Norfolk County Council (19 017 680)

Category : Children's care services > Looked after children

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 05 Oct 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains the Council failed to facilitate contact with his children from 2014 to 2017. The Council is at fault for not arranging contact and failing to keep Mr X involved in his children’s care. The Council should apologise, pay Mr X £650, and take action to improve its service.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains the Council failed to facilitate contact with his children from 2014 to 2017.
  2. He also complains the Council has not respected his parental responsibility by not keeping him informed about and involved with his children’s care.
  3. As a result, Mr X did not have any contact with his children for more than three years and suffered avoidable distress.

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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 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)
  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 spoke to Mr X about the complaint.
  2. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered its response along with relevant law and guidance.
  3. I have considered the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies, a copy of which can be found on our website.
  4. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
  5. Under our information sharing agreement, we will share this decision with the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted).

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What I found

Relevant Guidance and Definitions

Looked after children

  1. A Looked After Child (LAC) is any child who is subject to a care order or accommodated away from their family by a local authority under section 20 of Children Act 1989. The accommodation can be voluntary or by care order. The child becomes looked after when the local authority has accommodated them for a continuous period of longer than 24 hours.

Statutory procedure for complaints about children’s services

  1. The law sets out a three stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an Investigating Officer (IO) and an Independent Person (IP). The IP is responsible for overseeing the investigation. If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review.

What happened

Background

  1. Mr X’s three children became looked after by the Council in 2014. I shall refer to the children as B, C, and D.
  2. At first, Mr X had regular, supervised contact with C and D. B consistently said she did not wish to see Mr X.
  3. In late 2014, the children moved to a new foster placement further away from where Mr X lived. Mr X had no contact with his children after December 2014.
  4. Mr X next had contact with B and C in February 2017.
  5. Mr X now has regular contact with all three children.

The statutory complaint about children’s services

  1. Mr X first complained to the Council in 2017. He made further complaints in 2018 and 2019.
  2. Mr X was unhappy with the Council’s responses and approached the Ombudsman in February 2019.
  3. The Ombudsman advised Mr X and the Council that the Council should deal with the complaints through the statutory procedure for complaints about children’s services.
  4. The Council assigned the complaint to an Investigating Officer and Independent Person in June 2019.
  5. The stage 2 investigation by the IO found:
    • There had been a constant change in social workers
    • C wanted to see Mr X and the Council had not facilitated this
    • The Council did not tell Mr X about Looked After Child reviews (LAC reviews)
  6. The stage 2 investigation recommended the Council:
    • Agree a schedule of contact for the year so each of the children can decide whether to attend
    • Consult Mr X before LAC reviews and update him about progress
    • Pay Mr X £300, comprising £150 for time and trouble and £150 for distress
  7. The Council agreed with these recommendations in October 2019. In response to my enquiries, the Council confirmed that there is now a schedule of contact and Mr X is consulted before LAC reviews.
  8. Mr X remained unhappy. Usually, the Ombudsman would expect a stage 3 panel to consider the complaint. However, Mr X and the Council agreed that it would be more effective to refer the complaint to the Ombudsman early.

My findings

  1. We cannot investigate late complaints unless there are good reasons. In this case, Mr X had cancer and multiple surgeries between 2014 and 2019. I consider this to be a good reason Mr X could not have complained sooner. Therefore, I have exercised discretion to investigate this late complaint.
  2. Where we have exercised discretion to investigate a late complaint, the Ombudsman must then consider whether the passage of time would make any decisive investigation impossible. In this case, where Mr X complains about children’s services, the Council’s records cover the relevant period. Therefore, I could conduct an effective investigation despite the intervening years.
  3. If a council has investigated something under the statutory complaints procedure, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it unless he considers that investigation was flawed. However, in this case, there is evidence the stage two investigation did not consider all the relevant information about the Council’s communication with Mr X. Therefore, the Ombudsman has investigated the complaint.
  4. I cannot further uphold complaints already upheld but can consider if the Council has remedied the injustice caused by the fault identified. I will also consider the parts of Mr X’s complaint the stage two investigation did not uphold. These are:
    • The Council failed to communicate with Mr X
    • The Council did not support or encourage contact between the children and Mr X

Communication

  1. The Council says it could not keep in touch with Mr X because it did not know where he was and had no phone number for him. Mr X says he had the same address and telephone number from when the children became looked after in 2014 until September 2016. He says he was proactive in contacting the Council.
  2. In December 2014, Mr X missed an arranged contact session with the children. The Council wrote to Mr X and attempted to telephone him without success.
  3. The Council’s records show it contacted Mr X’s probation officer in February 2015 to find out where he was. The probation officer told the Council Mr X was evicted from his home. Mr X says this isn’t true.
  4. In April 2015, the children’s mother telephoned the Council. The landline telephone number she gave was the same as that recorded in 2014. There is no evidence the Council asked her for an up-to-date address.
  5. The records show that in February 2016, a social worker “tried to ring father back from message left.” This suggests that Mr X had called the Council, as he says. It also shows the Council did have a telephone number for him.
  6. The children’s social worker changed and in May 2016, the records say the parents “have not been traced and previous efforts to find them have proved unsuccessful.” Similarly, in June 2016 the records say the social worker “is still trying to locate parents, but this is proving a difficult task.”
  7. In July 2016, the Council telephoned Mr X. The records do not say how the Council got the telephone number if, as it says, the parents’ whereabouts were unknown. The records also say the social worker was going to write to Mr X. There is no evidence the Council wrote to Mr X in July or August 2016.
  8. It is clear from the Council’s records that it was aware of Mr X’s telephone number and that Mr X and his then wife were trying to contact the Council throughout 2015 and 2016. It is also clear from the records that the frequent changes of social worker in 2015 and 2016 contributed to the confusion and poor communication.
  9. Mr X has parental responsibility for his children. This means he has a right to be involved in decisions about their care and to be kept informed. The Council is at fault for failing to communicate with Mr X between December 2014 and September 2016. As a result, Mr X did not know anything about his children’s wellbeing for almost 2 years. This caused him unnecessary distress and uncertainty when he was also battling cancer.
  10. Because of these failings in communication, the Council also failed to involve Mr X in the LAC reviews for his children. The stage two investigation identified this fault.
  11. To remedy the injustice, the Council should apologise and pay Mr X £150 in addition to the £150 for distress already recommended by the stage two investigation.

Missed Contact

  1. The stage two investigation found that C consistently asked for contact with Mr X from December 2014 until contact was re-established in February 2017. The Council failed to facilitate this. This is fault.
  2. This caused an injustice to Mr X which is not remedied by the recommendations of the stage two investigation. The Care Order says that contact between the children and their parents was to be monthly. Therefore, between December 2014 and February 2017, Mr X lost out on 26 contact sessions with his children.
  3. There is no way to make up for this lost time or to gauge the impact this had on Mr X and his relationship with his children. In acknowledgement of this, the Council should make a symbolic payment of £500 to Mr X.
  4. There is also an injustice to C. Therefore, I recommend the Council provide a copy of my decision to C’s Independent Reviewing Officer to share with C.

Promoting Contact

  1. As well as facilitating the contact C requested, Mr X says the Council should have promoted contact with all his children.
  2. The law says that where a child is looked after by a council, the council must strive to promote contact between the child and his parents unless it is not consistent with the child’s welfare. (Children Act 1989, Schedule 2, Part II, section 15(1))
  3. However, the law also says that in making any decision about the child, councils should consider the child’s wishes and feelings, having regard to the child’s age and understanding. (Children Act 1989, section 22(5))
  4. The Council’s records show that social workers discussed contact with B and D regularly. Both B and D said they did not want contact with their parents. B told the Council she didn’t want to keep discussing it. B said she would tell the Council if she changed her mind.
  5. The Council respected the wishes and feelings of B and D about having contact with their parents. This is a matter of professional judgement and it is not for the Ombudsman to question it. Therefore, I find no fault in how the Council promoted contact between Mr X and B or D.

Agreed action

  1. To remedy the injustice to Mr X, the Council should:
    • Apologise to Mr X in writing; and
    • Pay Mr X a further £650 in addition to the £300 already agreed.
  2. Furthermore:
    • The Council should provide the IRO a copy of this decision to share with C; and
    • A copy of this decision should be kept on the children’s files.
  3. The Council should take this action within four weeks of my final decision.
  4. Where we find fault, the Ombudsman may also recommend action for the Council to improve its services.
  5. In response to my enquiries, the Council accepts “mistakes were made by the authority, compounded by the lack of consistent social workers working with the children.” Since 2017, the Council says it has already taken steps to improve its service, including:
    • employing family network advisors to improve engagement and relationships between the Council and parents of looked after children; and
    • supporting contact through life story work, a new Family Time service, and effective direct work with children
  6. These improvements are welcome. To further improve its service, the Council should:
    • Ensure contact details for family members are kept up to date and clearly recorded; and
    • Remind relevant staff to record all correspondence or communication with parents of looked after children.
  7. The Council should provide evidence it has taken this action within eight weeks of my final decision.

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Final decision

  1. The fault by the Council caused injustice to Mr X. The action I have recommended is a suitable remedy.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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