The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr A complains about the way the Council handled a referral to its Children’s Services Department about his daughter. The Ombudsman has investigated whether the Council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the stage two statutory investigation of Mr A’s complaint. We have found the Council did this and the remedies it offered Mr A were proportionate to the injustice caused by the faults identified in the investigation report.
- The complainant, who I shall refer to as Mr A, complains about the way the Council handled a referral to its Children’s Services Department about his daughter, B.
- I note the Council considered Mr A’s complaint at all three stages of the children’s services statutory complaints procedure. In these circumstances, the Ombudsman will only investigate the substantive complaint if we consider a council’s stage two independent investigation of it was flawed. In this case, I have no concerns about the way the investigation was conducted, therefore I have investigated whether the Council properly considered its findings and recommendations, and whether the remedy offered to Mr A was appropriate.
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)
- 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)
- We normally expect someone to refer the matter to the Information Commissioner if they have a complaint about data protection. However, we may decide to investigate if we think there are good reasons. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have:
- Read Mr A’s complaint and considered the information he provided in support of it.
- Considered the documents related to the complaint provided by the Council.
- Provided both parties with an opportunity to comment on the draft decision.
What I found
- In February 2016, B lived with her father, mother and two older siblings. At the time she was aged four.
- In the middle of the month, the Council received a confidential safeguarding referral about B. After discussing the matter with other agencies and carrying out checks, it decided a Section 17 child in need assessment should be carried out. Therefore, it allocated the case to it’s Assessment Team for action.
- In April 2016, the allocated social worker states she tried to call Mr A and his wife to arrange a home visit. She says she was unable to contact them, therefore she sent the family a letter stating she would visit at the end of the month.
- The social worker visited the family home on the evening of the date she had selected. Mr A and his wife were unaware the visit had been arranged, although the social worker was able to speak to B. Following the visit and the competition of the assessment, the Council decided it would take no further action.
- Mr A subsequently complained to the Council about the way the Council handled the referral and the conduct of the social worker during the visit. He said it did not follow the correct procedure or respond in the appropriate timeframe after it received the referral. He also said the assessment was not completed within the necessary timeframe and contained factual inaccuracies. Regarding the social worker, he said she was forceful when she attended his home, demanded to be let in, and did not introduce herself or show identification. Moreover, he said she did not follow the correct procedure during the visit, and spoke to B on her own and asked her leading questions.
- In addition, Mr A complained the Council did not seek his or his wife’s consent to access their medical records, and misled them into believing that data about their family had been removed from the system. He also stated his complaint had not been handled in line with the children’s services statutory complaints procedure after it had been dealt with at stage one.
- He stated he felt his family were harassed in their own home and said they had all been affected by what happened. He also stated he believed the social worker’s letter arranging the home visit had been posted to one of his neighbours, and this person subsequently informed the others that children’s services were involved with his family. As a result, he said his car had been damaged on three occasions. In addition, he stated that during a visit to the doctors, he was notified by B’s GP that she was recorded on their system as a child in need, when this was not the case.
- He asked the Council to apologise for its failings and requested assistance to move to a new house because of the problems with his neighbours. He also asked that all data about their family be removed from the Council’s system, and that it notify the relevant agencies that B was not, and had never been a child in need.
- The Council arranged an independent stage two investigation into Mr A’s complaint. This was completed in October 2017 and the Council wrote to Mr and Mrs A after it had reviewed the investigation report. It accepted: it did not contact them in the required timeframe after the referral had been made; the assessment was not completed in time during this period; and they were not advised how they could escalate their complaint at stage one of the complaint procedure. It also agreed the social worker did not show identification when she conducted the home visit, although it did not uphold any other aspect of the complaint. It accepted the recommendations made by the investigating officer and agreed to apologise to Mr A and his wife, and organise staff training about the complaint procedure.
- Mr A and his wife were not content with the outcome at stage two, therefore they asked that their complaint be considered by a panel at stage three.
- In mid-June 2018, the Council wrote to Mr and Mrs A after the Complaint Review Panel sat a month earlier. It apologised for any distress its actions had caused and offered them £250 to remedy this, plus a further £100 in recognition of the time and trouble involved in making their complaint. In addition, it noted it had sent a letter to B’s nursery and GP practice to explain there was no further involvement from children’s services. However, it stated it could not remove the case records from its database and advised them to contact the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) for advice.
- Mr A was not content with the outcome or the Council’s offer, therefore he complained to the Ombudsman in mid-July 2018. In addition to the points already raised, he says this whole episode has had negative consequences for his family’s wellbeing. He states the Council’s actions have made him and his wife question their parenting, caused them to have sleep problems, created problems in their marriage, and impacted upon their mental health. In addition, he says its actions have negatively affected B’s sleep, made her cling to her parents more, and caused her to fear adults and run away whenever the door bell is rung. He wants the Council to reconsider the financial payment it has offered them and pay them a greater amount to better reflect the injustice they were caused.
- I note the Council considered both the findings of the independent investigation at stage two and the Panel’s decision at stage three before writing to Mr and Mrs A. It agreed to the recommendations made by investigating officer and at stage three, offered the couple financial payments in line with the Ombudsman’s guidance. This guidance states that payments for distress should be between £100 and £300 for moderate cases. Any remedy payment should address the injustice which has shown to have been caused by a council’s failures. Moreover, it is important to note that these amounts are merely symbolic and are not intended to directly remedy the injustice that was caused, as it is acknowledged that many injustices cannot generally be remedied by a payment.
- In this case, the failures identified concern the time the Council took to deal with the referral and conduct the assessment, the social worker not showing identification, and the way the complaint was handled. I do not consider the injustice resulting from these failures constitutes anything more than a moderate case, therefore the £250 offered by the Council is an appropriate remedy. Similarly, the £100 payment offered for time and trouble is appropriate as the only fault identified in the complaint procedure concerns the progression of the complaint from stage one to stage two. After this, the Council ensured the complaint was investigated independently at stage two and considered by a panel at stage three, as requested by Mr A and his wife.
- I understand Mr A and his family were caused significant distress by the Council’s actions, but this distress is not directly attributable to the faults that were identified. The injustice he is claiming stems largely from the fact the Council undertook a home visit, and other agencies or bodies being notified that his daughter was a child in need. Regarding the former, it is expected that visits of this nature will cause a certain amount of incidental distress to those involved. However, I would not expect a council to refrain from undertaking a visit because of the stress it might cause, as the consequences of not acting could be far greater.
- In relation to the child in need notification, this is something I cannot investigate and Mr A should contact the ICO if he wants to pursue this aspect of his complaint. This is because the ICO is better placed to considered matters of this nature. Similarly, he should contact this organisation if he wants to pursue the part of his complaint about the social worker’s letter being sent to the wrong address.
- In summary, I appreciate this was a particularly difficult period for Mr A and his family. However, I have found the Council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation, and the remedies it offered were proportionate to the injustice caused by the faults it identified.
- The Council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the stage two independent investigation of Mr A’s complaint. Likewise, the remedies it offered him were proportionate to the injustice caused by the faults identified in the investigation report.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- I did not investigate Mr A’s substantive children’s services complaint. In addition, I have not investigated the parts of his complaint which relate to recordkeeping, third-party notification, or data protection. This is because the ICO is better placed to consider this aspect of his complaint, and I have found no reason why the Ombudsman should investigate this.
Investigator’s decision on behalf of the Ombudsman
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman