The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Mr H complains of bias by a social worker, towards his ex-wife, in a safeguarding assessment about his son. We have found fault with assumptions a Council officer made. And with some of the record keeping. But the actions the Council has taken or suggested, together with an apology, provides a suitable remedy for the faults identified.
- The complainant, whom I shall refer to as Mr H, complains that:
- the Council social worker’s assessment of his son’s circumstances was inaccurate, partial and biased. It contained several negative statements about him. The basis for most of these statements could only have come from his ex-wife (Ms H);
- the social worker should have been communicating equally with him and Ms H, as they have shared parental responsibility;
- the Council used Ms H’s address as their son’s primary residence, despite the fact his son spends half his time at his house;
- the social worker did not respond to his messages and emails and did not send him a copy of the assessment;
- despite having shared care, the Council did not have his details on its system. This was despite a report the Council wrote in 2016 for a court hearing;
- the social worker made assumptions about his housing status. In any case, that issue was not relevant to the issue under review. So there was no reason for the social worker to enquire about this;
- the social worker worked with Ms H to stop a plan to change his son’s school;
- he spoke to the team’s manager after he complained. That officer agreed to carry out the remedies he seeks (see below). But the Council is now saying it will carry out these actions.
- the Council to re-write its assessment, to remove the factually incorrect statements. And then to reissue the report to all who have received a copy;
- for his address to be given equal priority on the Council’s system;
- a written apology.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- 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)
- 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
- As part of the investigation, I have:
- considered the complaint and the documents provided by Mr H;
- made enquiries of the Council and considered its response;
- spoken to Mr H;
- sent my draft decision to Mr H and the Council and considered their responses.
What I found
Legal and administrative background
- A council has a legal duty to investigate where it has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or at risk of suffering significant harm (the term used in the 1989 Children Act). The council’s primary responsibility is to safeguard the welfare of the child.
- A council’s enquiries must establish the child’s situation and determine whether protective action is required (S.47 Children Act 1989). Significant harm covers the risk of physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect.
- Referrals may come from the child, agencies involved with children such as health and schools, concerned family members, friends, neighbours or members of the public. When a council accepts a referral, the social worker has the lead professional role. S/he should clarify with the referrer, where possible, what the concerns are and how and why they have arisen.
- The council should make initial enquiries of agencies involved with the child and family. For example, health visitor, GP, schools and nurseries. The information gathering at this stage enables the council to assess the nature and level of any harm the child may be facing.
- An assessor may decide that no further action is necessary, that the child is in need, or the child is in need of protection. Where the outcome is continued involvement, the council agrees a plan of action with other agencies and discusses this with the child and family. The child and family should be informed of the decision.
- Following a court’s decision, Mr H and Ms H have equal shared care of their son (whom I shall refer to as K). K spends half his time with Mr H and half his time with Ms H. Mr H and Ms H live in different towns within the County.
- The Council’s records note its previous involvement with K was from 2016; it wrote a report for the court case noted above. The court action was because of a dispute between Ms H and Mr H.
- In late 2019 one of the Council’s Safeguarding Teams received a new referral, due to concerns that K was involved with unlawful activity and was at risk of exploitation. His school had excluded him. The referral record notes both Ms H and Mr H had contacted the Council with their concerns. It noted their ‘acrimonious break up’ in 2016 and the Council’s involvement.
- The Council decided it needed to carry out an assessment, due to the risks to K. The referral record shows the Council attempted to contact both parents at the start of the process.
- Mr H says the Council wrote to both he and Ms H, at Ms H’s address, about a proposed meeting. He says he only knew about this letter as Ms H told him. Later in November, he emailed the Council to advise he did not live with Ms H. Mr H says at the end of November he spoke to the social worker who was investigating (whom I shall refer to as Officer 1). He says he had to contact her manager before she replied to his attempts to contact her.
- In December 2019, Officer 1 spoke to professionals working with K. She also spoke to both parents on the same day (a visit to Ms H and a telephone call to Mr H).
- I can see from the Council’s case notes that on two further occasions Officer 1 spoke to both parents on the same day. There is no record of her speaking to Ms H without also speaking to Mr H. She also arranged visits to both parents, for the same day, from an organisation providing a support programme.
- The Council chaired a meeting in January 2020. Mr H, Ms H and K attended. Following the meeting Mr H emailed Officer 1 to clarify one issue raised in the meeting.
- In early 2020 Officer 1 carried out a single assessment about the concerns. This assessment noted:
- Mr H and Ms H had an equal split on parenting, following the court decision;
- K had been due to transfer to a school in the town Mr H lived in. But his current school had started to provide an extensive package of online learning. K said he enjoyed that method of learning and would like it to continue;
- statements from Ms H about how she felt she cannot go against Mr H’s wishes;
- the section on K’s home (‘housing’) noted that ‘[b]oth parents have stable homes. [Mr H] is privately rented property and [Ms H’s] is owned with a mortgage’;
- the assessment had separate sections setting out assessments of Ms H and Mr H’s parenting. Both sections noted K was ‘well cared for’ by his parents;
- there had not been any concerns about either parent’s ability to keep K safe;
- a police officer working with K felt both parents needed to relax the strong boundaries they had put in place to allow K ‘…to have more of a “normal” life’.
- there were concerns Mr H could be over-protective. It gave an example about K’s choice of clothing;
- the summary noted both parents were protective of K, and he had two stable homes. Both parents were keen to work with other professionals.
- Following the assessment, the Council was content with the plan in place. It closed its case. There is one note in the Council’s records around this time, from Officer 1 noting she had not responded to Mr H’s email, as it was her intention to close.
- In early February 2020, Mr H contacted Officer 1’s manager (Officer 2) because:
- of concerns about Officer 1’s assessment and apparent bias;
- Officer 1 had not returned his contacts;
- a form Officer 1 had sent him listed Ms H’s address as K’s primary address, despite the fact K split his time equally between their homes;
- he had still not received a copy of the assessment record.
- the Council had completed its assessment and his team had closed its case;
- he agreed Mr H should have received a copy of the assessment. He agreed to send him a copy;
- the Council’s system did not allow more than one primary address. But he could amend the record to show that K split his time equally between parents.
- he agreed to reopen the assessment to make factual changes;
- the Council’s front screen now showed both addresses and noted the parents had equal care of K;
- he agreed with Mr H that Officer 1 had shown bias by assuming his house was rented. He would discuss this with her at supervision.
- apologised about ‘any additional concern or stress’;
- agreed that a social worker should not make assumptions. And that Officer 1 had recorded wrong information in the assessment. The Council would change this. But this wrong information did not affect the outcome of the assessment.
- it had amended its records about Mr H’s housing status;
- ‘It is not unusual for parents or guardian who are subject to comment in the single assessment process may disagree with what has been said about them. It should be said that this is a professional view and if there are comments that parents or guardians feel are inaccurate, a request can be made that their views are recorded on file and these will be held alongside the assessment.’
Was there fault by the Council?
The investigation and contact with Mr H and Ms H
- Mr H says the Council arranged a meeting without inviting him. That was an initial meeting. It seems likely it had not realised Mr H and Ms H did not live together. But the referral record noted Mr H and Ms H had broken up. So the Council could reasonably have realised it should write separately to both parents. To not do so was fault.
- The Council’s records I have seen suggest, after that, each time Officer 1 contacted one parent, she contacted the other on the same day. On one occasion, she visited Ms H and then telephoned Mr H. But my view is, overall, I cannot see documentary evidence to support a finding that the Council was contacting one parent and not the other.
The social worker did not respond to Mr H’s contacts and did not send him a copy of the assessment
- Mr H says Officer 1 did not reply to any of his emails. There is one record on file where Officer 1 noted she was not going to respond. But others are not on file. On the balance of probabilities Mr H did send these emails. Officer 1 should have at least acknowledged them or explained why she was not going to respond to every email. To not do so was fault.
- I also agree the Council should have informed Mr H of the outcome of its assessment. It did not do so until he complained. That was fault.
The Council used Ms H’s address as their K’s primary residence, despite the fact K spends half his time at Mr H’s house
- I accept the Council’s explanation that its system does not allow multiple addresses as primary residence. The Council had to put one of the other of Mr H and Ms H’s addresses in this box. I see nothing to lead me to question the merits of its decision to choose Ms H’s.
- It is not for the Ombudsman to criticise the IT systems a council uses, unless there is an issue that leads to a significant fault, that cannot be remedied. That does not apply here, as the Council has now provided an adequate solution that ensures any viewer of the record is aware that K shares his time between the two addresses. That leads me to conclude there is no ongoing significant injustice to Mr H.
- But the Council could have showed both addresses on its front screen from the outset of its investigation. So on that point, I uphold this part of the complaint.
Officer 1 made assumptions about Mr H’s housing status. And there were no reasons to seek this information
- The Council has accepted bias from Officer 1 in her assumptions about Mr H’s housing status. That was fault. It says it has now changed its assessment to correct this wrong factual information.
- There are plausible situations where in some safeguarding investigations housing status might be relevant. So I cannot say it was fault to ask about this.
Officer worked with Ms H to stop a plan to change K’s schools to one in the town where Mr H lived.
- The assessment record has some comment on this about K’s preference. In addition I have seen the Council’s records. These records do not support Mr H’s concerns about bias from Officer 1.
Mr H spoke to Officer 3, after he complained. That Officer agreed to carry out the remedies Mr H seeks. But the Council is now saying it will carry out these actions
- I have no doubt Mr H’s understanding from his telephone conversation was as he set out in his email to Officer 3 shortly afterwards. Officer 3 has not kept his own record of the call. And Officer 3 did not challenge at the time Mr H’s understanding as set out in his email. So I accept that Officer 3 might have given the impression more could be done than the Council later agreed to do.
- Our guidance, The Principles of Good Administrative Practice, says authorities should keep proper and accurate records. The Council failed to follow this approach with this conversation, which was fault.
Did the fault cause an injustice?
- The Council has:
- apologised to Mr H;
- altered the factual inaccuracy in the assessment record about Mr H’s housing status;
- changed its system so it has a note about the reality of Ms H and Mr H’s childcare arrangements on the front page of its record;
- offered Mr H a follow up meeting with the managers involved in the issues under complaint;
- offered to put a record of Mr H’s concerns about the assessment report on file.
- The Council has agreed to, within one month of my decision, write to Mr H a written apology for the faults I have identified.
- It also says its safeguarding team has taken note of my findings. In particular I noted:
- our view that officers should keep a written record of conversations with service users. There should also be a record on the case file of all substantive contacts, including ones that, in an officer’s professional judgment did not require a response;
- that in instances of shared care, the shared arrangements should be clearly visible on the front screen of the file.
- I uphold the complaint. The Council has agreed to my recommendations. So I have completed my investigation.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman