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Essex County Council (20 002 075)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 22 Mar 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Miss Y complained about the Council’s actions after it received safeguarding referrals about her and the support it provided when she was subsequently made a looked after child. She said it failed to consider her complaints through the statutory complaint’s procedure. We find the Council was at fault for failing to record its decision making and delays in completing the required assessment when Miss Y was looked after. It also failed to consider Miss Y’s complaint under the statutory complaint’s procedure. That put Miss Y to avoidable time and trouble pursuing her complaint with the Ombudsman. The Council has agreed to make a symbolic payment to Miss Y to remedy any injustice caused. We have also recommended service improvements.

The complaint

  1. Miss Y complained about the Council’s actions before it made her a looked after child and the support she received after it made her looked after. She said the Council failed to:
      1. Properly consider and respond to safeguarding referrals made about her welfare in March 2019.
      2. Provide appropriate levels of support following her Section 20 placement.
      3. Ensure she received the DBT therapy as agreed in the Court Order.
      4. Consider her complaints through the statutory complaint’s procedure.
  2. She said she felt fearful of returning to her father’s care; the Council’s actions left her feeling intimidated and threatened and that she was not listened to throughout her involvement with the Council. She said the Council’s actions have caused her a significant amount of distress and exacerbated existing mental health difficulties.
  3. Miss Y wants the Council wants the Council to provide a written apology for its faults; fund her therapeutic support and review the daily list it uses to allocate foster care placements.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated the complaints set out in a), b) and d). I have not investigated her complaint about the Court Order, (and any other matters relating to Court proceedings) or her complaint about the Council’s actions leaving her intimidated. The reasons for this are set out at the end of this decision statement.

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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 may decide not to start or continue an investigation if we believe there is another body better placed to consider this complaint. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 24A(6) and 34B(8), as amended)
  4. 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)
  5. 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. I read the complaint information provided by Miss Y and supporting evidence provided by her representative.
  2. I made enquiries of the Council and considered its response.
  3. I referred to legislation and statutory guidance including the Children Act 1989; Working together to safeguarding children 2018; the Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations Volume 2: care planning, placement and care review; and Volume 4: Fostering Services.
  4. I referred to the Council’s policies and guidance.
  5. Miss Y 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

The Council’s responsibility to safeguard children and young people

  1. Anyone concerned that a child is suffering or at risk of harm should tell the Council. Following a referral, the Council must decide within one working day what type of response is needed. The Council must determine whether:
    • the child needs immediate protection and urgent action is required;
    • there is reasonable cause to suspect that the child is suffering, or likely to suffer, significant harm, and enquiries must be made and the child assessed under section 47 of the Children Act 1989;
    • the child is ‘in need’, and should be assessed under section 17 of the Children Act 1989;
    • services are required by the child and family and what type of services;
    • further specialist assessments are required to help the authority decide what further action to take;
    • no further action is required.
  2. Safeguarding referrals to the Council are considered by its Children and Families Hub (the Hub). Where there are concerns about a significant risk of harm, the Hub passes the referral to the Assessment and Intervention Team (the A&I team) for further consideration. The Council’s guidance states in some circumstances, a manager within the A&I team may decide to close the referral without assessment.

Looked after children

  1. A key principle of the Children Act 1989 (the Act) is that children are best looked after within their families unless compulsory intervention in family life is necessary.
  2. Section 20 of the Act places a duty on local authorities to provide accommodation for any child in need in their area who appears to them to require accommodation as a result of:
      1. there being no person who has parental responsibility for him;
      2. his being lost or having been abandoned; or
      3. the person who has been caring for him being prevented (whether or not permanently, and for whatever reason) from providing him with suitable accommodation or care.
  3. Section 20 is a voluntary arrangement and does not require a Court Order. Where there are safeguarding concerns, a council can apply to the Court for an Interim Care Order or Supervision Order.
  4. All looked after children must have a care plan. The Council must prepare that within 10 working days of the child becoming looked after. It should address the long-term plan for the child and assess the young person’s needs including their health; family and social relationships and education.
  5. The care plan is regularly reviewed by an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) who is responsible for ensuring progress is made against the outcomes in the child’ care plan. Council’s must complete the first review within 20 days of the child becoming looked after and the second review within three months of the first.

Providing accommodation to looked after children

  1. The statutory guidance sets out that children should be matched with an appropriate foster carer capable of meeting their needs. Foster carers should be provided an up-to-date care plan and placement plan in advance. Where the authority makes a placement in an emergency, the placement plan must be completed within five working days of the start of the placement.
  2. The statutory guidance states ‘An effective placement plan will ensure that the foster carer receives essential information about the child, including his health, educational and emotional needs, how these may affect the child day to day, and appropriate strategies for responding to these needs. This will include information about any behaviour that was a concern in a previous placement’.
  3. Looked after children should not be moved into different placements unless this is agreed through statutory review, and it is clearly in the child’s best interests.
  4. The Council has a centralised placement system that holds information about its in-house foster carers with a daily list which shows availability. The Council’s current system does not show all foster carers with a vacancy – as they may not all be updated on the list. The Council said it planned to upgrade this system.

The statutory complaints procedure

  1. The Children Act 1989 Representations Procedure (England) Regulations 2006 set out how councils should investigate complaints about services for looked after children and children in need. This is sometimes called the statutory complaints procedure.
  2. Regulation 8 says councils can refuse to consider a complaint if to do so could prejudice concurrent court proceedings. However, after the proceedings have ended, a complainant can resubmit the complaint for the council to consider.

Background

  1. Miss Y’s parents are divorced, and she lives with her father. Her family have had historic involvement with Children’s Social Care, predominantly around domestic abuse.
  2. The Council received a safeguarding referral for Miss Y in 2018 because of concerns about her mental health and missing from home. That referral did not lead to further assessment of the family because of non-engagement.

What happened

Events between 5 March 2019 and 11 March 2019

  1. The Council received a safeguarding referral from the Emotional Wellbeing and Mental Health Service (EWMHS) on 5 March 2019. EWMHS were supporting Miss Y with her mental health. Her therapist telephoned the Council stating Miss Y was at an appointment and was scared to return home because her father left her at home alone.
  2. The Council’s case records indicate a manager from the A&I team contacted Miss Y’s father, Mr X. There is not a contact for that telephone conversation. He said Miss Y thought she was in trouble for not going to school. He said she could return home. He declined a section 17 assessment. The Council contacted EWMHS and said Miss Y could return home. Miss Y chose not to.
  3. Later that week EWMHS made a further referral. They stated Miss Y was presenting as homeless and they had concerns about neglect and emotional abuse. The Council received a further referral from another organisation.
  4. The Hub made initial inquiries that included speaking to Miss Y; Mr X and EWMHS. Miss Y told the Council she did not want to return home because she feared her father. Mr X said Miss Y was staying with her aunt. The Hub forwarded the referral to the A&I team for further assessment.
  5. The A&I team did not consider the referral met the threshold for statutory involvement under section 47, but the family would benefit from further assessment. The same day, Miss Y’s school took her to the Council’s offices because she was refusing to return home. Council officers spoke to Miss Y. She said she was fearful of her father because of historic abuse she had witnessed and that he might hurt her- she did not disclose he had harmed her.
  6. The Council contacted Mr X. The case records show he was initially happy for Miss Y to return home and that he agreed to collect her from the Council’s office. However, when Mr X arrived at the Council, he had changed his view and said he wanted the Council to accommodate her.
  7. Miss Y remained at the Council offices until after 9pm, whilst it attempted to arrange for Miss Y to return to either her father or mother’s care. It offered to provide support visits over the weekend. As both refused and Mr X had left the Council offices, it placed Miss Y in emergency foster care for the weekend.
  8. A Council Officer took Miss Y to the placement. The Officer offered to take Miss Y home before going to the foster carer, but she refused that offer. As Miss Y had no belongings with her, the foster carer agreed to wash Miss Y’s school uniform and provide some clothes.

Events between 11 March 2019 and December 2019

  1. Following the weekend, Miss Y’s social worker, Officer A, visited her mother, and attempted to contact her father, to arrange for Miss Y to return to one of her parent’s care. The Council’s attempts were unsuccessful and when it collected Miss Y from the emergency placement, she continued to refuse to return to her father’s. Subsequently, the Council arranged a further foster carer (placement one) for Miss Y. This placement was some way from where Miss Y lived and went to school.
  2. The next day Officer A presented Miss Y’s case to the Council’s placement panel which were responsible for making decisions about accommodating young people. The panel agreed Miss Y could remain in foster care for two weeks whilst Officer A completed a section 17 assessment. It also supported a referral to D-BIT- a Council service providing therapeutic support to children and their families in care, or on the edge of care.
  3. Whilst in placement one, the case records show Miss Y was unhappy her foster carers would not allow her to have her mobile phone at night. She said it had applications on she used to support her mental health and that not being able to access her phone meant she had self-harmed.
  4. As the placement was out of area, Miss Y had to use a combination of public transport and lifts to get from placement to school.
  5. Miss Y remained in placement one for just over a fortnight. During this period, the Council completed its section 17 assessment. It did not identify safeguarding concerns at Miss Y’s home. It said there was a lack of consistency in parental care that affected Miss Y’s mental health. The Council assessed a return home as the best possible outcome for Miss Y.
  6. Officer X returned to placement panel. They said that Miss Y’s mother had agreed to Miss Y returning to her care. However, Officer X asked the Council to continue to accommodate Miss Y for a further two weeks, to allow for a trial weekend at home and to put in place the appropriate support. The placement panel refused the request for placement because there were no safeguarding concerns preventing Miss Y from returning home. Therefore it said there was no reason for Miss Y to remain in care.
  7. The Council told Miss Y of its decision. However, she continued to refuse to return home. The Council decided to apply to the court for an Interim Supervision Order- that would place Miss Y under the ‘supervision’ of the Council. It continued to accommodate her as a looked after child with a view of reunification with her family.
  8. The Council moved Miss Y to a new foster carer (placement two) at the end of March. It matched Miss Y to the carer as she had experience with teenage girls, and that there were no other young people in the placement. At the same time, it held a review of Miss Y’s care plan and completed Miss Y’s placement plan. It referred Miss Y to D-BIT who held an initial meeting with Miss Y and her parents at the end of April.
  9. The Court rejected the Council’s application for an Interim Supervision Order but made an Interim Care Order. It requested a psychological assessment to consider the impact on Miss Y if the Council expected her to return to her parents against her will.
  10. Towards the end of May, Miss Y began to miss school and went missing from her foster care placement twice. She told the Council she wanted a new placement. The Council held a further review of Miss Y’s care plan at the start of June. The Council has not provided minutes of that review meeting. However, in response to enquiries it said that all those in attendance at the meeting felt placement two was able to meet Miss Y’s needs, and the carer was willing to continue caring for Miss Y. In addition, there were no other placements available that could meet Miss Y’s needs. The actions from the review include holding a meeting to work through the issues with the placement.
  11. Following that meeting Miss Y decided to return to her father’s care. The next scheduled court hearing was brought forward to the start of July, where the Court replaced the Interim Care Order with an Interim Supervision Order.
  12. Following Miss Y’s return home D-BIT contacted Mr X; he stated the family did not feel the need for the D-BIT intervention.
  13. In October 2019, the Court made a Child Arrangements Order- that specified that Miss Y would live with Mr X. The Court issued that Order on the understanding Miss Y and her family could access D-BIT intervention, due to start in November 2019. The Council closed Miss Y’s case in December 2019.

Miss Y’s complaint to the Council

  1. Miss Y complained to the Council in February 2020. It failed to respond, resulting in Miss Y complaining further in May 2020. The Council wrote to Miss Y and said it would not investigate her complaints as she should have raised her concerns in court. Miss Y remained unhappy and brought her complaint to the Ombudsman through her representative.
  2. In response to enquiries the Council accepted that it should have reviewed Miss Y’s complaint and considered any matters that were not addressed through the Court.

My findings

How the Council considered and responded to safeguarding referrals made about her welfare in March 2019.

  1. The Council decided to close the first safeguarding referral it received from EWMHS in March 2019. Although the Council’s policy states a manager may make that decision, I have seen no case records evidencing its conversation with Mr X or its rationale for that decision. I find the Council’s failure to record its decision making was fault.
  2. After the Council received a further safeguarding referral, it spoke to Miss Y and Mr X and referred to its last involvement with the family. The Council took sufficient steps to assess whether Miss Y was at risk of significant harm. In the absence of any disclosure, it decided the section 47 threshold was not met. The Council was not at fault.
  3. The Children Act is clear that the best place for a child is with their families unless statutory intervention is required. Mr X said Miss Y could return home. The Council did not assess Miss Y to be at risk if she returned home, therefore despite her request, it did not consider she needed accommodating.
  4. After Mr X withdrew that offer, the Council agreed to accommodate Miss Y. I am aware it did not make that decision for several hours, and Miss Y found the events in the interim distressing. I have not investigated those events; the reasons for which are set out at the end of this decision.

How the Council provided appropriate levels of support following her section 20 placement.

