The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr X complains of failings by the Council in dealing with disclosures by his children and in managing a contact session. He says this has left them at risk of harm. While there was no fault in most of the matters complained of, a worker arrived slightly late for the contact session, leading to some awkwardness. However, the worker’s apology is sufficient for the limited injustice caused to Mr X.
- The complainant, whom I shall call Mr X, complains the Council:
- Was not honest with him about disclosures of harm made by his children;
- Wrongly carried out a single agency assessment rather than a multi-agency assessment in response to these disclosures;
- Failed to ensure a proper handover between social workers when responsibility for the case changed; and
- Failed to manage properly the first supervised contact session in March or April 2018 after his children moved to another London Borough. Specifically, Mr X says he was sent to the wrong room at the contact centre, there was no worker at first to supervise the handover from his ex-wife’s new husband, who handed over Mr X’s son, then a worker intervened, removing the child, before bringing him and his sister back to Mr X.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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 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)
- The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), 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)
- We cannot investigate a complaint where the body complained about is not responsible for the issue being raised. (Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(1), as amended)
- 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.
How I considered this complaint
- I read the documents Mr X sent me and spoke to him on the telephone. I made written enquiries of the Council. I considered the Council’s response to my enquiries and the documents it supplied. I have treated these as confidential at the Council’s request because of their contents. I have considered the Council’s duties under the Children Act 1989. I shared a draft of this decision with both parties and invited their comments. I considered documents Mr X supplied in response to an earlier draft decision and this decision.
What I found
- Mr X’s children lived with his ex-wife in the Council’s area until December 2017, when they moved to another area. Mr X had contact with his children in February 2018, which was organised by the Council. Following that, contact was no longer the Council’s responsibility.
What the Council told Mr X about the disclosures his children made
- When a council with children’s social care responsibilities receives a disclosure of possible harm by a child, its first duty at s.47 of the Children Act 1989 is to decide if there is reason to suspect any child is at risk of significant harm. It does not have to tell a parent what it finds if it takes the view doing so risks causing harm to a child.
- I have seen the disclosures made by Mr X’s children. I have also seen evidence that shows how the Council responded to those disclosures. The Council decided the children were not at risk of significant harm. The Council has asked me not to share this information it provided with Mr X as this would put the children at risk of harm.
- The Council acted properly in considering the disclosures the children made. It could take the view that telling Mr X what it found risks harm to the children. I do not therefore find the Council was dishonest with Mr X, but instead acted in accordance with its duty to consider how best to protect children.
Carrying out the wrong type of assessment
- The Council said it had not carried out any assessment, but instead written a report for a court under s.7 of the Children Act 1989. These reports contain recommendations with reasons for a child’s residence and contact with parents. I have seen confidential copies of two such reports. I have seen no evidence the Council carried out another type of assessment.
- Given the issue at hand was the residence and contact of Mr X’s children with their parents, I would expect the key document for the court to be a s.7 report. Moreover, the Council acted properly in response to the children’s disclosures. I do not therefore find the Council at fault.
- Mr X has questioned the reliability of the s.7 report. However, it concerns his children’s residence, which was decided by a court. The Ombudsman has no jurisdiction to consider this matter.
- Mr X remains of the view there was an assessment that was not properly carried out.
Handover to the new council
- I would expect to see clear evidence that social workers in a new council area should have been aware of the date and family circumstances when a family known to social care in another area moved in. The detail and depth of contact varies according to the perceived risk to the children.
- The documents Mr X supplied show the Council and the new authority were in contact once his ex-wife confirmed her move. Neither authority took the view the children were at risk in their mother’s care, which had been ordered by a court. While Mr X does not see matters the same way, that is not evidence of fault by the Council.
Management of the first supervised contact session after Mr X’s children moved to the new area
- Mr X provided a copy of notes of this session. These show Mr X arrived on time, but the worker arrived slightly late. They state Mr X and his ex-wife came face to face in a room by mistake before the worker arrived. The slight lateness was fault. The worker recorded this happened and she apologised for the error.
- The session notes do not show if Mr X was first sent to the wrong room.
- The exact chain of events is not clear, but the session notes are like Mr X’s account. The worker’s lateness clearly caused some awkwardness. However, this awkwardness is not a significant injustice to Mr X. The worker’s apology was sufficient for this.
Other matters in Mr X’s response to the revised draft decision
- In his response to the revised draft decision, Mr X said the new council had apologised for problems with contact. I have seen the new council’s response to him. It deals with matters subsequent to the contact session in question. While Mr X feels the issues with the new council are consequences of fault by the Council, I have seen no evidence to support this.
- Mr X also said I had failed to consider his full complaint. He raised two issues. He said the Council did not invite him to the final child in need meeting before his ex-wife moved to the new council area. He also said no social worker attended a specific contact session. I have checked the complaint correspondence. Neither point formed part of his initial complaint to us. However, even if they had been part of the complaint to us, there would have been no fault. Emails he sent showed the final child in need meeting in December 2017 was cancelled because matters were going through the courts. And social workers do not have to routinely attend contact sessions.
- I have completed my investigation and upheld the complaint about the error at the contact session, but I do not recommend further remedy. There was no fault in the other matters.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman