Decision : Upheld
Decision date : 22 Apr 2021
The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Liverpool City Council was at fault in its handling of several issues related to Ms B’s time as a looked after child and in its handling of her complaint about these. The Council will take the recommended action to recognise the injustice this fault caused.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Ms B, complains about the support and care she received from Liverpool City Council when she was a looked after child between the ages of 13 and 15. In particular she says:
- her social worker lost a number of her personal possessions that were of significant sentimental, as well as financial, value but the Council has failed to deal properly with her complaint about this or make efforts to locate the lost items;
- during the two years she was looked after she had seven different social workers which meant she had to keep building new relationships with them and she was given little or no warning of these changes;
- for a long period of time she did not have a social worker at all;
- the same social worker who lost her possessions was unkind and unprofessional in her behaviour towards her and failed to deal with concerns raised by the mother of a friend raised about the care being provided by the foster carer;
- her time in care was poorly planned and she was not invited to looked after review meetings for most of the time she was looked after;
- her return home when she was 15 was poorly planned and delayed and a change of foster placement during the period she was looked after was also poorly planned; and
- the Council’s handling of her complaint about these matters was inadequate and the matter was not progressed under the children’s statutory complaints procedure as it should have been.
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)
- When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.
- 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 discussed the complaint with Ms B and considered the written information she provided with her complaint. I made written enquiries of the Council and took account of all the information before reaching a draft decision on the complaint.
- Ms B and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
- 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.
What I found
What should have happened
- A child who is cared for a by a council for more than 24 hours is known as a looked after child. A child may be looked after with the consent of a parent and if this is the case they will be accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act 1989. If a council considers a child is suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm they may arrange a child protection case conference. This is a multi-agency meeting which considers evidence to reach a decision on whether the child needs a child protection plan to safeguard his or her wellbeing. If a child protection plan does not successfully reduce the level of concern about a child a council may decide to apply to a court for an interim care order. This means the child may become looked after without the consent of a parent but with the agreement of the court. The court may decide to award the council a full care order at the end of legal proceedings.
- Councils have a number of duties in respect of looked after children. These include plans for the child’s care including a long-term plan and arrangements for health and education. Every looked after child must have an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) who is a qualified and experienced social worker whose role is to oversee the care of the child and to ensure the council meets the child’s needs and the child’s views are properly taken into account.
- A looked after child must have regular looked after child (LAC) reviews to address all aspects of the care plan. These reviews involve those people who are most closely involved in the child’s care. They are chaired by an IRO and should take place at six monthly intervals at least and may be specifically arranged outside of these timescales if there is a significant event that impacts on the care plan.
- Good practice in social work recognises that stability of social work support is better for looked after children. In practice this means trying to reduce the number of social workers a child has where possible. Social work research also recognises that reducing the number of foster placements is better for a looked after child.
- 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 Independent Investigator and an Independent Person (who 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.
- Paragraph 3.5.1 of the statutory guidance on councils’ responsibilities when considering complaints about children’s services “Getting the Best from Complaints” states “Where a complaint is accepted at Stage 1, the complainant is entitled to pursue their complaints further through this procedure except in the case of cross boundary issues. In all other instances, once a complaint has entered Stage 1, the local authority is obliged to ensure that the complaint proceeds to stages 2 and 3 of this procedure, if that is the complainant’s wish”.
- Ms B is now 18 years old and lives with her mother.
- Ms B went to live with a relative with the agreement of her mother and the oversight of the Council in February 2017 following an altercation with her mother which resulted in her attending hospital with an injury.
- Liverpool City Council (the Council) arranged an initial child protection case conference and Ms B was made subject of a child protection plan under the category of likelihood of physical abuse.
- In March 2017 Ms B’s mother agreed that Ms B could be accommodated under section 20 of the Children Act 1989.
- The Council initiated care proceedings and the court awarded the Council an Interim Care Order (ICO) in respect of Ms B in April 2017.
- In May 2017 Ms B moved to a foster placement after the placement with her relative ended because the relative had to go away.
- In September 2017 the court awarded the Council a Full Care Order (FCO) in respect of Ms B.
- Also in September 2017 Ms B moved to a second foster placement after stating she was allergic to the foster carers pets. She subsequently also made an allegation against the foster carer. The Council has not told me what the nature of this allegation was but I assume it related to the care provided to Ms B.
- In December 2017, Ms B moved to a third foster placement after the second placement broke down.
- In July 2018 she moved to a fourth foster placement after the third placement broke down.
- In September 2018 Ms B and her mother both told the Council that they wanted Ms B to return to her mother’s care. The Council carried out an assessment to look into this request concluding that Ms B’s contact with her mother was going well, that she had struggled to settle with foster carers and concluding that a family support worker should do some one to one work with Ms B with a view to her returning to her mother’s care.
- In October 2018 Ms B refused to return to foster care after an overnight contact visit with her mother. The Council duly agreed that Ms B should return to her mother’s care. She remained at home on the Full Care Order until June 2020 when the Order was discharged.
Details of social workers allocated to work with Ms B
- The Council has provided details of the social workers who were allocated to work with Ms B during and after the period she was a looked after child. The details are:
- Social worker 1 from January to May 2017;
- Social worker 2 from May to October 2017;
- Social worker 3 from October to December 2017;
- Social worker 4 from December 2017 to January 2018;
- Social worker 5 from January to October 2018;
- Social worker 6 from October 2018 to July 2020.
- Ms B says her mother gave social worker 5 a bag of Ms B’s possessions to give to her. Ms B says social worker 5 failed to pass these on to her and told her the bag was lost. The Council says that in response to Ms B’s complaint about this, the social work manager spoke to social worker 5 and that social worker 5 confirmed the bag of possessions was given to Ms B. The Council argues that it cannot investigate the matter further as the accounts of what happened to the items differ. It says that the building in which social worker 5 worked has been searched but none of Ms B’s possessions were found. I have not seen any notes on the case records that refer to any searches. The Council says it advised Ms B that she could report the matter to the police.
- In her letter of complaint to the Council in November 2019 Ms B said the bag of possessions included £100 in cash, a perfume set which was a present to Ms B from her mother and a number of childhood certificates.
- The Council says that it made a payment to Ms B to cover the cost of the lost possessions and the IRO wrote to Ms B confirming all the certificates of achievement. I assume this is evidence for Ms B to use in case she needs this at any point. The Council says it also offered to seek duplicate certificates for Ms B but Ms B did not respond to this offer.
- I asked the Council to provide relevant evidence from its case files on the handling of these items. In response the Council provided the social worker’s notes of a looked after child visit undertaken before a looked after child review meeting in February 2019. This note confirms that social worker 6 gave Ms B £100 as a good will gesture for the money that Ms B said went missing in the belongings collected by social worker 5. It notes that Ms B was still unhappy that her certificates had been lost and that the social worker offered to try to get replacements if Ms B emailed her with a list of the these.
- The Council has provided a copy of a document produced by the IRO in March 2019 which details a number of lost certificates from Ms B’s time at primary and secondary school. It recognises that all the certificates she achieved were not listed as Ms B had achieved a large number.
- Social worker 5’s case notes state that she visited Ms B’s mother in late June 2018 and that she picked up some belongings for Ms B that her mother had put together. These are noted to be books and “some belongings” in a “large blue bag, two carrier bags of books and a small gift bag”. Social Worker 5 wrote up her note of this visit in early July and her notes state that the belongings were taken to Ms B’s foster placement the day after she collected them.
- Social worker 5 sent a text to Ms B at around 4pm on the day she picked them up stating “I’ve been to collect your stuff and books from mums. I tried to drop them off but no one was home and the back gate was locked. I’m in (the area) tomorrow if (the foster carer) is in I’ll drop them off?”
- Social worker 5 created a further written record in early/mid August stating that the day after she collected Ms B’s belongings she sent a text to Ms B telling her not to worry and that her foster carer would be “…home when I drop them off”.
- There is no written record in social worker 5’s case records which list all the items Ms B’s mother gave to her for Ms B or any note to confirm that she delivered them, who she delivered them to or what the items she handed over included.
Social worker 5 was unkind to her and failed to deal with concerns she and a friend’s mother expressed about her foster carer
- The Council has provided a copy of a letter to Ms B from social worker 5’s manager dated December 2018 stating it is a response to her complaint of November 2018. The response states:
- She was sorry to hear that Ms B was unhappy with some of her experiences in foster care and that she recognised there had been a number of changes of social worker and whilst this was not ideal staff moved to other positions and so sometimes changes were unavoidable. She acknowledged that changes should not be done in a way that meant young people felt unsupported;
- In relation to her specific complaints about social worker 5, the team manager said she could not address these issues with social worker 5 as social worker 5 had left the Council’s employment. She said she knew that social worker 5 had corresponded directly with Ms B and had confirmed she had given Ms B what her mother had given to her to pass on in the bag of items. The team manger said there was nothing further she could add about this;
- She apologised that Ms B had not felt fully supported during her time in care and said that she would try to ensure that lessons learnt from Ms B’s complaint would be shared with the social work team and would inform future practice.
Poor planning whilst she was in care, failure to invite her to looked after reviews, poor planning for her return to her mother’s care in 2018 and about a change in foster placement
- The Council has provided a number of care plans for Ms B whilst she was looked after. These include where changes were made such as moves of foster placement.
- A care plan dated July 2017 confirms that at that time Ms B stated she wanted to remain in local authority foster care and said she did not wish to live with a member of her family as she felt unsafe living with them. The placement details confirm the plan was for Ms B to remain in long term foster care with no return home envisaged.
- The plans demonstrate that over time this plan changed. In November 2018 Ms B was clearly stating that she wanted to return to live with her mother after contact resumed between them. The care plan in November 2018 was changed to reflect the situation that Ms B had returned to live with her mother. In the May 2018 care plan the notes state that Ms B was still having no contact with her mother at that point. As I understand it this was her choice at that time.
- Looked After Child Reviews took place in May 2017, July 2017, November 2017, February 2018, November 2018, March 2019 and August 2019. These demonstrate that relevant Council staff including the social worker, team manager and the IRO were participating in regular reviews of the placements. I note that a meeting was due to take place in May 2018 but have not been provided with a copy of the notes of any meeting that went ahead then. At the November 2018 review the notes show that the relationship between Ms B and her mother seemed to have improved and the plan was to work towards discharging the care order.
- In September 2018 social worker 5 completed an assessment to look at Ms B returning to live with her mother. The planned date for her to return to live with her mother was noted in that assessment to be 1 November 2018. Social worker 6 appears to have completed this assessment adding in October that the plan for Ms B to return to her mother’s care was reached according to Ms B’s wishes and the agreement of her mother and professionals involved in her care. The notes state that Ms B never really settled in foster care and that there had been a number of placement breakdowns. The gradual resumption of contact between Ms B and her mother leading up to her return home was noted as starting with twice weekly unsupervised contact and progressing to overnight contact and in late October Ms B decided to remain with her mother rather than return to her foster placement as she did not want to participate in October half-term activities that the foster carer planned. The assessment notes that the LAC review process needed to confirm the plan for Ms B to return home. An update by social worker 6 also noted that the family support service had also provided support in October to help Mr B and her mother rebuild their relationship. The outcome of this work was reported to be positive.
- The notes of the reviews confirm that Ms B attended the LAC review meeting that took place in January 2018. The IRO reports that Ms B was invited to all the LAC Review meetings. Other than the January 2018 meeting however, there is no record of who attended the meetings so I am unclear whether or not Ms B attended these. The Council has not provided any written evidence to support its contention that it invited Ms B to all these review meetings.
Poor handling of Ms B’s complaint to the Council
- The Council says that Ms B’s complaint was considered at stage 1 of the statutory complaints procedure but whilst Ms B asked for the matter to be progressed to stage 2 this was refused as the only matter Ms B wished to pursue was the matter of the lost possessions and it was felt there was no further investigation that could be completed and the Council had done all it could to resolve the matter.
- In September 2018 Ms B forwarded an email from her mother to the Council’s children’s services team. In this email Ms B’s mother said that social worker 5 collected all Ms B’s belongings from her while Ms B was in care. She said that a foster containing certificates, £100 in cash and a perfume set were not passed on to Ms B. This email refers to Ms B having complained about his previously but states the Council did not respond to Ms B. She said the matter had not been addressed properly and that she wanted the matter properly investigated.
- The Council’s children’s complaints officer replied enclosing a copy of the Council’s previous response and stating this was the Council’s final response. I have not seen a copy of this earlier response.
- Ms B’s mother, Ms C, complained to the Council in November 2018. She complained that social worker 5 had failed to pass on money, certificates and some perfume that she had given her for Ms B. She said Ms B was particularly keen to get the certificates back.
- The Council provided its stage 1 response to Ms C’s complaint in December 2018. The response was provided by the Council’s Children’s Complaints investigator and was about one page in length. The complaints officer confirmed that he had spoken to social worker 5’s manager before providing the response. He stated that social worker 5 no longer worked for the Council but that before she had left she had emailed Ms B to say she had passed on all that Ms B’s mother had provided to her to pass on to Ms B and that the money as well as a perfume and a gift bag were inside a larger bag. He said the social worker denied having not passed all the items on and he said the police were not pursuing the matter further. He said there was nothing. He said that social worker 6 may be able to help Ms B get copies of the missing certificates.
- Ms B also submitted her own complaint in November. In this letter she said that she had just returned to her other’s care having been looked after for two years. She complained that:
- She had had seven social workers during that period and that this was difficult as she had to keep telling new people what had happened to her and also that they didn’t tell her when they were leaving;
- She was left without a social worker for a long period of time;
- Social worker 5 failed to pass on £100, a perfume set which was a gift and a number of certificates. She said she asked social worker 5 several times what had happened to them but never received an answer. She said her mothr called social worker 5’s manager to about this but was told by the manager that she should not call her;
- She was unhappy with social worker 5’s behaviour towards her more generally, for example, on one occasion accusing her of wasting public money when failing to use a taxi it had provided biut which in fact did not turn up;
- Social worker 5 failed to tell her what the plan for care was despite saying there was a plan;
- She was not invited to LAC meetings about her;
- Social worker failed to deal properly with concerns about availability of food in a foster placement and was inappropriate in her handling of this;
- She idd not understand why it took so long for her to return to her mother’s care;
- Social workers should have tried to resolve issues in placements rather than simply moving her.
Was the Council at fault and did this cause injustice?
- Social worker 5’s notes show that she collected a number of Ms B’s belongings in late June 2018 and that she said she would drop them off the following day as no-one was available at the foster placement the same day. There is unfortunately no note in the case record to confirm that the items were handed over to either Ms B or the foster carer: I do not consider the social work note which states the items were “taken to the foster placement” is sufficient to confirm they were successfully handed over. In addition, there is no record of what items Ms B’s mother handed to the social worker. Both these administrative failings amount to fault. The Council says that the social work manager discussed the issue with social worker 5 who is reported to have said that she handed over everything to Ms B. I have not seen any notes to confirm these discussions with social worker 5. Nor is there any evidence to demonstrate that the social work team made any attempts to locate the missing items though in its response to my enquiries the Council said it did so. I consider this too to amount to fault. I recognise that the Council made efforts to remedy the missing cash by reimbursing this and offered to try to get duplicate certificates and the IRO provided a list of these for Ms B to use if she needed confirmation of these in future. I consider the identified fault resulted in injustice to Ms B: items from home may have a particular resonance for a looked after child and the absence of written records or evidence of how these items were looked after and searched for caused Ms B avoidable distress and uncertainty around knowing what happened to her belongings.
- Ms B had six social workers between 2017 and 2020. One IRO oversaw the care plan for whole period so this provided some continuity. There is no evidence that Ms B did not have a social worker for any period over this time though some of the social workers were allocated to work with her for very short periods and so it may be possible that they did not actually meet Ms B before leaving/ceasing to be her social worker. I recognise that social workers leave their jobs and that this will mean that changes have to be made for children. I also recognise that whilst it would be better if Ms B had not had so many changes of social worker it is often difficult for councils to achieve this. It is positive that the same IRO was overseeing Ms B’s care plan during the period she was looked after as this provided valuable continuity. However, I consider it fault that there is no evidence that Ms B was given notice of the changes or reasons these changes or of any discussion with social workers or social work manager about these changes before they happened or of proper handovers with Ms B. As there is no evidence of this and Ms B states she was not given any notice I consider on the balance of probabilities that she was not given proper information or notice of these changes. This caused Ms B injustice in the form of avoidable distress and uncertainty.
- The evidence suggests that the proper processes were followed in relation to care planning and reviews of Ms B’s placement. I am satisfied that the meetings were held and there was proper oversight. The evidence suggests that the Council took proper steps to plan and properly reintegrate Ms B back home when she decided she wanted to return to her mother’s care in 2018: the amount of contact was gradually increased and the family support worker completed work with Ms B and Ms C on their relationship before the return took place. The decision was considered by the social worker in an assessment which was completed to specifically consider this option and the IRO took overall responsibility to sign off the decision. I find no fault in relation to this part of the complaint. Similarly, whilst Ms B complains about the poor planning around a change of foster placement, the available written records suggest that she was clear she wanted to leave the placement and so the Council sought to arrange this in line with her wishes at the time. I therefore find no fault with that decision.