  1. Miss Y has made multiple complaints about how the Council supported her whilst in foster care. However, it is beyond the scope of my investigation to consider them all in detail. After carefully considering everything Miss Y and her representative said, I have focussed my investigation on those concerns where the claimed injustice was greatest.
  2. Miss Y said the Council left her without ‘essential items’ and clean clothes following the emergency placement. The Council said the foster carer offered to wash Miss Y’s uniform and provide clothes. As it was an emergency placement, the Council’s priority was to ensure she was accommodated. It did that. I am satisfied the support offered by the foster carer was sufficient. The Council was not at fault.
  3. Miss X said the Council failed to share information about her allergies and medication with her foster carer in placement one. I have seen no case recording of the information the Council shared with the foster carers when it placed Miss Y on 11 March 2019. That lack of recording was fault. However, I do not consider that to have caused Miss Y an injustice. I am confident Miss Y could tell the foster carers about her allergy and there is nothing to indicate not sharing information about her medication had an adverse effect on Miss Y.
  4. Miss Y said she was caused distress resulting in self-harm when placement one did not allow her access to her mobile phone at night. When the Council initially placed Miss Y in placement one, it did not know Miss Y used apps on her mobile phone to support her with her mental health. The case notes indicate that after a couple of days this matter was resolved. I recognise that Miss Y was caused distress whilst that happened, however I do not find the Council was at fault. It had just accommodated her therefore did not have full knowledge of her care needs; the foster carers had long-term placements and were concerned a change in rules may affect the success of these; they offered Miss Y support in the evening if needed.
  5. Miss Y said she was caused distress by the length and nature of her journey to school whilst at placement one. The Council had a duty to ensure, as far as reasonably practical, that the foster care placement did not disrupt Miss Y’s educational placement. Although a long journey, the Council ensured Miss Y could continue at the existing school placement. In addition, Miss Y was at placement one for just over a fortnight, therefore the impact on Miss Y was for a relatively short period. The Council was not at fault.
  6. Miss Y is aware through her representative of a foster carer in her hometown, who had a vacancy when she was accommodated. She believes the Council’s placement system is flawed as it failed to identify this carer. The Council has said it placed Miss Y in its only available and suitable placement. The Council was not at fault.
  7. After the Council accommodated Miss Y it did not complete the placement plan until 3 April 2019. That was 11 days late. In addition, that did not include information about her mental health support needs; information about Miss Y’s views or details about difficulties experienced in placement one. That was fault. The Council did complete a section 17 assessment that identified all relevant information; however, it is not clear if that was shared with foster carers.
  8. Miss Y feels the Council did not consider her wishes or views whilst she was a looked after child; and that it did not keep her informed of what was happening. The case records indicate that the Council initially intended for Miss Y to return home immediately after the emergency placement, and then within two weeks. However, Miss Y refused to return. That resulted in the Council making decisions ‘late in the day’ resulting in Miss Y’s feelings of uncertainty and lack of clarity about what was going on. The issue appears to be that Miss Y disagreed with the Council’s plans, not that it failed to consider her wishes. The Council was not at fault.
  9. Miss Y states the Council’s refusal to provide a new foster carer when she was unhappy in placement two gave her no option but to return home. Miss Y said she told her social worker several times that she was unhappy in her placement. Those conversations are not reflected in the case records. Miss Y’s concerns were considered within the review meeting at the start of June 2019. The Council decided the placement could meet her needs and planned a meeting to work through the difficulties between Miss Y and the foster carer. The Council was not at fault in how it made that decision. However, even if I had found fault, it would not have caused an injustice. Miss Y has continued to live with her father and there is now a Child Arrangements Order in place supporting that arrangement.

The Council’s failure to consider her complaints through the statutory complaint’s procedure.

  1. In response to enquiries the Council accepted it should have accepted Miss Y’s complaint through the statutory complaint’s procedures. It failed to do that; that was fault. That has caused Miss Y an injustice as it has caused avoidable distress as she feels the Council has failed to consider her concerns.

Agreed action

  1. Within one month of my final decision the Council has agreed to:
    • Apologise to Miss Y for failing to consider her complaint through the statutory complaints procedure and make a symbolic payment of £300 to remedy any injustice caused.
    • Remind relevant staff of the need to ensure contemporaneous case recording of their decision making and any information sharing.
    • Remind staff of timeframes for placement planning documentation and the need to include essential information relevant to the foster care placement in these.
    • Ensure relevant staff are aware of their responsibility to consider complaints under the statutory complaint’s procedure.

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Final decision

  1. The Council was at fault for failing to consider Miss Y’s complaint through the statutory complaint’s procedure. It also failed to ensure it maintained contemporaneous case recording. The Council has agreed to pay Miss X £300 to remedy any injustice cased. It has also agreed to my recommendations to prevent a further recurrence of fault therefore I have completed my investigation.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I have not investigated Miss Y’s complaint about the Council leaving her feeling threatened and intimidated. Miss Y’s complaint primarily revolves around a Social Worker’s conduct and behaviour towards her on the night she asked the Council to accommodate her. Complaints about Social Workers’ conduct are best considered by Social Work England.
  2. The Ombudsman cannot investigate a complaint about the start of Court action or what happened in Court. Therefore, I have not investigated any of Miss Y’s complaints relating to this. In addition, I have not investigated Miss Y’s complaint that the Council has failed to provide the therapy directed by the Court Order. That is because it is unclear whether the therapy was a ‘direction’ of the Court. The Court is best placed to interpret the Court Order.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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