The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms X complains about the way the Council considered her complaints about its dealings with her while her children were in foster care. We have found no evidence of fault so have completed our investigation.
- The complainant whom I shall refer to as Ms X complains about the way the Council dealt with her concerns when two of her children were in foster care. Ms X says the Council failed to comply with a court order about her contact arrangements to see the children and has delayed returning them to her care.
- Ms X says the Council’s actions and poor communication with her have caused distress. And although she successfully pursued a complaint against the Council Ms X considers the Council has not complied with the agreed recommendations.
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’. We provide a free service but must use public money carefully. We may decide not to start or continue with an investigation if we believe:
- it is unlikely we could add to any previous investigation by the Council, or
- it is unlikely further investigation will lead to a different outcome, or
- we cannot achieve the outcome someone wants.
(Local Government Act 1974, section 24A(6), 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)
- The law says we cannot normally investigate a complaint when someone could take the matter to court. However, we may decide to investigate if we consider it would be unreasonable to expect the person to go to court. (Local Government Act 1974, section 26(6)(c), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have read the papers submitted by Ms X and spoken to her about the complaint. I considered the Council’s documents relating to Ms X’s complaint.
- Ms X and the Council had an opportunity to comment on my draft decision. I considered any comments received before making a final decision.
What I found
Statutory children’s complaints procedure
- The law sets out a three-stage procedure for councils to follow when looking at complaints about children’s social care services. At stage 2 of this procedure, the Council appoints an investigating officer (IO) and an independent person (IP). The IP is responsible for overseeing the investigation. If a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of the stage 2 investigation, they can ask for a stage 3 review. If a council has investigated something under this procedure, we would not normally re-investigate it unless we consider that investigation was flawed. However, we may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.
Events leading to the complaint
- Ms X has four children. Ms X agreed the two younger children should go into the care of the Council due to her inability to care for them because of health issues. Ms X and the Council planned for the placement to be temporary at first with supervised contact twice a week. In September 2018 Ms X agreed the children should be placed into long term foster care with arrangements for her to have monthly contact sessions with them. The courts made the children subjects to a care order in September 2018, and they moved to a long-term foster care placement. The Council transferred the case to its permanence and transition service.
- Ms X complained to the Council at stage 1 of the complaint procedure in April 2019. Ms X complained about a decision to change the children’s schools and the standard of care they were receiving from the foster carer. This included her concerns about excessive takeaway meals, lost lip balms and posting a photograph of them on social media. Ms X complained the Council changed contact arrangements to bi-monthly without consulting her and it was not assessing her to return the children to her care.
- The Council responded but Ms X remained unhappy with its reply and asked to go to Stage 2 of the complaint procedure. The Council appointed an Independent Investigating officer (IO) and an independent person (IP) in September 2019. The IO and IP met with Ms X in September 2019.
- The IO produced a stage 2 report on Ms X’s complaints in November 2019 about the way the Council dealt with her concerns about the children in foster care. Ms X wanted closer monitoring of the foster carer to ensure the children received a better standard of care and they attend schools of her choice. Ms X wanted more frequent contact with the children, unsupervised if possible and with a different contact supervisor.
Ms X’s complaints and findings
- Ms X’s complaints included her concerns the Council delayed in responding to her complaints and the children unnecessarily moved to schools with lower academic attainment against her wishes. Ms X said the Council changed contact arrangements without consultation and failed to tell a child why she could not attend a play. Ms X complained the Council suggested she reduce her contact time to allow one of their sibling’s more contact time with the children. Ms X said the Council wanted the other sibling to go through checks before they could contact the children. Ms X complained the contact supervisor was intrusive during sessions and she considered the foster carer was not providing a good standard of care.
- The IO did not uphold three complaints. The IO partially upheld the complaints about contact with a sibling needing checks. The checks were to be an informal discussion with the sibling rather than more formal checks, but the IO found the Council could have been more proactive about making contact arrangements. The IO also partially upheld the complaint about the standard of care provided by the foster carer due to the issue with posting a photograph of the children on social media. The IO found there were differences in parenting styles between the foster carer and Ms X. But the girls were health and happy at the placement.
- The IO upheld four complaints. These were the Council’s delay in responding to her complaints. The IO noted the Council did respond to her complaints. But it took four months from Ms X raising her concerns with a social worker for the Council to formally respond. The IO upheld the complaint about changing schools as the chosen schools did not have the academic results of those Ms X preferred. But noted other reasons to consider when choosing schools as well as academic success. The IO noted the chosen schools were rated good by Ofsted and this, with other factors were balanced when the Council chose the schools for the children to attend.
- The IO considered the Council made errors over the contact arrangements and failed to investigate this part of Ms X’s complaint properly. The IO noted contact arrangements were originally twice a week during the short-term foster care. The court order for long term foster care stated a gradual decrease to monthly and then it should be reviewed. When arranging the contact dates, the social worker told the contact centre in error the decision was bi-monthly contact.
- Ms X realised the error and complained. The Council wrongly responded it decided to reduce contact following an issue with Ms X when attending a school play for one of the children. The IO considered the Council should have noticed the error in the contact arrangements sooner and it mistakenly justified the decision. But the IO considered that although the level of contact was reduced to bi- monthly sessions, the Council increased the time of them and allowed Ms X extra contact for birthdays and special occasions. This resulted in the overall contact time being a similar amount to that allowed in regular monthly contact sessions. The IO upheld the complaint.
- The IO upheld the complaint about the contact supervisor being intrusive but found it was due to the noise at the centre. So, the IO considered while it may be intrusive it was not deliberate or happening in all contact sessions.
- The IO made recommendations to the Council. This included an apology to Ms X, better checking of contact arrangements and a review of the contact arrangements. The IO recommended staff training on handling complaints and quicker liaison between the foster carer’s new social worker and Ms X when there were issues relating to the children. The IO also recommended social media training for the foster carer and the Council should set up contact arrangements for the other sibling to see the children. The IP agreed with the investigation and findings of the IO.
- In December 2019, the Council accepted the findings and recommendations of the IO and apologised to Ms X for the upheld complaints.
- Ms X remained unhappy at the Council’s response. In June 2020 Ms X asked to go to stage three of the complaints procedure as she did not consider the responses satisfactory or gave assurance about the future care of her children.
- In September 2020, the Council held a stage three panel hearing to consider the complaints. The panel noted since the stage 2 report the Council had arranged contact meeting with the children’s other sibling. But this had been halted due to difficulty in planning and holding sessions because of COVID-19 restrictions. The panel agreed the use of technology would help this. The panel noted Ms X’s wish for improved communication, regular contact with the children and unsupervised contact. The panel noted this need to be done by the Council following an assessment.
- The panel noted Ms X’s complete satisfaction with the Stage 2 investigation and report including the findings and recommendations. The panel accepted the report and findings of the IO at stage 2. The panel report of the hearing also made similar findings on the complaint and suggested recommendations. These included apologising to Ms X for all the upheld elements of the stage 2 investigation, a review of Ms X’s contact arrangements with the children. It included using technology solutions to enable their contact with other family members and the Council’s communications with Ms X be appropriate, responsive, and timely.
- The panel suggested any request for unsupervised contact be subject to an evidence-based assessment and approved by the court if necessary.
- The Council accepted the findings of the panel hearing and apologised to Ms X for any inconvenience and distress caused. The Council advised it had drawn up an action plan following the complaint investigations and planned to carry out all the actions. This include the apology to Ms X, reviewing the contact arrangements to ensure they were meaningful within the current climate with COVID-19 and to look at technology to enable family contact with the children.
- The children returned to Ms X’s care in December 2020.
- I consider the documents provided show the IO carried out a thorough and robust investigation into the complaints raised by Ms X. The evidence shows the IO and IP met with Ms X, considered all her documents, and gained her agreement over the matters to be considered. Because of this I see no grounds to re-investigate the matters Ms X raised in her stage 2 complaint. Ms X has also expressed her satisfaction with the stage 2 investigation, findings, and recommendations. So, I do not consider any further investigation will add anything to that already carried out by the Council. However, I will look at the Council’s response to the findings and recommendations made.
- The evidence provided shows the Council considered the outcome of the stage 2 investigation and agreed with the findings and recommendations. Ms X’s complaint has been considered by a stage 3 panel which looked at her ongoing concerns about contact with family members caused by COVID-19 restrictions. The panel made recommendations to help overcome the situation. Ms X raised issues about contact following the stage 3 hearing, but this has been resolved as the children are back in her care.
- The Council provided a copy of the action plan showing it has largely implemented the recommendations made. But again, I consider Ms X’s concerns about these have been superseded by the children returning to her care.
- Ms X’s main complaint referred to her contact with the children and she considered the Council failed to properly implement the care order arrangement. I note the IO found the Council made an error on this point. Although it was noted that timewise Ms X received as much contact with the children as she would have done in monthly sessions. This was because the bi-monthly sessions were longer. While the IO found fault by the Council, it is not an issue we would investigate. This is because it was open to Ms X to return to court to challenge this if she considered the Council was not complying with the court order. I consider it reasonable to expect Ms X to have done so as the contact arrangements were agreed by the court under the care order. So, this was her means of resolving the issue.
- As I am not reinvestigating Ms X’s complaints, I cannot add anything further to the investigation already carried out by the Council. In addition, I do not consider any further investigation will lead to a different outcome or achieve anything more for Ms X. This is especially as the children have now been returned to her care.
- I am completing my investigation. I have found no evidence of fault in the way the Council considered Ms X’s complaints about its dealings with her while her children were in foster care.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman