West Sussex County Council (19 012 578)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 07 Dec 2020

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains about the way the Council handled a safeguarding referral about his children and his complaints about this. There was no delay or clear evidence of bias in the Council’s handling. There was fault in the Council’s approach to Mr X’s complaints and it has agreed to take steps to remedy the distress and uncertainty caused to him and his family, and the avoidable time and trouble Mr X spent in making his complaints.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I have called Mr X, complains about the way the Council handled a safeguarding referral about his children and his complaints about this. Mr X feels the Council has been biased against him while completing the Child In Need assessments for his children and has favoured his ex-wife. Mr X is also unhappy the Council has not completed the actions recommended following his stage two complaint. Mr X feels the Council took too long to assess and then failed to provide suitable support for his children. He feels his children’s views, wishes and feelings have not been listened to or accurately recorded, especially when one of his children raised concerns about this with the Social Worker involved. Mr X says he and his children have found the process distressing and unhelpful. Mr X also felt he had to leave his previous job because of the distress caused by the Council’s action and handling.

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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)

How I considered this complaint

  1. I have spoken to Mr X and considered the information he provided about his complaint.
  2. I have considered the information the Council has provided in response to my enquiries. I have also taken account of the statutory guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children (July 2018).
  3. 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.
  4. Mr X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.

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What I found

Relevant law and guidance

  1. Anyone who has concerns about a child’s welfare should make an immediate referral to local authority children’s social care if there is a concern that the child is suffering significant harm or is likely to do so.
  2. The Children Act 1989 says councils have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need. If a local authority receives a report of concern about a child, it must assess what response is required.
  3. The purpose of the initial assessment following a referral is for the council:
  • to gather important information about a child and family;
  • to analyse their needs and/or the nature and level of any risk and harm being suffered by the child;
  • to decide whether the child is a child in need (section 17) or is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm (section 47); and,
  • to provide support to address those needs to improve the child’s outcomes and welfare and where necessary to make them safe.
  1. The initial assessment should be completed within one working day of the referral being received. The maximum timeframe for the assessment to conclude, such that it is possible to reach a decision on next steps, should be no longer than 45 working days from the point of referral. The child(ren) should be seen alone during the assessment process, depending on their age.

What happened

  1. Mr X has two children, Child A and Child B. Mr X and his wife, Mrs Y, were separated at the time of the referral and both children spend time with each of their parents. Child A lives with Mr X and sees Mrs Y for two days every fortnight. Child B lives part of the time with Mrs Y and the rest with Mr X.
  2. On 19 November 2018, Mr X reported an incident to Child A’s school where he had to physically restrain Child A during an argument. Mr X said he was taking Child A to the doctor. The following day, the school spoke to Child A about what had happened. Child A complained of being in pain and displayed signs of significant distress. The school made an immediate safeguarding referral to the Council. The Council decided to complete a Children and Family Assessment (CFA) of Child A and her family. The Council contacted Mr X by telephone to explain what action it would be taking next. The Council also notified Mrs Y the following day. Both parents gave consent.
  3. On 6 December 2018, a Social Worker from the Council completed the CFA. She met the children at Mr X’s home and was able to speak to them alone. The Social Worker recorded the worries and wishes of both children. Their professional opinion was that a Child in Need plan was required for each child to provide support so the family could work through the difficulties created by Mr X and Mrs Y’s separation. The Social Worker highlighted to Mr X the importance of both parents working together, so their children were not caught in the middle of any acrimony between them. The Social Worker also stressed the importance of sticking to child contact arrangements to help provide consistency and routine to both children. Both parents were advised to attend courses to help them better understand their children’s behaviour as Child A had displayed challenging and difficult behaviour towards both parents before the referral. The Social Worker also recorded Mrs Y’s account that she had been emotionally abused by Mr X before their marriage had ended.
  4. The Social Worker met with the family again on 1 February 2019 and spoke to both children alone. Both parents agreed to try and put their differences aside to prioritise the needs of their children. The Social Worker discussed Child A’s reluctance to have contact with Mrs Y and stressed the importance of Mr X encouraging Child A to see her mother in line with contact arrangements. The Social Worker’s view was that Child A appeared to have taken Mr X’s side and blamed Mrs Y for the breakdown of the marriage.
  5. The Social Worker had a further meeting with Mr X and the children at his home on 13 March 2019. Child A said she did not want to stay overnight with her mother because she felt Mrs Y did not listen to her. Child B was unhappy about Child A not wanting to stay with their mother. Mr X told the Social Worker Child A would call him when she argued with her mother. The Social Worker suggested Mr X supported Mrs Y’s stance when Child A called him and to discuss any problems away from the children. Mr X reported having difficulties with Mrs Y as she refused to communicate with him. Mr X said he wanted to tell the Social Worker about the problems he and Child A had experienced with Mrs Y before the marriage ended. Mr X expressed concerns that the Social Worker had only recorded Mrs Y’s views about their marriage in the CFA and this felt one-sided as Child A’s conflicts with her mother had started before her parents separated. The Social Worker invited Mr X to email his comments to her, but stressed that the focus of the Child In Need Plan was to record what was happening now with the children and how best to manage Child A’s behaviour. It was not about recording the issues with Mr X and Mrs Y’s marriage and the cause of their breakup.
  6. On 26 March 2019, the Social Worker visited Mrs Y’s address and spoke to both children alone. The Social Worker then some time facilitating a discussion between Mrs Y and the children about the difficulties they had with communicating and listening to each other. The Social Worker noted both children reporting things were getting better between their parents and that Mrs Y had agreed to engage in parenting classes. The Social Worker decided the Child in Need plans for both children should continue.
  7. A meeting to review the Child in Need plans was held on 29 March 2019, which Mr X, Mrs Y and both children attended. Mr X said he could not see the benefit of the plans or how these were supporting the family. Mrs Y felt the plans and work being done was helping her and the children. Both children reported things were better between their parents and the Child in Need plans seemed to be helping with this. The Council decided the plans should continue.
  8. A further Child in Need plan review was completed on 1 May 2019. Mr X wanted the children and the family as a whole to receive support. Mrs Y acknowledged both parents had neglected their children’s emotional needs while they divorced. Both children said there had been no arguments between their parents. The Social Worker explained direct work was done with him and Child A to help him encourage her to have contact with her mother and to support Mrs Y when she was enforcing boundaries. Mr X reported Mrs Y had not supported Child A when she moved in with him and he thought this might have led to Child A feeling like her mother did not care about her.
  9. Both parents and children met with the Social Worker at Council offices on 22 May 2019. The Social Worker introduced the family to the Child and Family Worker who would be working with them from then on.
  10. After confirming things had improved between Child A and Mrs Y, the children left the meeting so the Social Worker could speak to Mr X and Mrs Y. Mr X complained about the support the family had received. The Social Worker explained what direct work they had done with the family and how they had arranged for ongoing support from the Child and Family Worker. Mrs Y shared a concern that Mr X had not told her Child A might be staying overnight with her and that she had had to hear this from Child A rather than Mr X. Mr X complained as Mrs Y refused to communicate with him so it was difficult for him to discuss such issues with her. Mr X said Mrs Y had not told him about an online safeguarding issue involving Child A as an example of important information that should have been shared with him. Mr X also complained the Social Worker had taken Mrs Y’s side and had not supported him. The Social Worker said she had recorded the views of both parents in the CFA.
  11. Mr X voiced concerns the Social Worker had recorded Mrs Y’s comments about him emotionally abusing her during the marriage but had not given him the chance to comment on or respond to this. Mrs Y said she had received help from her doctor for the abuse and complained about Mr X previously reporting her to the Council for misusing alcohol. It is clear from the Social Worker’s notes that emotions were running high during the meeting and that Mr X and Mrs Y were expressing strong views. The Social Worker sought to bring matters back to the children when Mr X raised his voice. Mr X repeated his concerns that he was not being listened to or supported in the same way as Mrs Y.
  12. During this heated discussion, Child A re-entered the meeting room. Child A explained she had raised concerns with her father about Mrs Y’s alcohol consumption. Mrs Y clarified that the empty bottles Child A had seen had not been consumed by Mrs Y. Child A was unhappy that Mrs Y and the Social Worker appeared to be shouting at Mr X when he had acted on her concerns. The Social Worker brought discussions between Mr X and Mrs Y to an end with an agreement that they would continue to be civil to each other and would keep supporting each other’s parenting. Mr X voiced his disagreement with the Social Worker’s view that Child A had taken his side and Child A confirmed she believed both parents were equally responsible for the marriage breaking down. The Child and Family Worker recorded Child A’s view.
  13. A further review meeting was held on 12 June 2019, where the Social Worker agreed to record Child A’s view that she felt both parents were responsible for the separation. Council intervention was stepped down to the Team Around the Family and the Social Worker’s involvement came to an end. The Child in Need Plans for both children were formally closed on 2 July 2019.

Mr X’s complaints

  1. Mr X spoke to the Social Worker’s Manager during May 2019 to raise his concerns about the Social Worker’s handling of his case. He then emailed the Manager on 23 May 2019 to make a stage one complaint. Mr X raised concerns about the following issues:
      1. A lack of communication by the Social Worker, especially when the children complained about not being listened to.
      2. Focusing on Child A being the problem but not listening to what Child A said.
      3. Basing findings and assessments on unsubstantiated allegations without explanation, despite requests for clarification.
      4. No support or strategies put in place to help improve communication between parents, apart from the Social Worker relaying messages between Mrs Y and Mr X.
      5. Biased assessment that Mrs Y was a victim of emotional abuse for years and failing to let Mr X provide his account of the marriage before the separation.
      6. Mr X feeling the Social Worker made no effort to help the family as a whole and that Child A’s interaction with Mrs Y had only improved with support from Child B, Mr X and others around her.
  2. The Manager acknowledged receipt of Mr X’s email on 29 May 2019 and invited him to make a formal complaint to the relevant team. Mr X emailed the Council’s Complaints Team on 6 June 2019 as he had not received a reply to the voicemail messages he says he had left to make his complaint. The Complaints Team replied the next day and explained it had no record of voicemail messages from Mr X, but would respond to his stage one complaint by 20 June 2019
  3. Mr X received the Council’s stage one response by post on 24 June 2019. The Council made the following responses to Mr X’s points of complaint (as listed in paragraph 25 above):
      1. There was no evidence to suggest the Social Worker had failed to listen to the children in this case. The Social Worker had spoken to and recorded the children’s wishes, feelings and concerns several times throughout their involvement. This complaint was not upheld.
      2. The Council apologised that it had seemed to Mr X that Child A was the problem and for not better explaining sooner that different parenting techniques were the main factor in her behaviour. This complaint was partially upheld.
      3. The Council invited Mr X to provide further details of inaccuracies, so it could address his concerns about this further. It made no finding on this complaint.
      4. The Council felt the Social Worker’s notes showed she had listened and recorded the views of both parents about their relationship breakdown. This complaint was not upheld.
      5. The Council did not address this.
      6. The Council acknowledged the excellent progress the family had made in improving the situation for the children. This complaint was not upheld.
  4. Mr X sent a stage two complaint to the Council on 5 July 2019. He raised the following concerns:
      1. The stage one response was late.
      2. While the Social Worker may have responded to all of Mr X’s contact, she had not answered his questions.
      3. The Social Worker had told Mr X she understood what Mrs Y had been through because she had been through it herself. Mr X did not know if the Social Worker was commenting on her professional or personal experiences but felt this comment was inappropriate and implied the Social Worker favoured Mrs Y over Mr X.
      4. Mr X was concerned he only found out about a potential online safeguarding issue involving Child A at a meeting in May 2019 because Mrs Y had failed to inform him of it at the time. Mr X was unhappy that Child A’s school had had to stress to Mrs Y the importance of sharing such information with Mr X, rather than the Council doing this.
      5. Child A had disputed the Social Worker recording that she had blamed Mrs Y for the breakdown of her parents’ marriage in the initial assessment. Child A had told Mr X she had never said this.
      6. Mr X was concerned that downgrading the Child in Need plans to the Team Around the Family would mean the family would no longer be able to access support from the Child and Family Worker. Mr X was unhappy the Social Worker had not explained his family would lose this support through downgrading.
  5. The Council responded to Mr X’s complaint on 13 August 2019. It concluded that none of Mr X’s complaints should be upheld, but the Social Worker’s Manager would speak to the Social Worker about the comment they made to Mr X and the recording of the potential safeguarding incident. Mr X was invited to meet with the Social Worker’s Manager to discuss where he felt the CFA was inaccurate, so the Manager could investigate these issues further with a view to reaching a mutually agreeable resolution.
  6. Mr X exchanged emails with the Council about the outcome of this stage two complaint between 4 and 24 October 2019. The Social Worker’s Manager had since left their post at the Council and Mr X sought to meet with their successor in line with the resolution the Council had offered. Mr X’s emails were referred to the Complaints Manager who invited Mr X to provide his comments on the assessment by email so they could follow these up with the relevant team. Mr X told the Council he would like to speak to someone about the assessment and also wanted to know if there was any scope for the Child and Family Worker to continue supporting his family, especially Child A, after the Child in Need Plans were concluded. The Council signposted Mr X to the Ombudsman if he remained dissatisfied as it confirmed he had reached the end of its complaint process.

Analysis

  1. There was no delay in the Council’s initial assessment of the referral from Child A’s school. The Council completed the CFA in 13 working days from receiving the referral, which was well within the statutory timeframes. I make no finding of fault in respect of the Council’s timeliness.
  2. Based on the evidence provided, I am not satisfied the Council’s consideration of Mr X’s complaints about the CFA process was thorough enough.
  3. The Council’s records show Mr X started raising concerns as early as March 2019 and continued to do so as matters progressed. When Mr X sought to make a formal stage one complaint to the Social Worker’s Manager on 23 May 2019, he was redirected to make the same complaint to the Complaints Team. I consider the Council was at fault for this action. Mr X had already made a clear statement of his complaints which should have been accepted and investigated. Mr X was put to unnecessary time and trouble as the Social Worker’s Manager could have simply referred his concerns to the relevant team.
  4. The Council’s stage one complaint response to Mr X is incomplete. It fails to address some key elements of his complaint. The Council is at fault for failing to address his allegation of bias by the Social Worker in favour of Mrs Y.
  5. While I do not consider there is evidence of bias in the Social Worker’s handling, there is an imbalance in the way they approached and dealt with both parents. For example, Mrs Y’s account that she had been emotionally abused appeared to be fully accepted, whereas Mr X was not given the opportunity to respond or comment on this. Although I agree with the Social Worker’s point that the children were the focus of their involvement, I do not consider Mr X was given the same opportunity as Mrs Y to contribute to the information recorded on the CFA about their relationship and the possible effects this was having on their children. I can understand why Mr X felt his comments were being dismissed and can also appreciate his concern and frustration.
  6. The Council said it had undertaken equal amounts of direct work with Mr X and Mrs Y, and their children, to help support the family. While I can see the Social Worker spent most of a session in late March 2019 with Mrs Y and her children undertaking direct work to improve communication between them, the same was not undertaken with Mr X. It is possible the Social Worker did not feel it was necessary to adopt the same approach or provide the same support to both parents, but this should have been explained to Mr X and Mrs Y at the time. This is fault, which added to Mr X’s impression of unfairness in the process.
  7. Mr X’s concerns were further compounded by the comment he says the Social Worker made about understanding what Mrs Y had been through because they had been through this too. It is disappointing that it is not clear from the records provided by the Council when this conversation might have occurred. The Council is at fault for failing to fully explore this element of Mr X’s concerns at either stage of the complaints process. The Council’s failure to thoroughly investigate this at the time means it missed the opportunity to obtain the Social Worker’s account of what they had said while the matter was still fresh in their memory. The unlikelihood of obtaining this evidence from the Social Worker now creates avoidable uncertainty for Mr X, which the Council should remedy.
  8. The Council’s failure to abide by resolutions it offered to Mr X in its stage two complaint response has added to his injustice. The Council offered to meet with Mr X to talk through his concerns about the content of the CFA and then withdrew this once the Social Worker’s Manager left its employ. The Council has also failed to respond to Mr X’s request for the Child and Family Worker to continue supporting Child A even though the Child in Need Plan had ended although I accept it is unlikely to offer this support given resources are so stretched. These faults have caused distress and uncertainty to Mr X, which the Council should now remedy.

Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my final decision, the Council has agreed to:
  • arrange to meet with Mr X to discuss and record his comments about the content of the CFA. The Council’s records should also include a copy of the Ombudsman’s final decision statement in this complaint;
  • at that meeting it should also apologise to Mr X for missing the opportunity to thoroughly investigate his complaints at the time and for the distress this caused to him and his family; and,
  • make a payment of £400 to Mr X for uncertainty, distress and time and trouble caused to him by the fault.
  1. The Council should provide the Ombudsman with evidence the above actions have been completed.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and uphold Mr X’s complaint. Mr X has been caused an injustice by the actions of the Council. The Council has agreed to take action to remedy that injustice.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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