South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council (14 006 155)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 31 Mar 2015

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: There were some faults in the Council’s handling of child protection and related matters. While on balance these faults probably did not deprive Mr and Mrs B’s family of services, they caused Mr and Mrs B avoidable uncertainty, frustration, time and trouble. The Council has agreed my recommendations to put matters right.

The complaint

  1. The complainants, whom I shall refer to as Mr and Mrs B, say the council has not dealt properly with their daughter C’s care needs and Mr and Mrs B’s needs as carers since 2012 and has not properly handled their formal complaints about this. As a result, they fear C is without the support she needs, they have suffered stress and uncertainty and have been to time and trouble pursuing matters.

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What I have investigated

  1. Mr and Mrs B complained to the Council about many points. My investigation concentrated on points closely concerning whether the council properly considered and met C’s needs and Mr and Mrs B’s needs as carers. This is because these are the areas in which any fault by the council might have caused a significant injustice. The final section of this statement contains my reasons for not investigating the rest of the complaint.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. The Ombudsman investigates complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. She 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, she may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1))
  2. The Ombudsman cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. She must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3))
  3. The Ombudsman provides a free service, but must use public money carefully. She may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if she believes the fault has not caused injustice to the person who complained, or the injustice is not significant enough to justify the cost of her involvement, or it is unlikely she could add to any previous investigation by the Council. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6))
  4. The law says the Ombudsman cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, she may decide to investigate if she considers it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c))

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of the investigation, I have considered the complaint and the documents Mr and Mrs B provided, discussed the complaint with Mrs B, made enquiries of the council and considered the comments and documents the council provided. I gave the Council and Mr and Mrs B the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.

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What I found

  1. C is a primary school-aged girl with some medical and special educational needs. Her diagnoses and assessments of her needs have changed over time. However there is a broad pattern of Mr and Mrs B arguing that C’s needs are greater than social services, educational services and medical professionals believe.
  2. In early 2012 the Council received two referrals that made it concerned about C:
    • A psychiatrist reported Mr and Mrs B were describing C in negative terms, did not recognise she was making progress and had requested multiple further opinions about C from health professionals. The psychiatrist suggested all this could be harming C.
    • The police reported that two female relatives of Mr B’s had alleged he sexually abused them some years earlier. Later, after the strategy meeting described in paragraph 10, Mr B told social workers he had been abused as a child, which caused him ongoing difficulties. He strongly denied the relatives’ allegations but admitted saying no-one would know if he abused his child and admitted to having had thoughts of abusing C when she was very young. Social workers were concerned about these comments and about Mrs B’s saying she did not believe C was at risk despite hearing the comments.
  3. The Council arranged a strategy meeting involving representatives of the Council, health services, police and C’s school. That meeting decided to proceed to a child protection conference to consider whether C needed a child protection plan. In brief, the conference decided in March 2012 that C should have a child protection plan. In November 2012 a review conference decided a child protection plan was no longer needed and C should instead have a ‘child in need’ plan, reflecting a lower level of concern.
  4. The decisions in March and November 2012 were decisions of a conference of professionals from various agencies, not just the Council. The Ombudsman does not have power to investigate those decisions. The Ombudsman can only consider the actions of Council officers contributing reports and comments to the meeting and taking part in the decision-making. I have considered those points. The Council’s contributions all appear based on evidence the Council had gathered and consequent professional judgements about C’s welfare. I consider the Council’s properly reached its judgements firstly that a child protection plan was appropriate and later that this was no longer needed. So while Mr and Mrs B are entitled to disagree with the Council’s views, I cannot criticise those views, as paragraph 4 explained.

Complaint about not meeting C’s needs

  1. The Council accepts it did not do some work the March 2012 conference said was necessary. This included risk assessments of Mr and Mrs B’s ability to keep C safe. A core group meeting on 4 April 2012 said these would start the next week and take about a month. The assessments were never completed. The evidence suggests events by late 2012 satisfied the Council and others involved the child protection concerns were no longer so great. The Council was clearly at fault for not doing the promised risk assessments. I have considered how this affected the complainants. We do not know what the risk assessments would have concluded. Given Mr B’s comments and the concerns about Mrs B’s reaction, the risk assessments might well have been unfavourable to Mr and Mrs B and led to more significant child protection action. Or the assessments might have enabled the Council to decide sooner that C was safe with her parents. Either way, the failure to do risk assessments caused Mr and Mrs B avoidable uncertainty.
  2. Other parts of the child protection plan the Council accepts it did not do were producing a written agreement between the parties, a multi-agency chronology and ‘child in need’ plans for the family’s two other children. The Council was clearly at fault although I see no evidence these failures in themselves disadvantaged Mr and Mrs B significantly.
  3. It is concerning the Council failed to do so many things it had considered necessary. If such failures were to occur in other cases, they could undermine the Council’s ability to keep children safe.
  4. The Council also accepted other faults. The main points were: not holding enough meetings at some points, poor record-keeping and not sending Mr and Mrs B all the documents for some meetings. These faults caused Mr and Mrs B avoidable frustration and time and trouble chasing matters. The Council apologised and says it has now sent the missing documents. Mr and Mrs B have not told me any documents they wanted are still missing so I consider this point resolved.
  5. From the first child protection conference, the Council said Mr and Mrs B should not seek more professional assessments of C until a psychiatrist assessed C. Mr and Mrs B say this prevented them getting assessments the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (an independent body) wanted so it could decide about C’s education. I have seen no evidence Mr and Mrs B told the Council of this problem before March 2013. So there was no fault in the Council maintaining Mr and Mrs B should not seek more assessments until then, given the Council’s concern about the number of assessments C had already had.
  6. In March 2013 Mr and Mrs B told the Council the Tribunal wanted more information about C but they were afraid if they sought assessments the Council might take further action against them. The Council did not reply until July 2013, after prompting from the complainants’ solicitor. The Council said it would not act against Mr and Mrs B for seeking assessments the Tribunal wanted. The Council was at fault for not responding promptly. Mr and Mrs B are left with some uncertainty about whether the Tribunal might have decided about C’s educational provision sooner but for this delay. However as there have been frequent discussions and appeals about C’s education over the years, I do not conclude the Council’s delay in itself significantly affected the chances of a real resolution. So Mr and Mrs B’s injustice here is limited to some frustration and inconvenience. My investigation is not considering matters related to C’s education.
  7. Meanwhile, a review conference in June 2012 was particularly concerned that Mr and Mrs B had sought several more professional assessments of C since March, despite having agreed not to. The review conference decided the Council should hold a meeting (known as a ‘public law outline’ meeting) with Mr and Mrs B ‘as soon as possible’ to discuss the Council’s concerns and plan what to do next, including explaining the Council’s plan for court action to take C into care if matters did not improve. Mr and Mrs B query whether there was good reason for this. The Council’s report to the meeting and the minutes of the meeting show Council officers had genuine concerns based on the events and on their professional judgement. In the circumstances I do not fault the Council for deciding a public law outline meeting was necessary.
  8. However, the meeting did not take place for 11 weeks. The Council cannot explain the delay but suggests ‘staff leave’ over the summer might have played a part. Whatever the reasons, the Council is at fault. As the Council was concerned enough to consider care proceedings, it should reasonably have met Mr and Mrs B to discuss this possibility (and how to avoid it) within four weeks. The Council’s fault here caused Mr and Mrs B around seven weeks’ avoidable uncertainty.
  9. In the two months after the public law outline meeting, the Council became more reassured with how Mr and Mrs B engaged with it and with C’s wellbeing. The psychiatrist’s assessment also concluded C’s needs were less than previously thought. A review conference on 6 November 2012 decided the child protection plan was no longer needed and C could instead be treated as a ‘child in need.’ I see no fault in the Council’s involvement in this decision, or in the timescale. It is not unusual to have a child protection plan and to remove that plan later if matters improve and/or the understanding of the child’s needs changes.
  10. The March 2012 protection plan prevented Mr B looking after C alone. The June 2012 review agreed Mr B could have some sole care of C, including taking her to and from school alone, but he could not provide intimate care. All these restrictions ended when the child protection plan ended in late 2012. I appreciate Mr and Mrs B did not want any restrictions. However, there were genuine concerns about the allegations against Mr B and his comments. I do not criticise the Council’s involvement in imposing and later relaxing those restrictions.
  11. The ‘care team’ of the social worker, parents and some other professionals was supposed to meet regularly to monitor C’s child in need plan. There were no meetings from January to July 2013. I understand they were suspended partly because of difficulties between Mr and Mrs B and some attendees and partly to await developments in the Tribunal appeal about C’s education. There was some mention of the Council seeking alternatives to regular meetings but I see no evidence the Council pursued this. The matter just seems to have drifted, especially after the social worker left in March 2013. However even when the Council became more engaged later, it did not conclude the family needed more social services. Rather it judged Mr and Mrs B should be encouraged to get on with meeting C’s needs themselves. Mr and Mrs B have not identified any social services they believe C needed at that time. They later said they wanted the Council to give them money to buy respite care. As I explain below, the Council was never likely to provide that. So I do not believe the drift in the first half of 2013 disadvantaged Mr and Mrs B or C significantly.
  12. At a meeting on 2 July 2013 the new social worker agreed to do an updated core assessment of C and her parents. However when Mr and Mrs B asked about this on 3 October 2013, the social worker just referred back to the previous core assessment from 2012. She had apparently forgotten she was to update this.
  13. The new core assessment was finalised in May 2014. So it took ten months when it should normally take seven working weeks. The Council told me the delay was partly due to the social worker’s illness and awaiting the result of separate discussions about E’s educational needs in order to have a fuller understanding of C. However the Council appears not to have noticed the complete inactivity and apparent forgetting of the assessment from July to October 2014.
  14. The new core assessment concluded C’s needs were being met by her education and health service provision and by her parents so she did not need social care. If children have medical conditions and special educational needs, it does not necessarily follow that they need social services too.
  15. I accept some factors meant this core assessment was likely to take over seven weeks. Nevertheless, there was a significant period of inactivity for no good reason. The Council was at fault here. However, even if the Council had done the core assessment more quickly, it is unlikely to have led to a different result in terms of services for the family. So the only injustice the Council’s delay caused Mr and Mrs B was some avoidable uncertainty and frustration.
  16. In the meantime, a social worker noted on 30 September 2013 she could discuss with the Council the possibility of using ‘section 17 money’ for the family. This is money the Council can spend at its discretion on services for a child in need. There is no evidence the Council considered this further. That was fault. I am mindful that both before and after this event, when the Council considered the family’s needs it did not see a need to give the family money. The fact that a child has some additional needs does not necessarily mean the Council must provide money in respect of those needs. So I do not conclude the Council failed to give Mr and Mrs B money it should have given.
  17. More recently, the Council has agreed to reconsider the family’s needs by doing another assessment. That is outside the scope of my investigation. Such assessments are now called ‘single assessments’ rather than ‘core assessments.’ However this new assessment should consider the family’s needs thoroughly, including whether there is a need for any extra help.
  18. Mr and Mrs B suggest the Council should have done more regarding problems they say C had at school. On one occasion C told a social worker another boy sometimes climbed on her back in the playground and she did not like this. The social worker told C to tell a school staff member. The social worker also told the head teacher herself. Mr and Mrs B say C was also bullied at school and the social worker did not deal with this. The Council reports the school is satisfied the situation did not amount to bullying. The Council advised Mr and Mrs B to raise any concerns with the school themselves.
  19. It is not unusual for children or parents to have some concerns about school life. Just because the family has some social services involvement, it is not the Council’s responsibility to deal with routine matters concerning C’s school life. Mr and Mrs B are primarily responsible for that. There is no fault in the Council’s main advice that Mr and Mrs B should deal with such matters.
  20. Mr and Mrs B say C’s behaviour at home is more difficult than at school and the Council has not helped with this. The Council says it has discussed the situation with Mr and Mrs B but the social worker has not seen behaviour by C at home that would require specialist intervention. It is not clear from the records how often social workers have seen E at home compared with how often they are supposed to see her. However they have evidently had some meetings and have discussed her extensively with Mr and Mrs B. I realise Mr and Mrs B appear to want the Council to do more for them but that does not in itself mean the Council has to. There is a reasonable expectation that parents can normally manage their children’s behaviour at home themselves without extensive external input.

Complaint about not meeting Mr and Mrs B’s needs

  1. Only Mr and Mrs B’s needs relating to their care of C are relevant here. The first conference in March 2012 decided to refer Mr B for trauma counselling in case that would help with his care of C. The Council referred Mr B several weeks later. It is not the Council’s fault that such services are not easily available locally.
  2. In January 2013, at a care team meeting regarding C, Mr B asked about adult services support for his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. C’s social worker said Mr B was unlikely to be assessed as an adult with a disability in need of social services. I consider this was fault because that decision was for the adult services section to make. I see no evidence C’s social worker explained how Mr B could contact the adult services section for advice or assessment, which would have been an appropriate response. This was a missed opportunity.
  3. At a review meeting for C in July 2013, C’s social worker said she would look into potential support for Mr B from adult services or an advocate. Mr B was referred to an advocacy organisation shortly afterwards. In November 2013 a mental health social worker for adults visited Mr B. After speaking to Mr B and the health services already working with Mr B, the social worker concluded Mr B did not need social services. This decision was properly reached so I cannot criticise it.
  4. Mr and Mrs B are aggrieved this social worker was not involved sooner. I do note this. However the evidence suggests earlier involvement would simply have led to an earlier decision that Mr B was not eligible for social services.
  5. The Council’s current position is that it does not consider C disabled so Mr and Mrs B are not eligible for services for carers of disabled children. The evidence suggests the only carers’ service Mr and Mrs B requested is respite care for C (or payments so they can buy this). Discussions within the Council suggest the amount of respite Mr and Mrs B wanted would normally only be given to parents of a child with severe disabilities that were very difficult to manage at home. Such a child would be likely to attend a special school. C attends a mainstream school with some extra support. So I am satisfied it is unlikely Mr and Mrs B should have received all the respite they want.
  6. However the evidence suggests some faults in the Council’s consideration. Mr and Mrs B raised the issue of respite at least in January, July and October 2013. The Council’s children with disabilities team (CDT), apparently having brief information from the social worker, said it was unlikely to provide respite in the circumstances but asked the social worker for more details. There is no evidence the social worker provided these. Also, on 15 July 2013 the social worker noted she would help Mr and Mrs B write a letter asking the CDT about respite. There is no evidence this happened either. These were faults by the Council. The effect is that Mr and Mrs B have never had a properly reasoned decision about respite from the relevant part of the Council. The evidence I have seen suggests it is unlikely the Council would have provided respite. However Mr and Mrs B are left with avoidable uncertainty about this. The fresh assessment that should now be underway and any related work should consider the respite point appropriately.
  7. During the 2014 core assessment update, the social worker used a carers’ assessment with Mr and Mrs B, who understandably believed they were having a carers’ assessment. The social worker then asked the CDT where to send this information. The CDT replied the results were not to be sent elsewhere but the social worker should use them herself to inform the updated core assessment. It is concerning that the social worker did not know why she was using the carers’ assessment tool or what to do with the results. This caused Mr and Mrs B some avoidable confusion although, for the reasons given above, I do not conclude it actually deprived them of respite they would otherwise have had.

Complaint-handling

  1. It took from April 2012 to September 2014 to complete the three stages of the statutory children’s services complaints procedure. This is an extraordinarily long time to deal fully with a complaint.
  2. For some of this time, matters were on hold at Mr and Mrs B’s request. Other delays resulted from the Council’s agreement to Mr and Mrs B’s requests to expand their complaint, so time was taken arranging meetings to discuss this and finalising the complaint statements. Arguably the Council should not have allowed the complaint to keep expanding. However, had the Council been firmer, Mr and Mrs B would have been more unhappy. The panel meeting to consider the complaint was postponed several times due to different people’s illnesses, which was unfortunate but does not amount to fault by the Council.
  3. Overall, I consider both the Council and the complainants contributed to the delays. The Council has already paid Mr and Mrs B £50 in recognition of some avoidable delay on its part.

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Agreed action

  1. At my recommendation, the Council has agreed to:
      1. Apologise to Mr and Mrs B for the injustice I identified;
      2. Pay Mr and Mrs B £100 in recognition of the avoidable injustice;
      3. Complete the new assessment and any connected work without delay; and
      4. Review the Council’s procedures and practices to minimise the chances of the faults in this case recurring and update Mr and Mrs B about this.

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Final decision

  1. There was some fault by the council causing Mr and Mrs B injustice. The council’s agreement to my recommendations above will put right the injustice caused. So I have ended my investigation.

Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. Mr and Mrs B complained a social worker slandered Mr B. The restriction described in paragraph 6 applies here because the courts can consider this. Slander is not a straightforward matter legally so I consider it more suitable for the courts than the Ombudsman to consider it. In the circumstances I consider Mr B could reasonably take court action. So I have not investigated this point.
  2. I did not investigate minor matters Mr and Mrs B had raised with the Council, such as how social workers explained their involvement to the family, whether Mr and Mrs B or social workers failed to attend some meetings, what exactly was said in meetings where there is no record, the tone of some comments, reports containing blank pages and failure to respond to telephone messages. This is because such matters either did not affect Mr and Mrs B significantly enough to justify the Ombudsman devoting time and public money to them or because there is no realistic chance of reaching a clear enough view about the events now.

Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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