Northamptonshire County Council (19 020 094)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 29 Jan 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The council was at fault for its delayed response to Mrs C’s request for contact with her grandchildren, and for providing inaccurate information when explaining its decision to refuse contact. The Council has agreed to make a payment to Mrs C to remedy this injustice this caused.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, who I shall refer to as Mrs C, complains about the Council actions concerning the care of her grandchildren. Mrs C says the Councils actions have resulted in distress for her and her husband. Mrs C complains that the Council:
    1. Failed to ensure her and her husband’s request for maintained contact with the children was considered in court.
    2. Delayed assessing Mrs C for contact with the children, after the court hearing.
    3. Failed to ensure her grandchildren’s voices were properly heard, incorrectly recording that the children did not want to see their grandparents.
    4. Failed to properly record notes of what was discussed during contact sessions.
    5. Failed to ensure letters between Mrs C and her grandchildren were delivered.
    6. Failed to properly handle her complaint.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated points b to f above. I have not investigated point a above, for the reasons explained at the end of this decision.

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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. 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. 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)
  4. 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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How I considered this complaint

  1. As part of the investigation, I have:
    • considered the complaint; and
    • reviewed and considered information received from the Council and Mrs C; and
    • considered the relevant legislation; and
    • communicated with Mrs C about her complaint.
  2. I also sent a draft version of this decision to both parties and invited their comments.

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What I found

Law

  1. A council may apply to court for an Interim Care Order as part of care proceedings for a child before the court makes a final decision about the child’s future. The court must not make an Interim Care Order unless it is satisfied that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the child has suffered or is at risk of suffering significant harm. (Children Act 1989, section 38)
  2. A child in the care of the Council is known as a ‘Looked after Child’. The Council must review their case regularly.
  3. Councils have a duty under section 22 of the Act to safeguard and promote the child’s welfare. To achieve this, all looked after children should have a care plan, which councils must regularly review.
  4. The council must also appoint an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) to every looked after child. An IRO should be an experienced social worker who ensures the council is prioritising the child’s needs and interests.
  5. Under section 34 of the Children Act 1989, there is a duty on the local authority to provide parents, and other people with an interest, ‘a reasonable amount of contact’. The level of contact can be set out by the court but is often left to a Council’s discretion. The Council has a great deal of flexibility to decide how much contact is ‘reasonable’ on a case-by-case basis. The way a parent, or anyone with an interest, can challenge this is through the courts.

Background

  1. Mrs C has a daughter, who I shall refer to as Ms D. Ms D has a son and a daughter who are Mrs C’s grandchildren. In June 2017, both grandchildren were taken into care and placed with foster carers. During this time Mrs C continued to play a role in her grandchildren’s life.
  2. The Council obtained an interim care order for both children in December 2017, and completed care plans for the children, prior to a final care order hearing which was heard in May 2018.
  3. The care plans concluded that the children should have a set amount of direct contact sessions with their parents every year. The care plans did not include any recommended contact between the grandchildren and grandparents.
  4. Shortly before the final care order hearing, Mrs C contacted the Council and said she would like continued contact with her grandchildren. The Council told Mrs C it would pass this on to its legal team.
  5. The Court concluded that the children should be placed in the care of the Council and approved and endorsed the final care plans, including the contact arrangements.

What happened

  1. In November 2018, Ms D had her first contact session with her children. However, Mrs C was told she would not be allowed to attend, because contact between the children and grandparents were not included in the court order. Mrs C says she told the children’s social worker that she was disappointed with this decision and that she wanted contact with her grandchildren.
  2. In March 2019, Mrs C contacted the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) about resuming contact with her grandchildren. As a result, it was agreed that the children’s social worker would complete an assessment on Mrs C and her husband.
  3. The IRO told Mrs C that if the social worker had not contacted Mrs C about the assessment within a week, she should contact the IRO again who would chase this up with the social worker.
  4. Mrs C says she did not receive any contact from the social worker so contacted the IRO. The Social worker subsequently told Mrs C she would contact her with a date to visit her and her husband at home, but Mrs C says she had to contact the social worker on several occasions before the assessment was arranged for June 2019.
  5. In June 2019, the children’s social worker visited Mrs C and her husband at their home. Mrs C says the social worker told her that police checks would need to be made, and these were expected to take a week.
  6. In July, the social worker told Mrs C the police checks had raised no issues and she would speak to her manager about arranging contact.
  7. In September, the Council told Mrs C that it was looking to put together a plan for her and her husband.
  8. In early October, the social worker wrote to Mrs C to inform her that she did not consider that face-to-face contact between her, her husband and their grandchildren would be in the best interests of the children.
  9. The social worker said that both children had said that they did not want contact with their grandparents and had become distressed when asked about this. The social worker said Mrs C’s granddaughter had said Ms D had told her that her grandparents were planning to apply to the courts for custody of her and her brother.
  10. The social worker also said Mrs C’s granddaughter had previously written to Mrs C but had not received a response. The social worker therefore felt written contact would be a more suitable method of communication.
  11. Mrs C subsequently submitted a complaint to the Council. She said she had written to her grandchildren, via the social worker, in December and provided Royal Mail tracking details showing confirmation of delivery.
  12. The Council incorrectly recorded the complaint under the three stage statutory complaints procedure, when it should have been recorded under its 2 stage complaints process, which involves an initial response and, if complainants are dissatisfied a meeting with the relevant manager.
  13. Mrs C said she had not received any letters from her grandchildren, and that she had raised this issue with the social worker during the assessment in June. Mrs C asked for a copy of the letter to be forwarded to her.
  14. Mrs C also said that during a contact session in April, between her granddaughter and Ms D, her granddaughter had asked why her grandparents no longer visit her and said that she had not received any letters from Mrs C.
  15. Mrs C denied that she was planning to go to court to gain custody of her grandchildren and she had made it clear to the Council this was not an option from the beginning.
  16. The Council said that it had received the letter from Mrs C in December, a copy was taken, and a copy handed to the children. The Council said it is unclear why the social worker had said the letter had not been received.
  17. The Council said it could not comment on why Mrs C had not received a letter from her granddaughter, but in future all letters would be sent recorded delivery. The Council said that on this occasion a copy of the letter was not taken, so the Council were unable to forward a copy.
  18. The Council explained that all contact sessions are supervised and had Mrs C’s granddaughter asked why her grandparents no longer visit this would be recorded. The Council said it had requested these recordings. It later told Mrs C these records could not be found.
  19. The Council said the children were not in a place for face-to-face contact, but Mrs C should continue to write to the children and the social worker would encourage the children to respond.
  20. Dissatisfied with the Council’s response, Mrs C asked for her complaint to be progressed to stage 2 of the Councils complaints process. A meeting was subsequently arranged between Mrs C and council officers, including the Service Manager.
  21. During the meeting, the Council accepted there had been a delay in Mrs C’s granddaughter receiving the letter sent in December, and that it needed to review its processes of receiving and despatching letters to children in care.
  22. During the meeting, the Council said that the children had told social workers they did not want to meet their grandparents. Mrs C said if there had not been such a delay in carrying out an assessment on their contact, this might not have been the case.
  23. The Service Manager spoke about steps all parties could take to promote contact between the children and their grandparents. This included regular letters from Mrs C and a different approach from the social worker regarding contact. The Council also agreed to assign a family support worker to the children.
  24. The Council wrote to Mrs C with the outcome of her complaint and said if she was not satisfied, she could ask for her complaint to be progressed to the next stage of the statutory complaints process.
  25. Mrs C requested the complaint be progressed to the next stage, but the Council said the complaint had been incorrectly logged and she had now exhausted the complaints process. Mrs C subsequently contacted the Ombudsman.

Analysis

Complaint handling

  1. The Council incorrectly logged Mrs C’s complaint under the statutory complaints process. For this reason, after the meeting between Mrs C and the service manager, it invited her to progress the complaint to the next stage.
  2. When she made this request, she was advised of the error and told she had exhausted the councils complaints procedure.
  3. Whilst I do acknowledge that this may have been somewhat frustrating, I do not consider that this caused Mrs C a significant injustice. I therefore do not propose to make a formal finding of fault regarding this.

Delay in contact assessment

  1. Mrs C first became aware that the court order did not include contact between her and her grandchildren in November 2018. She expressed her disappoint about this to the children’s social worker, stating that she would like contact.
  2. In March, Mrs C contacted the IRO about her request for contact and was told a home visit would be arranged. This visit subsequently took place in June.
  3. However, it was not until October when the Council wrote to Mrs C, informing her that it did not consider that face-to-face contact would be in the best interests of the children.
  4. I consider that the Council delayed making the decision to carry out an assessment and, upon deciding to do so, delayed carrying out a home visit and informing Mrs C of its final decision. This is fault and I consider it appropriate for the Council to remind staff of the importance of processing requests in a timely manner.

Reasons for refusal

  1. In communicating its decision to Mrs C, the Council said the children had said they did not want contact with their grandparents.
  2. Mrs C says that this is not correct. She says that during a supervised contact session her granddaughter asked her daughter why her grandparents no longer visit her. Mrs C’s view is that the children’s voices were not properly heard.
  3. Records show that the children’s social worker carried out home visits and recorded the conversations that took place during these visits. These conversations have been subsequently recorded in the children’s care plans.
  4. Whilst the Ombudsman is not party to these conversations, I have not seen any evidence to indicate that the voices of the children have not been heard or that their voices have been misrepresented.
  5. The contact session between Ms D and her children was supervised, and conversations and observation should have therefore been noted.
  6. However, on the occasion where Mrs D’s daughter is alleged to have asked why her grandparents no longer visit, and when it is alleged that Ms D told her that Mrs C would be going to court to obtain a care order, the Council say that the company used to manage the sessions have been unable to provide copies of such notes. This is fault.
  7. The Council has provided the Ombudsman with copies of notes from subsequent contact sessions. I am therefore satisfied that this issue has now been rectified and do not propose to make any further recommendations regarding this.
  8. The Council incorrectly said that Mrs C had not written to her grandchildren. Mrs C provided evidence that her letter had been sent recorded delivery and the Council subsequently said it had received the letter and passed it onto her granddaughter. It is however unclear exactly when this was done.
  9. The Council say it did send a letter from Mrs C’s granddaughter to Mrs C, but did not keep a copy so is unable to provide a copy. Something it apologised for.
  10. It seems there has been issues recording and forwarding on post between Mrs C and her grandchildren. This is fault. The Council has apologised for this. However, I do consider that staff need to be reminded about the importance of recording and forwarding on letters between children in care and their families.

Injustice

  1. It is not the Ombudsman’s role to decide whether Mrs C should have access to her grandchildren. If Mrs C is dissatisfied with the lack of face-to-face contact, she can challenge this through the courts.
  2. However, I do find that the Council took too long to reach its decision on Mrs C’s contact with the children, and some of the reasons it gave in reaching its decision were inaccurate. I consider that these faults have caused Mrs C an injustice. In the form of uncertainty as to whether this has negatively impacted her relationship with her grandchildren.
  3. This distress has been confounded by the Council’s service provider being unable to provide notes of contact sessions and a copy of a letter sent by her granddaughter.
  4. It is not easy to remedy something such as distress as it cannot generally be remedied by a payment. However, in this case I do consider that the Council should make a symbolic payment of £250 to Mrs C, to acknowledge the impact of its fault.

Agreed action

  1. The Council has agreed that, within one month of the date of my final decision, it will:
    • Apologise to Mrs C for the faults identified in this report and offer to make a payment of £250 to acknowledge the distress these faults caused her.
    • Write to Mrs C and provide her with an update as to the progress of the work the Council has carried out promoting contact between the children and Mrs C.
    • Remind staff dealing with children placed into care that requests for contact need to be processed in a timely manner.
    • Remind staff of the process of dealing with letters between children in care and their family members properly, ensuring copies are taken and the letters are passed to the recipient in a timely manner.

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Final decision

  1. I have concluded my investigation with a finding of fault leading to an injustice.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated Mrs C’s complaint that the Council failed to ensure her and her husband’s request for continued contact with the children was considered in court. The Ombudsman cannot investigate matters relating to what happened at the start of court action or about matters considered in court.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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