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Cheshire East Council (20 012 812)

Category : Children's care services > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 20 Aug 2021

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr X complains about the treatment he received from children’s services and the Council’s decision to remove his child from his care. There was some fault by the Council which caused injustice to Mr X, however the Council has apologised and put in place the recommendations from the children’s social care statutory complaints procedure which is a suitable remedy.

The complaint

  1. The complainant, whom I refer to as Mr X, complains about the treatment he received from children’s services and the Council’s decision to remove his child from his care. As a result his relationship with his child has been damaged and he has suffered distress due to the way the Council has portrayed him.

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What I have investigated

  1. 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 and an Independent Person (who 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, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it unless he considers that investigation was flawed. However, he may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.

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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. 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. As part of this investigation I considered the complaint made by Mr X and the Council’s responses. I considered the information provided by both Mr X and the Council. I sent a draft of this decision to Mr X and the Council for comments.

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What I found

  1. The Children Act 1989 says councils have a duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need.
  2. If a council considers a child may be suffering, or be likely to suffer, significant harm, it should hold a strategy discussion with other agencies including the police. This will help it to decide whether to initiate safeguarding enquiries under section 47 of the Act.
  3. If concerns of significant harm are substantiated following these enquiries, an initial child protection conference will develop a child protection plan.
  4. Government guidance called Working Together to Safeguard Children 2018 (the Guidance) says a Social Worker should decide what action is needed following a referral to children’s services. Where urgent action is needed it should be taken by the Social Worker unless statutory powers are needed to remove a child from their parents in which case the Police or NSPCC should take action.
  5. The Guidance also says if the Social Worker takes emergency action to safeguard a child they should hold a strategy discussion with the police.
  6. There are three stages to the statutory social services complaints procedure. The first stage allows an informal resolution of the complaint. If that is unsuccessful, the complainant can have the complaint independently investigated. The Council may also appoint an independent person to oversee the investigation. At the final stage, an in-dependent Complaints Review Panel can consider the complaint.

What happened

  1. Mr X and Ms Y have a child, Z. Mr X and Ms Y are not in a relationship and do not live together. Z was living with Ms Y when the matters complained about started.
  2. In late December 2018 the Council received an anonymous referral via its emergency duty line saying Ms Y was intoxicated and not in a fit state to care for Z. The police attended Ms Y’s property later that evening after being called by Mr X. The police reported Ms Y was aggressive and drunk and had to be restrained from Mr X. The police took Ms Y for an interview where she alleged Mr X perpetrated domestic violence against her.
  3. On 27 December 2018 the Social Worker visited Ms Y’s home to start the assessment process. When the Social Worker arrived three police officers and Mr X were present. Ms Y had telephoned the police to say Mr X was trying to kidnap Z. Z said he wanted to stay with Mr X. The Social Worker put in place a written agreement requiring Mr X to supervise Z’s contact with Ms Y.
  4. On 29 December 2019 Mr X told the Council Ms Y was arrested for drink driving. Mr X also alleged Ms Y had threatened him so sought a Prohibited Steps Order and a Non-Molestation Order against her. On 2 January 2019 the Court granted a Prohibited Steps Order and a Non-Molestation Order against Ms Y. The Non-Molestation Order prevented Ms Y from going to Mr X’s address, damaging his property and from threatening, intimidating or harassing him. The Prohibited Steps Order prevented Ms Y from removing Z from Mr X’s care other than for the purpose of contact agreed in writing between the parents or court.
  5. In January 2019 the Council’s Children’s Services team received a referral from the police as Ms Y alleged Mr X had committed fraud against her and was denying her contact with Z.
  6. On 23 January 2019 the Social Worker received a call from Z’s school as he had made allegations of harm against Mr X. The Social Worker visited the school and reported Z was tearful and visibly shaking. Z disclosed to the Social Worker allegations about Mr X which indicated he was no longer safe in his care. Z identified his half brother’s property as a safe place. The Social Worker telephoned Ms Y who agreed Z could stay with his half-brother for the night.
  7. The next day the Council held a strategy meeting with the police. The outcome of the meeting was for Children’s Services to progress with a section 47 investigation to see if Z required a Child Protection plan. The Council and police also decided at the meeting Z should return to his mother as he has identified this as a safe place. Following Z’s return to Ms Y, the Council carried out several visits over the coming weekend and did not note any concerns.
  8. On 25 January 2019, Mr X applied to court for a Child Arrangement Order. The Council provided its position to the court on 30 January 2019 and raised concerns about Mr X and his behaviour towards Ms Y. The Council also raised concerns about Ms Y being able to safeguard Z.
  9. Mr X visited the Council offices to speak with the Social Worker on 30 January 2019. Mr X said the Social Worker dismissed his evidence of an abusive phone call from Ms Y and did not listen to his concerns.
  10. On 31 January 2019 the Court made a Child Arrangement Order and a Prohibited Steps Order. This prevented Mr X from removing Z from Ms Y and having any contact with Z unless this was approved by the Council.
  11. Following the Council’s section 47 enquiries the Council held an Initial Child Protection Conference and put Z on a Child Protection plan under the category of neglect.
  12. On 19 February 2019 Mr X made a complaint to the Council. This related to concerns about Z’s social worker including a lack of communication and no review meeting taking place from the written agreement made. Mr X also complained the social worker removed Z from school without his consent and retuned him to Ms Y and ignored the concerns about Ms Y drinking. Mr X also said the social worker had alleged he made threats against her.
  13. On 4 March 2019 the Council provided its stage one response. The Council said:
    • The social worker had many telephone calls with Mr X, more than 10 per day.
    • It did not remove Z but identified a safe place for him in view of the safeguarding concerns raised about Mr X.
    • It did not ignore concerns about Ms Y’s drinking and recorded these in the children and family assessment. The Council has been carrying out unannounced visits to Ms Y and there is not evidence Ms Y is drinking since Z moved to her care.
    • The social worker reported threats Mr X made to her, and the Council has discussed these with Mr X and his solicitor. The Council said these threats were abusive in nature.
  14. On 11 March 2019 Mr X asked the Council to consider his complaint at stage two. In late March formal indirect contact started between Mr X and Z.
  15. In April 2019 the Council met with Mr X to discuss his complaint. At this time there were ongoing court proceedings relating to the care of Z. The Council decided to suspend the complaints procedure until the ongoing court proceedings finished.
  16. In May 2019 the Council decided to keep Z on a Child Protection plan following a Child Protection Conference. The Council excluded Mr X from attending the Child Protection conferences and ongoing Core Group meetings relating to Z. In July 2020 direct contact started between Mr X and Z. The Council said Z did not want direct contact with Mr X before this date and it followed his wishes.
  17. In November 2019 the Council reviewed the Child Protection plan at a Child Protection Conference and decided Y should remain on this. The Court proceedings also ended. The Court ordered Z to no longer have direct contact with Mr X but permitted indirect contact on a fortnightly basis.
  18. In February 2020 the Council progressed Mr X’s complaint to stage two. The Council appointed an Independent Investigating Officer (IO) to carry out the investigation. The Council also appointed an Independent Person (IP) to oversee the investigation. The IO and IP met with Mr X and agreed the heads of complaint at the end of February 2020.
  19. In March 2020 the IO interviewed Council officers as part of the investigation.
  20. On 6 April 2020 the IO produced their stage two report. This had 25 heads of complaint. The IO upheld four complaints and partially upheld three complaints. However the IO did not find the Council at fault for moving Z. The IP also produced a report. This confirmed the IP believed the investigation was conducted in an open, transparent and fair way. The IP also confirmed they fully agreed with the investigation findings by the IO.
  21. The IO found the Council failed to record reasons for excluding Mr X from the Child Protection Conferences and Core Group meetings and failed to consider alternatives to exclusion. The IO found the Council did not keep its decision to exclude Mr X under review or make adequate arrangements for Mr X to present his views at the meetings. The IO also found the Council failed to notify Mr X of the outcomes of Child Protection Conferences, failed to provide him with the documents relating to these meetings and failed to provide him with regular updates about Z’s welfare. In addition the Council did not review the written agreement made in December 2019.
  22. The IO recommended:
    • The Council allow Mr X to present his views at conferences.
    • The Council provide Mr X with the Child Protection documents and if he provides details of what he disagrees with the Council should consider amending the document or putting Mr X’s views on the file.
    • The Council provide monthly updates to Mr X about Z.
    • The Council apologise to Mr X for the failing identified.
    • The Council should distribute guidance about:
          1. The need to ensure reviews of written agreements are recorded on file.
          2. Clarifying who is responsible for notifying a parent they are excluded from Child Protection Conferences and meetings.
          3. The need to ensure any decision to exclude a parent from conferences and meetings is clearly recorded, communicated to the parent and reviewed. In addition, the Council should make arrangements for excluded parents to have their views heard and these meetings.
  23. On 23 April 2020 the Council wrote to Mr X with the stage two findings and confirmed it had put in place the recommendations of the IO from the stage two investigation. The Council also apologised to Mr X for the failings the IO identified.
  24. In May 2020 Mr X requested the Council escalate his complaint to stage three. He said the social worker wrongly advised him to supervise contact between Z and Ms Y and this breached the non-molestation order he had against Ms Y. He also said the Council removed Z from his care on hearsay evidence and without a court order.
  25. The stage three panel considered Mr X’s complaint on 16 September 2020. The Council confirmed due to the restrictions caused by the Covid 19 pandemic it could not provide a panel date. After Mr X requested the stage three panel the Council wrote to him to confirm his preferred location and told him the panel would be convened as soon as reasonably practicable.
  26. The stage three panel considered Mr X’s complaints. The panel found there was nothing in the non-molestation order or prohibited steps order Mr X had which prevented him from arranging and supervising contact between Ms Y and Z. The panel unanimously decided this element of the complaint should not be upheld.
  27. The panel also considered in detail the circumstances surrounding Z moving from Mr X’s care into Ms Y’s care. The panel decided the Council did not act unreasonably or outside its legal remit when removing Z a view which the panel said was supported by the Court when it found in favour of Ms Y.

Analysis

  1. As stated above if a council has investigated something under the statutory complaints procedure, the Ombudsman would not normally re-investigate it unless he considers that investigation was flawed.
  2. I do not consider the stage two investigation under the statutory complaints procedure was flawed. The Council appointed an IO to carry out the investigation and an IP to oversee this. From the IO’s report, I note the IO carefully addressed each part of Mr X’s complaint in detail and provided a response. The IP confirmed they were satisfied the IO carried out the stage two investigation in an open, transparent and fair way.
  3. The complaint was also reviewed by the stage three independent panel who considered in detail Mr X’s submissions about how the Council removed Z and placed him with Ms Y. I acknowledge Mr X disagrees with the outcome of the stage two investigation and stage three panel but I cannot see evidence these were flawed.
  4. While the IO did identify failings these mainly related to poor communication with Mr X and failing to include his view within the Child Protection conferences and Core Group meetings. This did cause Mr X injustice as he was not able to attend the Child Protection conferences or have his views heard as Z’s parent. I do not consider the failings identified by the IO had any impact on the Council’s decision to move Z to Ms Y’s care following the safeguarding allegations received. The Council apologised for the failings the IO identified and has put in place the IO’s recommendations. I consider this a sufficient remedy for any injustice caused to Mr X.

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Final decision

  1. intend have completed my investigation and found there was fault by the Council which caused some injustice to Mr X however, the Council has put in place the recommendations from the stage two investigation which is a sufficient remedy.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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