Northamptonshire County Council (18 008 506)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 15 Jan 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss B complained the Council harassed her during a safeguarding investigation, delayed considering her complaint, failed to explain what had happened and failed to put in place an appropriate remedy. The Council failed to properly explain the child in need process, extended the process longer than it should have, failed to communicate effectively with Miss B, delayed considering her complaint and failed to put in place an appropriate remedy. That caused Miss B distress, led to her having to take part in meetings for longer than she should have and led to her having to go to time and trouble to pursue her complaint. An apology, payment to Miss B, an attempt to arrange mediation between the parties and reminder to officers are satisfactory remedy for the injustice caused.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Miss B, complained about the way the Council dealt with a safeguarding investigation. Miss B complained the Council:
    • harassed her;
    • failed to explain what had happened when responding to her complaint;
    • delayed considering her complaint; and
    • failed to offer her an appropriate remedy for the time and trouble she had to go to pursuing her complaint or put in place mediation which the Council had agreed as an outcome for her complaint.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of the investigation, I have:
    • considered the complaint and Miss B's comments;
    • made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided;
    • considered Miss B’s comments on my draft decision; and
    • gave the Council an opportunity to comment on my draft decision.
  2. 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.

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What I found

  1. Miss B lives with her daughter and her partner. Miss B’s partner has two children from a previous relationship who stay with him and Miss B regularly.
  2. In May the Council received a referral relating to an incident of physical over chastisement by Miss B’s partner on his daughter. The referral also reported a fingertip bruise on the daughter’s arm caused by Miss B. The Council held a strategy discussion. This recorded Miss B’s daughter resided with her on alternate weeks under a shared care arrangement. Officers noted police had advised Miss B not to allow her partner to have contact with her daughter. The strategy meeting noted it was likely Miss B had caused the grab mark to the child when pulling her away from her own daughter to prevent her biting her. The meeting decided to begin a section 47 child protection enquiry. The Council recommended Miss B’s daughter stay with her father while the Council investigated.
  3. Council officers spoke to Miss B’s daughter. The social worker recorded no further action needed and Miss B’s daughter could return home as usual. The Council recommended Miss B’s partner have supervised contact with Miss B’s daughter until the Council completed the section 47 investigation.
  4. The Council completed a single assessment on 4 May. That assessment recorded Miss B accepted she may have grabbed the child to move her away from her own daughter. The social worker concluded Miss B had not caused the injury intentionally. The assessment recorded a concern about Miss B’s daughter living with Miss B’s partner when her partner had inflicted significant bruising to his own daughter as a means of chastisement and Miss B knew about the incident. The assessment recorded it was not clear what Miss B’s thoughts were on her partner’s treatment of his daughter. It recorded the Council needed to establish if there was any risk from Miss B’s partner to Miss B’s daughter and what safeguarding measures Miss B could put into place. At first the Council suggested putting Miss B’s daughter on a child in need plan due to Miss B’s partner living in the home. At a child in need meeting on 11 May though the participants decided early help was more appropriate, with Miss B’s daughter not having unsupervised contact with her partner and undertaking one-to-one work at school. The Council closed the case at that point.
  5. The Council held a professionals child in need meeting for Miss B’s partner’s children on 6 July 2017. The meeting drew up a plan which included discussions with Miss B’s partner about him and Miss B completing a parenting programme.
  6. The Council held a review child in need meeting in relation to Miss B’s partner’s children on 9 August, which Miss B attended. The meeting noted the contradiction between the two assessments in relation to Miss B, with one recommending a parenting assessment and the other deciding to take no further action. The social worker agreed to discuss with the line manager the need for Miss B to attend a parenting assessment.
  7. On 21 October 2017 a review child in need meeting took place in relation to Miss B’s partner’s children. The meeting decided to continue the child in need plan. Miss B attended the meeting with her partner. The meeting recorded a recommendation for Miss B to complete a parenting course. Miss B said she was not intending to do the parenting course. The Council repeated the same recommendation at review child in need meetings on 3 November 2017, 12 December 2017, 17 May 2018 and 11 July 2018. At the meeting on 11 July Miss B expressed concern about the Council asking her to complete a parenting course when social services had not identified any issues with her parenting capacity. The Council closed the case in relation to Miss B’s partner’s children on 30 October 2018.

Background – complaint process

  1. On 9 October 2017 Miss B put in a complaint. An officer discussed that with Miss B on 25 October and spoke to other officers involved in the case on 7 November. The Council responded to the complaint on 19 November and apologised for the delay.
  2. Miss B put in a further complaint on 7 February 2018. The Council told Miss B it would respond by 28 February. Miss B chased the Council on 17 April. The Council said it would ask the officer dealing with the complaint to contact her. Miss B chased the Council on 12 May and then spoke to the officer dealing with the complaint on 14 May. The officer understood Miss B was satisfied with the response, which Miss B disputes, but wanted something in writing. The officer did not issue a written response.
  3. Miss B provided further information to the officer dealing with her complaint on 18 May. Miss B chased the Council on 11 and 13 June. The officer dealing with the complaint recorded she had understood the telephone conversation she had with Miss B in May had resolved the matter. The Council asked the officer to issue a formal response.
  4. Miss B chased the Council again on 15 June. The strategic manager became involved and asked the officer dealing with the complaint to issue a formal response.
  5. Miss B chased the Council again on 3 July. The case was escalated to the Director of Children’s Services who asked the officer to provide a formal response.
  6. The officer dealing with the complaint wrote to Miss B on 5 July to ask for further information. Miss B pointed out she had provided the further information in May. Miss B contacted her MP who then wrote to the Council to chase a response. The officer dealing with the MP’s letter contacted the officer dealing with the complaint to ask her to provide a written response to Miss B. When Miss B did not receive that response she escalated her complaint to the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman contacted the Council and the Council issued a complaint response on 17 September.

Analysis

  1. Miss B says the Council harassed her by including a requirement for her to complete a parenting course even though the Council had identified no parenting issues in relation to her. Miss B says this meant she had to attend pointless meetings for a year. The evidence I have seen satisfies me part of the problem here is different social workers from different teams were dealing with Miss B’s assessment as compared with her partner’s assessment in relation to his children. What that meant is there was no joined up working. The social worker considering Miss B’s daughter identified no issues with Miss B’s parenting and the Council closed that case at an early stage. There is no evidence the social worker considering Miss B’s partner and his children made any contact with the social worker assessing Miss B and her daughter to ensure the findings were consistent. So, while the social worker dealing with Miss B did not identify any parenting issues the child in need review meetings for her partner’s children consistently included an action point for Miss B to complete a parenting assessment. The Council now says it recommended a parenting assessment for Miss B because she had been present when her partner chastised the child and had not appeared to take any action. Miss B disputes she was present. In any event, the Council’s reasoning for recommending a parenting assessment for Miss B is not clear in any of the child in need documentation. Nor is there any evidence the Council explained its reasoning for recommending a parenting assessment to Miss B. Failure to discuss with Miss B the Council’s reasoning for recommending a parenting assessment is fault.
  2. I am also concerned in this case that despite Miss B attending several meetings where she made clear her unwillingness to undertake a parenting assessment the Council failed to consider her reasoning or revisit its recommendation. There is also no evidence the Council told Miss B any recommendations in the child in need process were voluntary. It is unsurprising given the social worker’s assessment of her own child concluded Miss B did not have any parenting issues that Miss B felt no need to undertake a course, particularly when the Council had not explained why it had made that recommendation. Failure to properly consider Miss B’s representations at the various meetings, revisit the recommendation or tell her about the status of recommendations in the child in need process is fault.
  3. As Miss B did not complete a parenting course and her involvement in the child in need process was voluntary it seems likely if the Council had considered Miss B’s representations it would have concluded earlier in the process that a parenting course was not necessary. That may not have meant the Council would have stopped inviting Miss B to the child in need meetings. I could not reach that conclusion given the Council had ongoing concerns about her partner’s relationship with his children and Miss B’s partner was living with her and her daughter. The Council’s complaint investigation in relation to Miss B’s partner though has already concluded the process was drawn out longer than it should have been. It therefore seems likely even if the Council had continued to invite Miss B to meetings the process would not have lasted as long as it did. So, Miss B is left not knowing whether she could have avoided some of the stress she experienced. It is also clear this led to Miss B having to go to time and trouble to pursue her complaint.
  4. I am concerned about the content of the Council’s responses to Miss B’s complaint and, in particular, its response in September 2018. That letter did not address the concerns Miss B had raised. Nor did the letter explain what had happened in Miss B’s case. I have seen no evidence of a detailed explanation until the Council provided its response to the Ombudsman’s enquiry. Failure to deal with the points of complaint and address what had happened in Miss B’s case during the Council’s consideration of her complaint is fault. That again led to Miss B having to go to further time and trouble to pursue her complaint with the Ombudsman.
  5. There have been considerable delays considering Miss B’s two formal complaints made to the Council. For the first complaint the Council took more than five weeks to respond, which is not in accordance with the Council’s published timescales. The Council has apologised for that delay, which I welcome. I am more concerned about the delay responding to the second complaint. Miss B put that complaint in on 15 February 2018. The Council did not send a written response until 14 September 2018, after Miss B had approached her MP and the Ombudsman. There is no clear reason for the failure to respond given Miss B had chased the Council on numerous occasions. I recognise the officer dealing with Miss B believed she had resolved the complaint in discussion with Miss B in May 2018. However, it should have been clear this was not the case from Miss B’s point of view given she continued to chase the Council for a response. Failure to respond to the complaint within the Council’s published timescales is fault.
  6. The Council concedes it did not contact the other parties to arrange mediation, which it had agreed to do as part of the remedy for the complaint. That is fault. Mediation was to try to sort out contact arrangements for Miss B’s partner’s children. The Council has agreed to contact the relevant parties to attempt to arrange mediation.
  7. So, I have found fault as the Council failed to ensure social workers completed consistent reports which meant Miss B was involved in the process longer than she should have been. The Council also failed to explain its reasoning for recommending a parenting assessment for Miss B and failed to review whether that was necessary when Miss B made representations at various meetings. The Council also failed to address the complaint properly and delayed responding. The Council failed to contact all parties in relation to mediation. All of that meant Miss B was involved in the process longer than she should have been and led to her having to go to time and trouble to pursue her complaint. The Council has agreed to apologise, attempt to arrange mediation and pay Miss B £500. That amount takes into account my view that although the process was likely extended further than it should have been Miss B would likely still have experienced some level of distress at having to go through the process in the earlier stages. I say that because I could not criticise the Council for carrying out an assessment on Miss B and her daughter at the outset given Miss B was living with her partner who was accused of over chastisement of his daughter. In those circumstances I also could not criticise the Council for recommending Miss B’s daughter stay with someone else while the Council completed its initial investigation to establish there was no risk of harm towards her. So, Miss B would likely have experienced some distress, albeit over a shorter period.

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Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my decision the Council should:
    • apologise for the faults identified in this statement;
    • pay Miss B £500
    • contact the relevant parties to attempt to arrange mediation;
    • send a memo to officers dealing with complaints to remind them of the need to issue a formal written complaint response even if it is understood a verbal conversation or meeting has resolved the complaint; and
    • send a memo to managers of social work teams to ensure it allocate, where possible, one social worker to deal with all parties where safeguarding investigations involve parents and children split over more than one family unit. Where it is not possible, the Council should make clear to managers social workers should be allocated from the same team with one line manager to oversee the work to ensure joined up working.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and uphold the complaint.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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