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Southampton City Council (20 011 311)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 06 Oct 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mrs X complained about how the Council supported her and her three children. She said it did not complete assessments of their needs and it failed to rehouse the family after it learnt her house was unsafe. We find the Council was at fault for delays in completing its child in need assessments and holding reviews, however that did not cause Mrs X an injustice. The Council was not at fault in how it made her housing decision. The Council has agreed to remind staff to hold child in need reviews in the timescales specified in the assessment.

The complaint

  1. Mrs X complained the Council failed to provide her and her children with appropriate support. She said it did not follow a court order of intended work after a hearing in 2015 and initiated Child Protection enquiries in response to her complaint.
  2. In addition, she said the Council:
      1. Has not completed statutory assessments of her children despite them being disabled and therefore ‘children in need’.
      2. Failed to provide her respite support as a Parent Carer for a disabled child.
      3. Failed to rehouse the family after it learnt her accommodation was unsafe.
  3. Mrs X said the lack of support has affected her own mental health. She said she is exhausted as her daughter only sleeps for two hours a night and she has no wider support network. She said her current accommodation puts the family at risk as they would struggle to get out of the house in an emergency.
  4. Mrs X wants the Council to apologise and to compensate her for the loss of support over the past five years.

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What I have investigated

  1. I have investigated complaints a) – c). I have investigated from 2020 onwards. The reasons for not investigating the complaints set out in paragraph one and the earlier period covered by Mrs X’s complaint are set out in paragraph eight below and at the end of this decision statement.

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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 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)
  3. We cannot investigate late complaints unless we decide there are good reasons. Late complaints are when someone takes more than 12 months to complain to us about something a council has done. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26B and 34D, as amended)
  4. Mrs X complained to the Ombudsman in January 2021. I am satisfied Mrs X could have complained to the Ombudsman sooner if she were unhappy with the actions of the Council. Therefore, I have investigated events from January 2020 although I have referred to key events before then as background.
  5. When considering complaints, if there is a conflict of evidence, we make findings based on the balance of probabilities. This means that we will weigh up the available relevant evidence and base our findings on what we think was more likely to have happened.
  6. 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)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I discussed the complaint with Mrs X.
  2. I made enquiries of the Council and considered its response.
  3. I considered the relevant legislation and the Council’s guidance.
  4. Mrs 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

Children in Need

  1. Section 17 of the Children Act 1989 places a duty on councils to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need. A child is considered in need if:
    • they are unlikely to achieve or maintain, or to have the opportunity of achieving or maintaining, a reasonable standard of health or development without the provision of services by a local authority;
    • their health or development is likely to be significantly impaired, or further impaired, without the provision of such services; or
    • they are disabled.
  2. Following an assessment of the needs of the child, the council completes a child in need plan. This sets out which agencies will provide which services to the child and family. The Plan will set clear outcomes for the child and expectations for the parents.
  3. The council should complete the assessment within 45 working days of the referral. Where that is not possible, the person completing the assessment should record the reasons for exceeding the time limit.
  4. Parents of disabled children are also eligible for an assessment of their own needs. These are called parent carers needs assessment. This Council combines the parent carers needs assessment into the child in need assessment. It also assesses the parent carers support needs when it completes short break assessments.
  5. The Council’s Protection and Court Team is responsible for completing assessments on children and their families who are supported because of child protection concerns, or where children are subject to court proceedings.
  6. The Council’s Children with Disabilities Team is called JIGSAW. This service assesses and supports children who because of their disability, have complex needs requiring specialist support.

Short breaks

  1. Councils are required to provide, so far as reasonably practicable, a range of services which are sufficient to assist carers to continue to provide care, or to do so more effectively. These are known as short breaks and can include after school clubs, discounted breaks, and overnight respite services.
  2. This Council has four tiers of short break provision depending on the child and family’s level of assessed needs. For children with substantial or complex needs, a social worker completes a short breaks assessment to determine the amount of support the Councill will provide. The Council may provide the support through commissioned services, or direct payments. Direct payments are monies, paid to the parent or carer so they can buy the support needed themselves.
  3. The Council’s information on short breaks says that where a child is receiving short breaks at the substantial or complex levels, the child’s social worker will carry out regular reviews of the impact of the short break. The reviews will ensure the child’s needs are being met and may result in provision being adjusted.

Background

  1. Mrs X cares for her three children, Child A, Child B and Child C. Child B is preschool aged, Child A primary school aged and Child C secondary school aged.
  2. Child A has cerebral palsy and epilepsy. They attend a specialist school for children with special educational needs and disability. Child B has autism, severe sleep insomnia and hyperactivity. Child C experiences difficulties with her mental health and emotional wellbeing. Mrs X also experiences mental health difficulties.
  3. The Council began working with Mrs X in 2015, after the court made an order that required the Council to provide Mrs X specific support in caring for her children. Since then, the Council has had ongoing involvement with Mrs X and her children largely as children in need.
  4. Mrs X first complained to the Council in 2017 about its decision that Child A was not eligible for support from JIGSAW. In response, the Council said as Child A did not have a learning disability, they did not meet the criteria for JIGSAW. However, it said JIGSAW was working with their social worker to provide support and advice.
  5. In December 2018, Mrs X again asked for JIGSAW to support her children. JIGSAW wrote to Mrs X and explained why they were not eligible for its services. After receiving that letter, Mrs X made a second complaint. She said the Council had failed to complete statutory assessments of her children and had not provided the support instructed by the Court in 2015.
  6. In its complaint response the Council said it had last completed an assessment of the children in December 2016. It agreed to review and update those assessments. It also said it would complete an assessment to identify respite support for her children. The Council said it had provided Mrs X with the support as instructed by the Court. The Council explained how Mrs X could escalate the complaint if she was unhappy with its response.
  7. In January 2021, Mrs X complained to the Ombudsman. She said the Council had not completed a statutory assessment of her children. In addition, she said the Council had not provided the support directed by the Court; refused to provide her with respite and failed to house her appropriately. Mrs X was unhappy the family were not supported by JIGSAW. She said the Council had evidence that Child A had had learning disabilities for several years.
  8. As Mrs X had not complained directly to the Council, we asked the Council to respond to Mrs X’s complaint before investigating. The Council did not uphold her complaints.

The Council’s statutory assessment of the children

  1. The Protection and Court Team reviewed and updated the children’s statutory assessments at the start of 2019 following Mrs X’s previous complaint.
  2. In July 2019, there was an email between Child A’s consultant, their school and the Council that they had assessed Child A as having a moderate learning disability. The Consultant wrote to the Council in January 2020 confirming that diagnosis.
  3. Following that, the Council transferred the children to JIGSAW and they were allocated a new social worker. JIGSAW started to review the statutory assessments in February 2020 and the Council held a transfer child in need meeting in March.
  4. A manager from JIGSAW met with Mrs X at the start of July. The case records indicate Mrs X felt that she was having to take the lead communicating with different professionals as the social worker was not doing it. She said her main concern was about Child C. The records of that meeting show that:
    • behavioural work for Child B was about to start and that they had been awarded short breaks money;
    • Child A would be attending a playscheme over the summer;
    • Once the Council reviewed Child A’s short break provision, it would stop the direct payments as Mrs X did not feel able to manage direct payments on top of her caring responsibilities;
    • the social worker had not yet completed the assessments of the children;
    • the manager would look at allocating a new social worker.
  5. Following that meeting, the Council referred Child C for support from psychology services.
  6. The Council held a further child in need review in August and finalised the assessments. The assessing social worker recorded the delays in completing the assessments was because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and difficulties in their relationship with Mrs X that needed addressing. They said the family required home visits every three weeks, and for child in need reviews every six weeks because of the complexities of the case.
  7. The Council held further child in need reviews in October and December. These show the Council had been visiting the family regularly. The Council allocated the case to a new social worker in November 2020.

My findings

  1. Following Mrs X’s previous complaint, the Council reviewed the children’s statutory assessments in 2019. It completed further assessment reviews in 2020 and 2021. The Council was not at fault.
  2. The Council did delay in finalising the child in need assessments in 2020. In addition, the assessment said that the family needed six weekly child in need reviews. The case records show the Council did not hold the review meetings that frequently. Both these were faults. However, the family received support from the Council through visits with their social worker. The Council also:
    • referred Child B to the learning disability nurse and arranged short breaks funding; and
    • referred Child C to psychology services.
  3. Therefore, the delay in completing the assessments, and reduced number of reviews probably did not affect Mrs X’s access to support.

The Council’s provision of respite support

  1. The Council started paying Mrs X direct payments for Child A from January 2020 so they could access short breaks. In October 2020, the Council increased the amount of funding that Child A could receive. The child in need assessment and reviews show that Child A is accessing short breaks.
  2. The Council agreed direct payments for Child B’s short breaks in June 2020. When the manager met with Mrs X in July 2020, it recorded that short break provision needed identifying for Child B. In the January 2021 child in need review, the Council again recorded direct payment provision for Child B needed exploring.
  3. Mrs X told me she wanted overnight respite for Child B because of their poor sleeping patterns. She said Child B is not accessing respite as there is no available provision. She said the Council told her she must accept direct payments and it will not commission support.
  4. The Council said its overnight respite provider is for children aged eight and over. Therefore, Child B is too young for that provision. The Council said it does provide overnight support using foster carers, however, the intention of Child B’s short breaks was for them to have additional social and leisure opportunities. That would allow Mrs X more time with her other children and give her some respite from caring for Child B. That is reflected in the Council’s short breaks assessment for Child B.
  5. The Council said delays in progressing Child B’s short break support plan were because the family was presenting with other crises that it needed to respond to. Since issuing my draft decision the Council’s Short Break Officer has contacted Mrs X and offered commissioned services.

My findings

  1. Since January 2020, the Council has provided Mrs X direct payments for Child A to access activities. The Council was not at fault.
  2. Although Mrs X receives direct payments for Child B, they are not accessing short breaks. The Council states that it because it had been working with the family on other pressing crises. However, from Mrs X’s perspective, there is no provision to access and she is responsible for arranging any support.
  3. As the Council has identified the need for short breaks through the child in need assessment process, I would have expected to see it regularly review Child B’s provision within the child in need reviews and plans. If there were any difficulties in arranging provision it should have set actions to address these. The Council did not do this. That is fault. It is not possible to say whether the lack of focussed review has contributed to Child B’s short break provision not being arranged, as the Council states it was responding to other crises. However, since issuing my draft decision the Council has offered Mrs X commissioned services, therefore I am satisfied it has addressed the need for short break support with her.

The Council’s housing support.

  1. Mrs X lives in a privately rented three-bedroom house. The Council has had the house adapted to meet Child A’s needs, that includes installing a stair-lift, bathroom adaptations and a widened doorway.
  2. Child A and Child B originally shared a bedroom. Child B currently sleeps in a downstairs reception room after Child A had specialist bedroom equipment installed to help her sleep. An Occupational Therapist assessed the property in June 2020 and said it was suitable for the family.
  3. Mrs X asked the Fire and Rescue Service (the Service) to complete a fire safety assessment of the house. This is not a Council service. In November 2020, the Service visited Mrs X. Mrs X said the Service had said the property was not safe. She said it sent her a report explaining its concerns. She contacted the Council asking it to place her on the housing register for an alternative house.
  4. The Service emailed the Council and said it had concerns about Mrs X’s ability to get the children out of the property safely as they slept on separate floors and two of the children would need carrying.
  5. Following that there was internal contact between the JIGSAW social worker, its Occupational Therapist and the Council’s Housing Service. The Occupational Therapist said that Child A could mobilise with help, and that by having her bedroom downstairs, it made it safer for her to get out of the house. They said they could not identify a safer property for the family, as the Council had had it specially adapted to meet needs.
  6. JIGSAW and Housing met to discuss Mrs X’s needs further. They decided that Mrs X was appropriately housed. The Council wrote to Mrs X in December 2020, stating the Council would not place Mrs X on the housing register.
  7. The following month, the Council accepted Mrs X onto the housing register. It said that was because it assessed her as not having the appropriate number of bedrooms as Child A’s bedroom was a reception room. It accepted the family needed a four bedroomed property and backdated their eligibility date to October 2019.
  8. Later that month, Mrs X’s landlord contacted the Council. They said they had received a letter from the Fire and Rescue Service saying the house needed further adaptations to make the back of the property safe. The landlord said they wanted to sell the house. The landlord agreed additional time to allow the Council the opportunity to find alternative housing.
  9. In the Council’s complaint response in February 2021, it said it had not been provided with a Fire and Rescue Service report saying that the property was not safe. It said it had spoken to the assessing fire officer and they said their concern was about Mrs X getting Child A and Child B to safety when they slept on different floors and as they needed carrying. The Council said Child B could mobilise and would not need carrying out of the house. It said Child A could also mobilise for short periods and could get out of bed with parental supervision. It said Mrs X would not need to carry two children out of the property. It said the property had been assessed as suitable by an Occupational Therapist and that the Council’s Housing Service had confirmed the family was appropriately housed. It said the property had working fire alarms and the Service had provided Mrs X with fire safety advice.
  10. In May 2021, Housing contacted JIGSAW with an email from the Fire and Rescue Service. The Service said on its visit in November 2020, it was concerned about the sleeping arrangements as Child A’s bedroom was next to the kitchen, and that meant if there was an emergency, their exit from the house was through the kitchen which, was most at risk from fire within a domestic property. It said they also had concerns about the size of the rear doors. It emphasised that it had no legal jurisdiction to state Mrs X’s property was unsuitable or unsafe, as that was the Council’s decision. The Service said it had shared its concerns with the previous JIGSAW Occupational Therapist.
  11. Around this time, the case records note the family was still on the waiting list for an adapted bedroom property but there were five families ahead of them on the priority list.
  12. The Council reprioritised Mrs X’s application to urgent status in June 2021. The information provided by the Council indicates that was because her landlord had started court action to evict her rather than because of the information from the Service.
  13. The Council said Mrs X is on the urgent adapted direct list, she does not have to bid on properties as the Council will offer her a suitable adapted property in turn. It said Mrs X is currently second on that list.
  14. The Council said that no other suitable house has come available since October 2020.

My findings

  1. We cannot question the merits of the Council’s decision if it is made without fault. The Council considered information by the Fire and Rescue Service and the Occupational Therapist in deciding Mrs X’s property was suitable in December 2020.
  2. The information provided by the Council indicates the Fire and Rescue Service did not highlight its concern about Child A’s bedroom adjoining the kitchen until May 2021. The Council accepted Mrs X as homeless the following month and assessed her as needing urgent priority housing. The Council was not at fault.

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Agreed Action

  1. Within one month of my final decision the Council has agreed to remind staff to complete child in need reviews in accordance with the timescale set out in the child in need assessment.

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Final decision

  1. The Council was at fault for delays in completing child in need assessments and not reviewing short breaks provision in the Child in Need reviews. The Council has agreed to my recommendation to address the fault therefore I have completed my investigation.

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Parts of the complaint that I did not investigate

  1. I did not investigate Mrs X’s complaint that the Council failed to follow the instruction of the Court after it made a court order in 2015. That is because the complaint is late as it has been more that twelve months since Mrs X became aware of the concern. In addition, based on the information provided by the Council, even if I were to investigate there is little evidence of fault.
  2. I did not investigate Mrs X’s allegation that the Council started Child Protection proceedings because she made a complaint. That is because this complaint is premature as it had not been through the Council’s complaints procedures. However, based on the information provided by the Council it is unlikely that even if I had investigated, that I would have found fault.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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