Decision : Not upheld
Decision date : 05 Jan 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: there is no fault that has caused Mr A injustice in relation to his complaint about the actions of the Council’s children’s services team.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr A, complains that Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council failed to:
- inform him about his son's welfare between 2016 and January 2020;
- respond to a referral he made in 2016 about his son's welfare;
- make sufficient efforts to contact him until January 2020 about care proceedings involving his son which it had initiated in October 2019; and
- deal properly with a complaint he made under the published complaints procedure or make reasonable adjustments by accepting his complaint in verbal form.
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)
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. 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 considered the written information Mr A provided with his complaint and discussed the complaint with him. I made written enquiries of the Council and considered all the information before reaching a draft decision.
- Mr A and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
What should have happened
- A mother automatically has parental responsibility for her child from birth. A father will usually have parental responsibility if he is married to the child's mother or is named on the birth certificate but not otherwise. A father can obtain parental responsibility if he does not already have it by applying to the court for a parental responsibility order.
- A person who has parental responsibility for a child can voluntarily agree to a council accommodating their child under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. An accommodated child may be place to live in, for example, a residential care unit or a foster home.
- Where a council is concerned that a child is suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm it may initiate care proceedings in court. This means that the council will have parental responsibility for the child if the court grants an order. At the start of care proceedings the council asks the court to agree to an interim care order which is temporary while all the information is collated and presented to the court in order for it to decide whether or not a full care order should be agreed. A court will decide where the child will live.
- The Council has a three stage complaints procedure. At stage 1 the complaint is considered by a line manager in the service complained about and at stage 2 by an officer independent of the service complained about.
- Mr A’s son, B, is now 12 years old. He was living with his mother until October 2019 when she gave her consent to him being accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. B was placed in a residential care placement. As I understand it Mr A has had very limited contact or direct involvement with B for many years. Mr A and B’s mother are not in a relationship.
- Shortly after B was accommodated, the Council decided that it should initiate care proceedings in respect of B.
- The Council duly applied to the courts for an interim care order which was granted in November 2019.
- The courts awarded a full care order to the Council in June 2020. The court agreed that B was to live at home with his mother.
- The Council’s children’s services team has had some involvement with B since 2016. Mr A says he made a referral to the Council about B’s welfare in March 2016 and the Council confirms its records note that he phoned the Council with concerns around this time. It confirms that around the same time, a number of professionals in contact with B also contacted its children’s services team with concerns about him. This resulted in the Council undertaking an assessment to investigate all these concerns. As a result of this assessment the Council identified B as being a child in need and provided him with support for several months.
- In its comments to me the Council said it cannot tell from its files whether Mr A provided his contact details so that its social work team could contact him about his 2016 referral or whether it did contact him again if it had these details at that time.
- Between 2016 and late 2019, when it initiated legal proceedings, the Council had various periods of involvement with B and his mother. This was broadly providing support around B’s behaviour and helping the family to manage this. Other specialist services provided help to the family and B during this period. It was the deterioration in these circumstances that resulted in B’s accommodation under section 20 and the Council’s decision to initiate legal proceedings in late 2019.
- The Council says that it was not aware that Mr A had parental responsibility for B when it first decided to pursue care proceedings in October 2019. However, the Council was clear in October that it would seek to locate Mr A to make him aware of the proceedings. The Council confirms that it instructed an enquiry agent to locate Mr A following the initial legal hearing in November 2019.
- When the Council failed to locate Mr A using the enquiry agent, the court agreed in January 2020 that it would give the necessary consent to enable the Council to contact the Department for Work and Pensions so that it could tell the Council Mr A’s last known address. The Council says this approach was successful and it served Mr A with the relevant paperwork about the legal proceedings in late January 2020.
- In response to these papers being served Mr A immediately provided the Council with evidence that he had been awarded a parental responsibility order by a court in 2011 during private legal proceedings. The Council is clear that up until that time it had not been aware that Mr A had parental responsibility for B. It says Mr A is not named as B’s father on his birth certificate and it had no other way of knowing that he had been subsequently awarded parental responsibility until Mr A provided evidence of this.
Mr A’s complaint to the Council
- The Council says that Mr A complained to its legal team by email on the same day the Council served him with the papers about the legal proceedings. It says that in this email Mr A complained that the Council had refused to process a complaint he had tried to make verbally (I assume on the same day as this was the first day of contact with the Council on these matters) and that he has made this complaint several times since. The Council says that in his email complaint Mr A alleged that the person he spoke to try to make the verbal complaint refused to provide him with a complaint reference number. The Council says it would never provide a reference number during a phone call and would provide this when it had subsequently logged the complaint on its systems and sent an acknowledgement to the complainant. The council is clear that it will accept complaints made verbally as well as those made in written form (text, email or via an online form).
- I have seen the Council’s response to Mr A’s complaint which it sent to him in February 2020. In its response it confirms it did not know where Mr A was before it initiated legal proceedings so could not serve him with the legal paperwork at that time. It also told him that it had tried to locate him using the enquiry agent and then via the Department of Work and Pensions as outlined above. Mr A has raised the issue of why the Council cannot check recordings of his telephone conversations with its staff for details of his complaints. I note that in this complaint response the Council explained it could not do this as the automatic recording that starts when the call is received by the Council’s contact centre, stops when the call transfers to a council team such as the complaints team, the social work team or the legal team. So, it would not have a recording of the content of these telephone conversations.
- Mr A told the Council he was dissatisfied with this response and asked for the matter to be considered at stage 2 of the Council’s complaints procedure. Mr A’s response did not contain any precise details of what he was dissatisfied with in the response apart from repeating his dissatisfaction that calls weren’t recorded and stating he did not believe his complaint had been addressed. In response the complaints officer said that she did not consider the matter about the non-recording of phone calls was something that could be addressed under stage 2 of the complaints procedure and advised Mr A to complain to this office if he wished to pursue the matter further.
Was the Council at fault and did this cause injustice?
- There is no evidence that the Council provided Mr A with information following the referral he made about his son’s welfare in March 2016. However, it seems clear from the Council’s comments that as a result of his referral, and referrals made by professionals, around the same time that the Council completed an assessment and then provided support. I assume that Mr A asked for feedback on his referral but the Council cannot tell from its files if Mr A left any contact details at that time. Without these it could not provide any feedback but as it is unclear whether these were given and not recorded or not provided I have no grounds to decide that the failure to have these on file amounts to fault. It would be good practice for the Council to have a clear record of the information Mr A provided when he made his referral. However, I am not persuaded that any failure to provide feedback would have caused Mr A injustice beyond a degree of frustration as it was clear that the concerns were investigated and that help was provided to his son. I also consider that Mr A could have chased up an outcome if he wanted this given the Council did not contact him but there is no evidence that he did so.
- Mr A complained the Council failed to inform him about his son's welfare between 2016 and January 2020. There is no suggestion that Mr A contacted the Council again after he made his referral in March 2016 and the Council was unaware that he had parental responsibility for B until January 2020. It also seems clear that the Council did not have contact details for Mr A so I am unsure how it could have contacted him. Again, I would consider that Mr A could have contacted the Council about B during this period if he wanted to check on any ongoing involvement after his referral.
- The Council did not know that Mr A had parental responsibility until January 2020. I am satisfied that the Council took reasonable steps to locate Mr A as outlined when it decided to initiate legal proceedings in November 2019. Mr A told me that he believes the Council had his phone number in October 2019 as it was the same one he had when he called with concerns about B in 2016. Unfortunately the Council has told me that it had no records of the phone number so it appears it did not have this. He has also told me that he went on to change his phone number in December 2019 and had moved house several times between 2016 and late 2019. The Council has not provided specific comments on whether it considered identifying Mr A’s address using the electoral register but I note that Mr A has a fairly common name so it would not have been reliable or efficient to have used this method to contact him. I also consider that given the sensitivity of the information the children’s services team would be providing to Mr A it needed to be very sure of his correct address and identity and this is further reason that the electoral register would not have been sufficiently reliable.
- I recognise that Mr A tried to complain by telephone in January 2020 and was unhappy that the Council did not give him a reference number for his complaint during that phone call. The Council has described its process for allocating a reference number following a phone call and not during it and I would not consider such an approach amounts to fault. In the event it seems clear that Mr A immediately complained by email following his phone call so there was no opportunity for the Council to allocate a reference number following his phone complaint as this was superseded by the emailed version.
- I consider the stage 1 response to the complaint was brief but did seem to address the complaint made. I recognise that Mr A was dissatisfied with this response and so asked for the matter to be considered at stage 2. The Council declined to consider the matter at stage 2 but there was very little information in Mr A’s request as to why he was dissatisfied and so, on balance, although ordinarily a complainant would be entitled to a response at stage 2 if dissatisfied with the response at stage 1 I find no fault in its decision to not provide a further response given the lack of details in Mr A’s request for this.
- There is no fault that has caused Mr A injustice in relation to his complaint about the actions of the Council’s children’s services team.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman