he felt about the proposed change to the contact sessions. This was fault. However, it is clear that the IRO knew that S wanted to have more contact with his parents and sisters and I am satisfied that the Council’s decision to change contact was based on what it believed would be best for all parties. I therefore do not consider it likely that the decision would be any different if the Council had ensured S was able to attend the review and sought his views on the change to contact arrangements.
- There is no requirement for looked after children to attend care planning meetings. But councils should take into account the child’s views, wishes and feelings during care planning and looked after reviews. Social workers have carried out regular home visits and S has generally provided his views via the social workers or by completing a form. On at least three occasions, S stated that he wanted to attend his review but then did not do so. The Council says that S changed his mind and chose not to attend. The records show that on one occasion S said that he wanted to attend but would not be able to do so because it clashed with school. All the review meetings were held while S was at school.
- Meetings should always be arranged at a place and time to meet the needs of the child and they should not be required to miss school in order to attend their review. While I am satisfied that the Council considered S’s wish to increase contact, the Council did not always arrange the reviews for a time and place that would suit S’s needs, and when it was known that S would not be attending, the IRO did not speak to S beforehand. This was fault and is likely to have caused S uncertainty as to whether his views were being heard and properly considered. It would also have contributed to S not fully understanding the Council’s reasons for not increasing contact.
- Within four weeks, S’s social worker will meet S to fully explain why the Council does not intend to increase contact at this time.
- Within six weeks, the Council will remind its officers that:
- children should normally be invited to their looked after reviews, and where the child does not wish to attend, the IRO should speak to the child before the review; and
- review meetings should always be arranged at a place and time to meet the needs of the child. Children should not be required to miss school in order to attend their review.
- I have completed my investigation and uphold S’s complaint. There was fault by the Council which caused injustice to S. The action the Council has agreed to take is sufficient to remedy that injustice.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I decided not to investigate S’s complaint about his sisters not always attending the contact sessions because Mr C told me that this aspect of the complaint had been resolved. However, in response to my draft decision, Mr C said that there have been further problems. I have advised Mr C that he may wish to consider making a new complaint to us about this once he has completed the Council’s complaints procedure.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman