Bexley Council criticised over child protection

Bexley Council’s handling of a child protection investigation was seriously flawed.

Local Government Ombudsman, Dr Jane Martin, in her report issued today, says “the complainant has been caused an understandable sense of outrage by an investigation which led to a significant interference in her family life, but without always treating her fairly or affording her the important procedural safeguards intended for alleged perpetrators.”

A mother complained that the London Borough of Bexley failed to respond appropriately to allegations of abuse made against her by her daughter.

The Ombudsman says:

“Councils have a vital role in safeguarding children, which often requires that hard decisions are made in difficult circumstances. Child protection investigations have a profound effect on families and it is important councils follow proper administrative procedures so that investigations are fair.

“The problems I have identified in this complaint do not concern the professional judgement of officers, but significant failures in the Council’s procedures and administrative approach to the investigation.”

The Ombudsman found serious flaws in the Council’s approach to investigating the girl’s allegations. The Council had failed to properly resolve an earlier informal child protection investigation. It then took further action, not because of renewed child protection concerns, but because a reference request from another authority meant the girl needed to be informed of the earlier investigation.

There were significant problems in the subsequent investigation, including a failure to produce and implement a clear investigation plan, inappropriate questioning, a failure to promptly pursue reasonable lines of enquiry and a failure to properly record evidence and decisions.

The Council took steps to accommodate the girl without properly considering alternative options, and sought her mother’s agreement after the girl had already been told by officers she was to be removed and taken home to collect her belongings. The Council failed to explain the full circumstances when asking the complainant to agree to the accommodation and failed to properly record the extent of her agreement. It did not provide necessary information about the arrangements for the accommodation and failed to respond properly to her comments that she withdrew her consent to the accommodation.

The Council asked the complainant to consent to the girl visiting her father, but failed to conduct a proper risk assessment. The Council did not produce clear contact plans and delayed making a referral for a parenting assessment. It also imposed restrictions on the complainant’s care for her other daughter in an unreasonable manner.

The complainant suffered distress, inconvenience and outrage as a result of the Council’s failures, as well as incurring legal costs and having to take time and trouble to pursue her complaint.

The Ombudsman finds maladministration and recommends that, to remedy the injustice, the Council should:

  • apologise to the complainant
  • pay her £7,741.08 for her legal fees (It should be noted that the Ombudsman does not normally consider it necessary for complainants to have legal representation to bring a complaint and it is unusual for the Ombudsman to recommend that legal costs are reimbursed. However, the legal fees were not incurred in bringing a complaint to the Ombudsman, but rather for the complainant to obtain advice and representation before the Panel that considered the final stage of the Council’s complaints procedure)
  • pay her £5,000 in recognition of her distress, outrage, inconvenience and time and trouble, and
  • instruct an independent family counsellor to make detailed proposals for family counselling/reunification, to include any necessary pre-counselling and advice as to how best to seek the girl’s involvement in the process, all of which the Council should arrange and fund.

Report ref no 09 011 045

Article date: 24 November 2011