- The IRO says that Ms B was invited to all the LAC reviews but there is no evidence to support this claim and only one of the LAC review forms notes her to have attended. I find the lack of record keeping and evidence to support this claim amounts to fault: there is no evidence that Ms B was invited to the LAC reviews. Nor is there evidence that the social worker or the IRO discussed the meeting with Ms B before or after the meeting. This fault caused Ms B injustice as it seems likely that she was not properly involved in the review process and therefore not given proper opportunity to participate in the process.
- I consider that handling of Ms B’s complaints to the Council was poor. The Council refers to a response having been provided to Ms B in September but I have not seen this. The responses provided at stage 1 of the statutory procedure both to Ms B and to her mother, when she complained on Ms B’s behalf, are inadequate. The response from the team manager in December is particularly poor as it addresses very little of the complaint made. This is exacerbated by the failure to then allow Ms B to progress her complaint to stage 2 of the statutory procedure. I do not accept the Council’s view that the matter could not have been further considered at stage 2 of the procedure and the statutory process requires that if a matter is accepted at stage 1 the complainant has the right to have the matter considered at the next stage(s) of that process. I therefore find there was fault in the Council’s handling of Ms B’s complaint. This caused her injustice as it meant she was denied the right to have the matters properly and thoroughly considered under the statutory procedure including consideration by an independent person at stage 2 and possibly by a review panel at stage 3. It required her to complain to this office to have the matter considered properly.
- I accept the Council’s assertion that it pursued the concerns about the foster carer raised by Ms B’s friend’s mother and her, appropriately. I consider it should have told Ms B this though I accept that the Council could not detail the action it was taking due to reasons of confidentiality. I consider the Council should also have provided a response to Ms B’s friend’s mother and have seen no evidence that it did. However, the main injustice of this apparent failure would be to Ms B’s friend’s mother and as I am not investigating a complaint from her I will not consider this further. Again, I consider the poor communication on this amounts to fault and this caused Ms B injustice in the form of avoidable uncertainty and frustration.
- Within one month of the date of the final decision on this complaint, the Council will:
- apologise to Ms B for the identified fault;
- conduct a further search for Ms B’s lost possessions and let Ms B know the outcome of this;
- if this search does not locate Ms B’s lost certificates, the Council will then take action to replace as many of these as possible;
- pay Ms B £250 to recognise the avoidable distress and uncertainty caused by the Council’s failure to properly keep track of her belongings and have any evidence that it did so and that it took proper steps to try to find these after she reported it;
- pay Ms B a further £100 to recognise the avoidable distress caused by the failure to properly prepare her for changes of social worker;
- pay Ms B a further £150 for the injustice caused by the apparent failure to properly involve her in the review process and for the consequent loss of opportunity to fully participate in these discussions and planning;
- pay Ms B a further £250 for the poor and inadequate handling of her complaint and to recognise the avoidable time and trouble she was then caused in having to pursue the matter to this office in order to have the matter investigated.
- provide us with evidence of how the Council will ensure that its officers/social work staff keep proper records when they pick up belongings for looked after children including a list of items collected and confirmation that they were handed on to the child;
- provide evidence of how it will improve record keeping in relation to ensuring that there is a clear record of who is invited to looked after child reviews and who attends. If a child does not attend there should be a record of the pre and post discussion between the social worker and/or the IRO and the child;
- consider whether a specific process is necessary to ensure that the belongings of looked after children are properly tracked and audited and provide evidence of this consideration and the outcome of this;
- ensure that there is a process in place to ensure that where there is a need to change a child’s social worker this is managed properly and where at all possible the child is properly informed about this in advance, and provide us with evidence of how it will put this in place; and
- introduce a procedure to ensure that complaints accepted under the statutory children’s complaints procedure are tracked and that complainants are responded to according to the statutory timetable and enabled to progress through the three stages of that procedure.
- The Council was at fault in its handling of several issues related to Ms B’s time as a looked after child including its actions around the loss of her belongings and matters related to its handling of social work changes and her involvement in looked after review meetings. Its handling of her complaint about these was also flawed. The Council should take the recommended action to recognise the injustice these failings caused Ms B.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman