The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr B complains about the Council in its role as legal guardian for his son. Mr B says the Council has not shown regard to his son’s culture and religious heritage. He says the Council has not involved him in decisions about his son’s care or communicated with him properly. The Ombudsman does not find fault in the Council’s actions.
- The complainant, who I refer to as Mr B, has made several complaints to the Council about its care of his son (“C”). C is a looked after child in the care of the Council. Mr B is concerned the Council has not allowed his son to attend mosque or religious events. He is also concerned about how the Council has managed contact arrangements and says the Council is victimising him, his wife (“Mrs B”) and C.
What I have investigated
- I have investigated whether the Council complied with recommendations made by a Stage 3 panel following a complaint by Mr B.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- The Local Government Act 1974 sets out our powers but also imposes restrictions on what we can investigate. 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)
- 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)
- 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 information provided by Mr B and the Council. I discussed the complaint with Mr B then made further enquiries of the Council. I sent a copy of my draft decision to both parties for their comments.
What I found
- C is the adopted child of Mr and Mrs B. In 2015 the court issued a Care Order, which placed C in the care of the Council. A Final Care Plan was agreed, which set out objectives and contact with Mr and Mrs B whilst C was in foster care. Contact arrangements were at the discretion of the Council but it was recommended regular contact be encouraged.
- The care plan outlined that C’s religion and culture had played an important part in his life so far. It stated the Council should continue to encourage and facilitate C’s involvement in religious activities, whilst taking his views into account.
- The care plan said the Council would prioritise C’s cultural and religious requirements when identifying the right match for a foster placement. However, this could not take priority over ensuring the match meets his complex needs.
- Since 2015, C has had several different foster placements. Many of the placements have broken down for various reasons. The Council has now placed C with a long-term foster carer, which it considers meets C’s needs. However, the foster carers are not from the same cultural or religious background as C.
- Mr B has made several complaints to the Council since the care order in 2015. He is concerned C has bounced between multiple foster placements and the Council has not taken reported incidents of attempted self-harm and other behavioural issues seriously. Mr B says the Council does not properly facilitate contact between them and C. He says council officers are not sensitive to or respectful of C’s cultural background.
- Mr B complained in 2018 and this progressed through all three stages of the Council’s children’s complaints procedure. A Stage 3 panel heard the matter in August 2018. It did not uphold Mr B’s complaints but recognised the importance and benefits of keeping Mr and Mrs B involved and in touch with C. It made recommendations, the full details of which are set out below at Paragraphs 22 to 35.
- Following the Stage 3 panel, the Council wrote to Mr and Mrs B to arrange contact times between them and C up until January 2019. Contact was to take place once a month with an agreed period of three hours for each session.
- Mr B requested leave from school of two weeks for observance of Muharram. He also sought added contact sessions for religious observance. The Council said it felt best to keep to the arranged contact times as C had expressed that he did not, then, identify as Muslim. It also said it would not normally endorse that amount of absence from school.
- The first contact session in August 2018 was due to last for three hours. However, the Council booked taxis for times that would only leave two hours. Mr B raised this and the Council apologised and rectified the mistake. It noted the contact between Mr and Mrs B, and C appeared to have gone well. The following week C had another contact session with his parents to attend a mosque event.
- During September 2018 Mr B raised further concerns that the Council was not allowing C to attend further religious events. Mrs B said C turned up at their home unannounced and asked for additional contact to attend an event. The Council later responded to say that C had told them he did not wish to attend mosque at that time and it could not force him to attend.
- A further contact session took place at the end of September 2018, which the Council again noted was a positive session. In October 2018 Mr and Mrs B had a meeting with the Council to give their views and discuss plans from then on.
- A family time session was meant to take place in October 2018 but was cancelled. The Council said it cancelled the session at C’s request. Mr B said the Council did not tell C about the session until the last minute, at which point he panicked.
- In November 2018, the Council placed C with a long-term foster placement following a period of multi-systemic therapy. Mr and Mrs B raised their concerns that the foster placement was not a cultural match for C. The Council said it had not been possible to find a cultural match and it felt this placement met C’s needs.
- C’s looked after child review was due to take place in November 2018. The Council wrote to Mr and Mrs B to say it would hold separate meetings for them and C. It said this was so C could contribute freely and honesty without being anxious about expressing his views which may differ from their own. C was supported for the review by an advocate from a local children’s rights charity.
- A further family time session took place in November 2018.
Stage 3 Panel Recommendations – Views of Mr B and the Council
- Children’s Social Work Services (“CSWS”) consider whether to ask for advice and comment from experts in the field of supporting adoptive parents, people not previously involved in the case, on ways of improving the working relationships between the service and the parents.
2. There needs to be continual vigilance from all concerned, in their dealings with parents, about issues and behaviour which are culturally sensitive.
- Mr B says the Council has not showed continued vigilance about culturally sensitive issues. He says the Council has placed C with long term foster carers that are not of the same cultural background. He says the Council has not allowed C to attend mosque, or religious events, such as Ramadan and Muharram. Mr B feels C could have attended these events if the Council had been more flexible. He also says council staff have continued to call C by an abbreviation of his name, which is not respectful of his heritage.
- Mr B lists several occasions in which professionals have called C by an abbreviation of his name, including:
- Speaking to C’s children’s home in September 2018
- During a core meeting in October 2018
- During a call to C’s children’s home in October 2018
- In meetings with the therapeutic social work team in November 2018 and January 2019
3. CSWS to check that information about the child’s cultural background, agreed with parents, is “top of the file”, brought to the attention of social workers and others new to the case, and properly taken into account in placements and other decisions.
- For the same reasons as outlined at Paragraph 24 above, Mr B says the Council has not complied with this recommendation.
- The Council says it has made sure everyone involved with C is aware of his cultural and religious background. However, it says there is a clear tension as C clearly expresses his views which diverge from his parent’s strongly held views. The Council says it must find a balance.
4. CSWS to work out, in collaboration with parents, proper advance planning of Family Time, taking into account parents’ commitments as well as the pattern of the child’s activities.
- Mr B says the Council manages contact haphazardly. He says he and Mrs B were supposed to have a contact session with C in October 2018. He went for the session but it was cancelled at the last minute. C then told him that he did not know about the contact session and panicked.
- The Council says family time is planned until January 2019. It is being revisited and supplemented so that all parties have clear expectations and understanding. It says it has arranged contact with as much notice as possible.
5. CSWS should also try to build in time for the social worker and supervisor (if appropriate) to meet C’s parents on a regular agreed basis in between reviews to listen to and respond to their concerns, providing a clear explanation of CSWS actions — the purpose being to provide an alternative to parents feeling that they have to route their concerns through the complaints procedure. Such meetings should include feedback from both parties on how Family Time has been going.
- Mr B says he had a meeting with the Council in October 2018 but nothing concrete has happened or moved forward since then.
- The Council says it has held meetings with Mr B to resolve concerns and provide him with an opportunity to express his views.
6. The social worker to discuss with C, at a suitable occasion, whether an independent advocate would be helpful to him.
- Mr B says C was adamant he wanted to meet an advocate and asked for a solicitor. He says C has now seen an advocate from a children’s charity but this is not the same as seeing a solicitor.
- The Council says C has an independent advocate from a local children’s rights service. C has access to this advocate, who has represented on his behalf about things he says are important to him. The advocate also attended his looked after child review in November 2018.
7. CSWS to re-visit the Family Plan worked out at a Family Group Conference (see 30 above) and consider whether it should now be updated and applied for C’s benefit, and if so how best to do this.
- Mr B says the Council has not re-visited the Family Plan at all.
- The Council says C has recently moved into a foster placement, which it considers is a positive and supportive environment. It says it does not consider revisiting the family plan would be beneficial for him, at this time. However, this is something it will look at when his reviews occur.
- The Council accepts it has delayed in complying with this recommendation. The Stage 3 panel made its recommendation in August 2018 and the Council did not set up a meeting until December 2018.
- The recommendation itself is not specific about timescales. It may be reasonable to infer the Council should have acted promptly and it does not appear the meeting was arranged until after my investigation started. However, the recommendation is also not specific about the outcome the Council should look to achieve.
- The panel only recommended the Council consider whether to ask for advice. Whilst it should have considered this sooner, it has now done so and decided to set up a meeting with the adoption service. The Council has now complied with the recommendation and the delay is not sufficient in of itself to amount to fault, when the panel set no timescales. I also accept the Council’s priority was to find a stable placement for C.
- Even if the delay did amount to fault, I would likely have recommended the Council apologise and take steps to comply with the recommendation. The Council has already done both so it is unlikely I could achieve a different outcome for Mr B.
- I have read through the Council’s correspondence with Mr B from August 2018 onwards. I cannot see an example in which the Council referred to C by an abbreviated name. It is mentioned in that correspondence that a Council officer did so during a meeting in early August 2018. However, this does not appear to have happened again since.
- I understand that before August 2018 it is something that happened several times. This was part of the reason the Council made this recommendation. Mr B has given several examples of times since then professionals have used an abbreviated version of C’s name.
- It is clear the Council accept they should refer to C by his full name while communicating with Mr and Mrs B and have acted to ensure all staff know this. For this reason, I cannot find fault in how the Council has responded to the recommendation. However, it appears there are still occasions when individual members of staff do still use the abbreviation. The Council should continue to reinforce with all its staff that they should not refer to C by an abbreviated name when communicating with Mr and Mrs B.
- The panel’s recommendation is that the Council be vigilant about issues that are culturally sensitive. However, it still must take into account all relevant considerations and find a balance between the views of Mr and Mrs B and the wishes of C. If C does not currently identify as a Muslim and does not wish to attend religious events, I cannot criticise the Council for not ensuring he does.
- I also accept it may not be possible for the Council to find a culturally matching foster placement. This is not always possible and it is not for me to criticise the Council’s choice of foster placement if it is satisfied the placement is stable and meets C needs.
- I can see from the correspondence the Council has been in regular contact with Mr B. It has always given reasons and explained why it has taken a course of action he is concerned about. I can see no evidence the Council has not been sensitive to Mr B’s views or culture. It is not my place to criticise decisions it has made about how best to balance the strain between C’s wishes and those of his parents.
- I therefore cannot find any fault in how the Council has complied with this recommendation.
- This recommendation covers similar points to those at Recommendation 2. Again, I can see no evidence the Council has not complied with this recommendation.
- From the correspondence, it is clear all council officers are aware of C’s cultural background and have responded to Mr B’s concerns. However, the Council does have to find a balance in any situation between C’s wishes and that of Mr and Mrs B.
- The panel recommended the Council must properly consider issues about C’s cultural background when making decisions. However, if it cannot find a suitable foster placement with the same cultural background, I cannot criticise the Council for finding an alternative placement that it feels is stable. Likewise, if C does not identify as a Muslim and does not wish to attend religious events, I cannot criticise the Council for not ensuring he does so.
- Dates for family time between August 2018 and January 2019 were set at the start of August. Family time was to take place once a month on agreed dates. I can see that family time did take place on the agreed dates, except for in October 2018.
- The recommendation is about ensuring family time is planned in advance. The Council did plan family time in advance, considering each party’s commitments, so this is not something I can find fault with.
- In terms of managing family time sessions, I accept the Council cannot force C to attend sessions if he says he does not want to. I agree the Council should encourage C to attend and should make sure he is aware of family time sessions in advance. I take on board that C indicated to Mr B he was not aware of the session. However, other family time sessions have gone ahead as planned and the Council maintains it was C’s personal choice not to attend. The circumstances of the case support this and I cannot question the merits of the balance the Council has found between encouraging C to attend and respecting his wishes.
- I therefore cannot find fault in how the Council has complied with this recommendation.
- The recommendation does not specify how often meetings should take place between the Council and Mr and Mrs B. It says on a regular, agreed basis. Without a specific figure, it is difficult to know exactly how regularly the Stage 3 panel had in mind. It is clear this should take place at least once between each looked after child review, possibly more often.
- I can see there has been one meeting of this nature in October 2018. Mr and Mrs also attended a meeting about C’s Education, Health and Care Plan (“EHCP”) in August 2018 and were invited to the looked after child review in November 2018. Aside from this the Council has had further sustained contact with Mr and Mrs B since August 2018.
- With the above in mind I cannot find fault in how the Council has complied with this recommendation. It has held a meeting with Mr and Mrs B specifically for this purpose in October 2018 and engaged with Mr and Mrs B in other meetings and in general. However, the Council should continue working towards this recommendation to ensure Mr and Mrs B’s views are heard and considered.
- The recommendation says the Council should discuss with C whether an advocate would be helpful to him. It does not specify the advocate must be a solicitor and advocates can come in many forms. If the Council has discussed this with C and facilitated him to have an advocate from an independent organisation who can represent his views, I cannot find it has not complied with this recommendation.
- I can see the Council has assisted C to find an advocate from a local children’s rights organisation. That advocate has supported C several times, including with his looked after child review. I therefore cannot find any fault with the Council for not complying with this recommendation.
- It is difficult to form a view on whether the Council has complied with this recommendation. This is because the recommendation does say the Council should revisit the family plan and consider whether it should be updated. The Council has said it is not going to revisit this right now because it would not be in C’s interests.
- Taking the recommendation into account as a whole, however, it does not say the Council must update the family plan. It only says it should consider whether to do so for C’s benefit. If the Council is of the view the current family plan is appropriate and updating it would not be to C’s benefit, it is not my place to criticise this decision.
- I accept the Council’s comments that it will look at this as and when C’s reviews occur and, on balance, do not find fault in the Council’s compliance with this recommendation.
- Based on the above analysis, I do not find fault in how the Council has complied with the Stage 3 panel’s recommendations.
- It is a difficult case as Mr and Mrs B clearly have C’s best interests at heart. I found Mr B to be very genuine and concerned for C’s welfare when discussing the case with him. He appears to have received some conflicting messages from the Council and C about what C’s wishes are. It may therefore be understandable he believes the Council are not acting in C’s best interests. However, there is no evidence for me to say the Council is misrepresenting C’s wishes. That is not to say C is either, only that he may understandably find it difficult to express his views.
- The Council must find a balance between the wishes of C and his parents. The Stage 3 panel’s recommendations were about ensuring the Council continued to listen to Mr and Mrs B’s views and concerns when striking that balance and making decisions about C’s care. I can see no evidence the Council has not complied with these recommendations so cannot find fault in its actions. It should, of course, continue to work towards these recommendations.
- I have not found fault with the Council in the way it has complied with the Stage 3 panel’s recommendations.
Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate
- Part of Mr B’s complaint is about the frequency of contact he and his wife have with C. He also hopes for a re-unification, where C returns to live at home. I am not able to investigate these parts of the complaint because they are subject to a court order and therefore outside of the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman