West Sussex County Council (18 010 012)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Not upheld

Decision date : 11 Jan 2019

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complained about the way Children’s Social Care Services dealt with him during its involvement with his children. The Ombudsman will not investigate the complaint further. Parts of the complaint are outside the Ombudsman’s remit. Investigating the rest of the complaint would not add to the Council’s investigation or achieve more for Mr X.

The complaint

  1. Mr X complains about the way the Council’s Children’s Social Care Services dealt with him during its involvement with his children. He complains about information written in reports and referrals about him, delay in providing him with information he wanted to use in private family law proceedings and failure to meet timescales in the child protection process.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. We can decide whether to start or discontinue an investigation into a complaint within our jurisdiction. For example we may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
  • it is unlikely we would find fault, or
  • it is unlikely we could add to any previous investigation by the Council, or
  • we cannot achieve the outcome someone wants.

(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I discussed the complaint with Mr X and considered the information he provided. I considered the complaint documents provided by the Council. I shared my draft decision with the Council and the complainant and considered the responses I received.

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What I found

  1. Local authorities have a duty to investigate if there is reasonable cause to suspect that a child in their area is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. They must decide whether they should take any action to safeguard or promote the child’s welfare. (Children Act 1989, section 47)
  2. A child protection enquiry will start with an assessment of the family circumstances and may move on to a Child Protection Conference, which may decide on a Child Protection Plan.

What happened

  1. In May 2017 Mr X’s wife left him, taking their children with her. Before that Mrs X had been in contact with Children’s Social Care through a student social worker, ‘SW1’. The Council had received a referral about the family because Mrs X had alleged a history of domestic abuse by Mr X towards her. SW1 wrote a letter referring Mrs X to a domestic violence centre because of concerns about the potential impact on the children. Mr X first became aware of the Council’s involvement with his family when SW1 called him the day after his wife left.
  2. Mr X says SW1 told him the court would be telephoning him about legal proceedings his wife was taking. He says this was not true. What happened instead was that he received a summons to appear in court. Mrs X was applying for a non-molestation order and an order for him to leave the family home.
  3. Mr X attended the court but the case was adjourned for a full hearing on 13 June 2017. During this time Mrs X refused to let Mr X see the children.
  4. The Council started a child protection investigation and a child and family assessment and arranged an Initial Child Protection Conference (CPC) for 2 June 2017. Mr X says he tried to find out what was happening with the investigation and what information the Council had. He wanted to see the documents. On 24 May 2017 Mr X had a meeting with another social worker, SW2, but he says none of the documents were available at the meeting. Mr X says SW2 discussed the family circumstances with him and his relationship with his children.
  5. Mr X says he received the documents shortly after the meeting. My understanding is the paperwork was the social work report, or ‘mapping document’ for the Initial CPC.
  6. The Initial CPC did not take place as planned on 2 June 2017 as it was inquorate. The Council re-arranged it for the end of June. Before the reconvened meeting took place Mr X attended the court hearing on 13 June. The court agreed to allow him supervised contact with his children.
  7. At the CPC at the end of June 2017 the decision was not to pursue the child protection investigation but to place the children on Child in Need Plans instead. Mr X says he presumed this would remove the need for his contact with his children to be supervised. He asked SW2 for a statement confirming this was the Council’s view but he says SW2 said this was a matter for the court and he could not override the court’s decision.
  8. Mr and Mrs X both applied to the court for a Child Arrangements Order to decide on the living and contact arrangements for the children. A hearing was due to take place on in August 2017. Mr X says he continued to ask the Council for a statement confirming its approval for unsupervised contact but it did not provide one.
  9. At the hearing in August 2017 the court ordered the Council to produce a welfare report on the children (a ‘section 7 report’) with its views on future contact arrangements.
  10. About two weeks later Mr X had a meeting with a Children’s Social Care Manager. He left a list of questions and points he wanted the Council to address. These concerned the Council’s child protection process, the selection process for student social workers, his disagreement with sections of the mapping document, and failure to provide him with the statement he had been asking for about contact arrangements.
  11. Mr X made a formal complaint to the Council by telephone when he did not receive a written response to the points he had raised at the meeting. The Manager he had met then wrote to him saying she would not be answering each point as they had discussed the main issues at the meeting. She confirmed that the Council had started producing the section 7 report but it was the court that had made the decision on supervised contact.
  12. Mr X was not satisfied with the response and took his complaint to stage 2 of the Council’s complaints procedure. He provided further information about the issues he wanted to complain about.
  13. The Council gave the following response to the complaint.
    • It was not possible to say what took place at the meeting with the Manager as there no written record. However the Council should send Mr X a written response to the points he had raised within two weeks of the decision on the complaint.
    • The Council was not involved in the private family law proceedings and had no duty to provide information to meet court deadlines until the court ordered it to produce the section 7 report. Nevertheless SW2 tried to ensure Mr X received documents before the court hearings when he could.
    • The letter from SW1 did not distinguish properly between facts and allegations and the Council would remind relevant staff of the need to do so.
    • Mr X had now received copies of the documents he wanted through a Subject Access Request.
    • The Council recognised that Mr X disagreed with parts of the mapping document. However these reflected information obtained and views presented at the time.
    • Regarding Mr X’s complaint about the Initial CPC, the Council said the final outcome of the child protection process did not mean the decision to start the process was wrong. The Council was responsible for sending out the invitations to the Conference but if agencies did not attend and the meeting was inquorate that was not the Council’s responsibility.
    • A case note Mr X disputed was based on the words of the person SW1 spoke to at his children’s school and did not represent the social worker’s views.
  14. At the beginning of December 2017 the Council wrote to Mr X addressing the points he had raised at the meeting with the Children’s Social Care Manager, as recommended.
  15. Mr X complained to the Ombudsman. He said his complaint about the Council was comprehensive and wide-ranging. He was concerned about delays in providing information to him, delays in the child protection process, and the content of SW1’s letter and SW2’s mapping document. He said it was SW1’s letter that sparked the whole process and resulted in his restricted contact with his children. He wanted the Council to recognise the distress this had caused him. He said he wanted a complete overhaul of Children’s Social Care Services and all the officers involved in his case removed.

Analysis

  1. There were two parallel processes running: the child protection investigation and the private law proceedings. The Ombudsman cannot get involved in the legal proceedings. I have considered whether there are parts of the complaint that are within the Ombudsman’s remit and if so whether I should investigate them further.
  2. Mr X confirmed that the letter from SW1 and the mapping document he complained about were considered in the courts as part of both sets of legal proceedings, the orders his wife was seeking and the Child Arrangements Order applications. He also confirmed he had legal representation throughout, and had an opportunity to challenge these documents in court. It is not appropriate for the Ombudsman to investigate matters that have been considered in court.
  3. One of Mr X’s other main complaints was about delay in providing information he wanted to use in court. Mr X says he accepted SW2’s position that it was for the courts to decide whether contact with the children needed to be supervised. However he says he wanted the social worker to state his own view that he could use as evidence in court. I agree with the Council that there was no requirement for SW2 to provide such a statement. I do not find fault in the Council declining to do so. If the court wanted a report in order to decide on contact issues it would order one, as it did in August 2017. I might find fault if there was evidence that SW2 promised to provide the information but failed to do so without good reason. But Mr X confirmed the SW2 did not say he would. Rather SW2 said it was not his role, but a matter for the courts. I do not propose to investigate this issue further as I am unlikely to differ from the Council’s conclusion.
  4. Mr X says there was a delay in the child protection process. My understanding of his complaint on this point is that it concerns the delay in holding the Initial CPC. The Conference was scheduled to take place at the beginning of June but was adjourned as it was inquorate. It did not reconvene until the end of June, after the court hearing that decided his contact with the children had to be supervised. When the Conference took place, it decided to treat the case as a Child in Need rather than a child protection issue. My understanding is that Mr X takes the view that if the Initial CPC had taken place as planned at the beginning of June, the court decision might have been different and resulted in him having unsupervised contact earlier.
  5. The Council has said it was not responsible for the poor attendance at the Initial CPC in early June. But even if I were to investigate this issue further and find the Council was at fault, for example in not re-scheduling the Conference earlier, in my view it would not be possible to conclude that the extended period of restricted contact was a result of fault by the Council. I cannot say the Initial CPC would have made the same recommendation to ‘step down’ to the Child in Need process if it had taken place at the beginning rather than the end of June. The Conference at the end of June took account of events that had taken place since the previous adjourned meeting. Nor could I know what the court would have decided if it had the result of the Initial CPC on 13 June. It might still have wanted a section 7 report before making a decision on unsupervised contact.
  6. As I would not be able to conclude that any delay in the child protection process caused the injustice Mr X has claimed, I do not consider there are sufficient grounds to investigate this part of the complaint further. I cannot investigate any delay in returning to unsupervised contact that occurred because of the length of the courts process as the matter is outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. Nor can I investigate the content of the section 7 report, as this is part of the court process.
  7. Mr X says he is aggrieved that SW1 told him the court would be calling him when in fact the next step was that he received a summons. I do not consider that the fault alleged or any injustice arising from it is significant enough to warrant an investigation into this issue on its own.
  8. In my view the Council has provided an adequate response to the other issues Mr X raised in his complaint and I do not think I could achieve any more for him by investigating further. The Ombudsman has no power to bring about wholesale changes of staff as Mr X wishes.

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Final decision

  1. Parts of the complaint are outside the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction. I do not consider that further investigation into the other matters raised would add anything useful to the Council’s investigation or achieve the outcomes Mr X is looking for. I have therefore discontinued my investigation.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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