The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The complainant is concerned about the actions of social work staff towards his family and about their assessments of him. He says that this has prejudiced his applications in court concerning his children. The Ombudsman has looked at the information from the Council and complainant. But most of the complaint is tied up with the legal proceedings and therefore the Ombudsman cannot consider matters further.
- The complainant, whom I shall call Mr B, is unhappy about the actions of social work staff towards his family, including that:
- Social workers made up concerns about his parenting;
- They lied in Court and in reports used in Court; and
- Changed their accounts during the complaints procedure about what happened originally.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Ombudsman investigates complainants about maladministration and service failure. In this statement, we have used the word fault to refer to these. The Ombudsman must consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. We refer to this as injustice. If there has been fault causing an injustice, the Ombudsman may suggest a remedy.
- The Ombudsman 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.
- We cannot investigate a complaint about the start of court action or what happened in court. (Local Government Act 1974, Schedule 5/5A, paragraph 1/3, as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have spoken to Mr B on the telephone, considered his written representations and obtained some information from the Council. This has involved obtaining some social work case records.
- The events of this complaint occurred in 2014 to 2016. We have exercised discretion to look at Mr B’s complaints.
- When Mr B’s complaint was first considered by the Ombudsman, the initial view was that they were outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to investigate because they were linked and were part of the Court proceedings. However, in response to Mr B’s concerns about this draft decision, we agreed to look more closely at events.
- I issued a draft decision statement and have considered both the Council and the complainant’s response when reaching our final decision.
- Under the information sharing agreement between the Local Government Ombudsman and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), we will share the final decision statement with Ofsted.
What I found
- The Government guidance, Working Together to Safeguard Children, 2013 and March 2015, sets out how councils should deal with child protection concerns.
- When parents separate, the Family Court decides disputes about the arrangements for the children. These are referred to as private legal proceedings. The Court can seek information from the local council in respect of the children to help it make decisions about where the children should live and about the contact arrangements with the non-resident parent.
- A child is regarded as a ‘child in need’ if there are concerns that his/her development will be impaired unless services are provided.
- Councils must consider complaints about social care under the Children Act 1989 statutory complaints procedure. This is a three-stage process. At Stage 3, a Complaints Review Panel, made up of two people and an independent Chair, will consider the complaints.
- Mr B has two older children from a previous relationship. He obtained a Residence Order (now called a Child Arrangement Order) when his first relationship ended. I shall refer to these two children as Child B and Child C. Child B and Child C remained in Mr B’s care when his first relationship came to an end. This remains the case today.
- Mr B then met his ex-wife, who I shall refer to as Ms Y. Mr B and Ms Y were married and they had two children, who I shall refer to as Child D and Child E. When Mr B and Ms Y separated in 2014, Mr B had the fulltime care of all four children.
- In 2014, private legal proceedings began between Mr B and Ms Y. The Family Court ordered the Council to file a report to Court about the family circumstances. In 2014, the Council decided to regard all four children as children in need because of the ongoing difficulties between Mr B and Ms Y.
- In February 2014, the Council completed a core assessment report. The Council concluded that there was an ongoing conflict between Mr B and Ms Y and Mr B had failed to honour the contact arrangements for Ms Y to see Child D and Child E. The Council described Mr B as ‘controlling’ in its report to the Court. However, the Council recommended that the children remain with Mr B until Ms Y had sorted out accommodation for herself. The Council recommended that, once this was done, there should be a shared care arrangement between Mr B and Ms Y in respect of their children.
- Mr B says he was content with the Council’s core assessment of February 2014. However, he later discovered that this assessment was not on the Council’s social care files.
The Family Court’s decision
- In early 2014, the Family Court ordered that Child D and Child E remained with Mr B. Mr B alleged that Ms Y’s current boyfriend was unsuitable as a carer for his children because of his drug taking and domestic violence to her.
- During the Court proceedings, Ms Y made it known that Mr B had started his relationship with her when she was under age. The Council expressed concern about this. Mr B denied that they had started a relationship when Ms Y was under age.
- In June 2014, the Court ordered that Child D and Child E lived with Ms Y. By this stage, she had obtained her own accommodation. Mr B says that the Court made a finding of fact that Mr B had not started a relationship with Ms Y when she was under age.
Events after the 2014 Court decision
- Mr B made an application to Court for a shared care arrangement with Ms Y in respect of Child D and Child E. There followed further private proceedings between Mr B and Ms Y. The Council became involved again in these proceedings and the case was allocated to a new Social Worker, who I shall refer to as Social Worker 1.
- Mr B made complaints about Ms Y’s partner’s domestic abuse towards her. The Council made Child D and Child E the subject of a child protection plan under the category of emotional abuse because of the concerns regarding domestic abuse between Ms Y and her partner.
- In December 2015, the Court considered the case. The Court then made a finding of fact that Mr B had started his relationship with Ms Y when she was under age. The Court ordered that Mr B’s contact with Child D and Child E should be supervised. Mr B says that the information provided to the Court by Social Worker 1 was inaccurate and misleading and it was her information which led to the Court’s decisions.
- The Court also ordered a Non-Molestation Order prohibiting Mr B from entering the children’s school.
- As requested by the Court, the Council carried out further risk assessments to see if it was necessary to continue supervising Mr B’s contact with Child D and Child E. Child D and Child E stated that they did not like their contact with Mr B being held at a contact centre.
- The Council carried out further risk assessments on Mr B and it concluded that he presented minimal risk of sexual harm to his children.
- Mr B says that Ms Y’s relationship with her partner has now ended and he intends to seek the return of his children to his care so that all four children can be together.
Mr B’s complaints to the Council
- Mr B made complaints to the Council about Social Worker 1’s involvement saying she was biased and had failed to take into account the earlier core assessment of 2014 which had recommended that the children remained in his care.
- The complaint was allocated, at Stage 2 of the Children Act statutory complaints procedure, to an independent Investigator and an independent Person.
- Mr B made many complaints about Social Worker 1, all of which were fully investigated. But the independent investigation upheld only one complaint about the Social Worker 1’s refusal to provide her email address to Mr B. The independent investigation also raised a concern that the Council had been unwilling to record child protection conferences or other meetings given Mr B’s difficulty with literacy.
- The other complaints about Social Worker 1’s actions were that she misreported Mr B’s comments, that she said he had made false allegations about Ms Y’s partner, that she wrongly told the Court that he had refused to engage with her and that she wrongly accused him of ‘abusing’ his children. Mr B also complained that it was because of her concerns that the Court ordered his contact with Child D and Child E should be supervised.
- The Stage 2 investigation concluded that it was the Court who had determined the arrangements for the children, not the Council, and it was the Court which had ordered Mr B’s contact with his children to be supervised. This was on the premise that the Court had decided, as a finding of fact, that he had ‘groomed’ Ms Y and therefore the Court had wanted to ensure the children were protected and there were further risk assessments undertaken by the Council.
Stage 3 Complaints Review Panel
- The Stage 2 adjudication accepted the findings made by the independent Investigator and the Council agreed to consider producing guidance about email correspondence between social workers and service users and also about the recording of meetings/conferences. The Service Manager apologised to Mr B for the identified faults.
- Mr B was not satisfied. He stated that the core assessment report of February 2014 was not on the Council’s files, as it should have been, and he requested a different social worker.
- On 22 September 2016, the Stage 3 Review Panel considered Mr B’s outstanding concerns. Mr B attended the Review Panel hearing accompanied by his advocate. The advocate provided some information to the Review Panel in support of Mr B’s comments.
- The independent Investigator explained to the Review Panel that she had seen Court transcripts and therefore had seen the evidence in relation to Ms Y’s age at the time that Mr B had started a relationship with her.
- There was a discussion, during the Review Panel hearing, about what Social Worker 1 had said in Court about the need for supervised contact with Mr B’s two younger children. Mr B said Social Worker 1 had said to the Judge that his contact with Child D and Child E was a ‘concern’ and Mr B thought that this had led to the Judge ordering supervised contact.
- The Review Panel concluded that it was not possible to know exactly what was said at Court. But in the Court report by Social Worker 1, she had not recommended supervised contact. The Review Panel therefore decided that it was more appropriate to reach a ‘no finding’ decision on this specific complaint.
- At the Review Panel hearing, there was also a discussion about whether Mr B had maliciously made false allegations about Ms Y’s partner. The Review Panel concluded that there was evidence of Mr B making allegations, wrongly, about alleged sexual abuse by Ms Y’s partner to his children but he had not been malicious in respect of his allegations of domestic violence by Ms Y’s partner.
- The Review Panel upheld Mr B’s complaint that the Council had excluded him from certain discussions and it stated that Mr B had never missed appointments with social workers, as had been wrongly alleged.
- Despite amending some of the findings at Stage 2, the Review Panel considered the independent report was thorough and that the Review Panel had changed some of the findings only because of the additional information provided at the Review Panel hearing.
The Review Panel’s recommendations
- The Review Panel advised the Council:
- to provide guidance about what action staff should take in the event of receiving sensitive email information which was meant for another person;
- to ensure that there was clear information on the front of minutes regarding timescales allowed for responding with amendments;
- to review how minutes of meetings are written up; and
- to encourage staff to think carefully about their communication with families in the interests of the children involved.
- Having considered Mr B’s complaints (a) and (b) more fully, we are satisfied that they are clearly linked to the Court proceedings. The Ombudsman does not have the jurisdiction to consider complaints about what happened at Court, however unfair the complainant might consider the Court’s decisions have been or however much a complainant considers the Council provided inaccurate information. The only recourse is for complainants to appeal the Court’s decisions or to seek amendments to the Orders made.
- In respect of complaint (c), the Review Panel did change the findings on some complaints because further information was provided at the Review Panel hearing. Mr B considers that this means that the original information provided by the Council, as part of the Stage 2 investigation, was therefore misleading or wrong. He considers that the Review Panel could have found that the Social Worker 1 had been dishonest. But this would have been a breach of a social worker’s professional standards and is best considered by the professional body, the Health and Social Care Professional Council (HCPC).
- Certainly, Mr B’s advocate at the Review Panel provided some additional information which led to a change in the findings on a few complaints. We recognise Mr B’s concern that this is information which could have been sought at Stage 2. But the purpose of a Review Panel hearing is to review information and to consider whether the findings made at Stage 2 were justified. This is what the Review Panel did in Mr B’s case and therefore we cannot say that the Review Panel was at fault. Moreover, the Review Panel reached new judgements on a few complaints which is what Mr B had been seeking and it made recommendations to the Council which reflected Mr B’s concerns and might improve social work practice for the future.
- We recognise Mr B’s concerns about the fact that the original core assessment was not on the social care file. But the Court would not have relied upon a previous core assessment when reaching welfare decisions much later. Family circumstances change and new evidence becomes available. So, the Courts require up to date information.
- Mr B has raised other issues about the reliability of some evidence on which the Council has relied upon. I will ask the Council to consider this once I close the complaint.
- Our final view is that the Ombudsman cannot investigate Mr B’s complaints (a) and (b) because they are about what the Council did and said within the private legal proceedings.
- In respect of complaint (c), the Council’s investigation found some faults and the Council has apologised to the complainant. But we find no fault in the way the Review Panel was conducted and consider that it was correct to reach new findings when presented with fresh information not available at Stage 2.
- I have therefore completed my investigation and am closing the complaint.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman