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LGO report highlights wider impact of financial abuse of vulnerable people

Elderly lady being helped with zimmer frame

In a recent case involving an elderly man, Essex County Council social workers delayed acting on a family’s concerns when they claimed their relative was being exploited by a younger female friend.

This meant significant sums were withdrawn from the man’s bank account unchecked, and the family had to go through seven months of court proceedings to gain access to his house and personal affairs after he died.

The man was in his 80s and lived alone.  In March 2012 he fell ill and was admitted to hospital before being transferred to a care home.

Family members had growing suspicions of the man’s friend. They said they alerted Essex County Council about concerns before the man went into hospital.

In July the council allocated a social worker who carried out a review of the man’s needs. This was attended by his relatives and the friend.  During the meeting, a relative said the friend did not get on with the family as well as she claimed.  The relative also challenged the friend’s claim she had known the man as long as she said. Afterwards, the social worker noted she should carry out assessments of the man’s mental capacity and finances.

The financial assessment was carried out in November. The friend now claimed to have lived in the house for eight years as the man’s live-in carer and wanted the finance team to disregard the value of his property. This ignored the fact that he had lived in the care home since March and contradicted what she previously told the social worker about staying in his house for just one or two nights a week. She also claimed her own property had burnt down and would stay in the man’s property until hers was rebuilt.

By this time the council should have had serious concerns about the man’s vulnerability and possible financial abuse. This was because of the family’s concerns, he was confused part of the time, his care home bills had not been paid, the information from the friend was contradictory, and she was living in his house with no date for leaving.

The social worker carried out a mental capacity assessment in December.  The review confirmed the man did not have the capacity to reach decisions about his finances or living arrangements and needed to remain in the care home. She failed to take action to protect the man.

At the end of January, another relative reported the friend had been living in the house with another man. She also suggested the friend was planning to sell the house.  When the social worker attempted to contact her, the friend was reluctant to meet and regularly cancelled calls.

The man died in February 2013. It then took the family seven months to gain access to his home.  When they did, they found it ransacked and documents missing. Copies of bank statements have since shown the withdrawal of regular sums over a seven month period amounting to more than £10,000.

Following a complaint by the man’s nephew, Essex council accepted its record keeping was poor and the social worker’s performance was below that which it would expect. It also accepted it had responsibility to safeguard the man from abuse.  It offered to pay the nephew £250 and reimburse the financial contributions the man had paid for care home charges made between April and August 2012 and to reimburse the sums taken out of his bank account from December 2102.

The nephew was not happy with the council’s response and complained to the LGO.

The Ombudsman found the council delayed allocating the man a social worker for four months. It also delayed taking action on the social worker’s request for a financial assessment for three months. The investigation found the council at fault for failing to take action to safeguard the man and for failing to have regular supervisory sessions with the social worker.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

“When people have significant concerns that vulnerable relatives are being subject to abuse, it is of paramount importance social workers take the proper steps to investigate those allegations and prevent harm coming to people in their care. Financial abuse may, at times, be more easily overlooked than other forms of harm but impact on victims – including relatives of those targeted – can be considerable.

“In this case, and despite a number of warnings, social workers were slow to react and the man was put at risk of exploitation.

“I am pleased that Essex council has already made changes to ensure these failures are not repeated and would call on it to consider my further recommendations.”

To remedy the injustice, in addition to the council’s previous offer, the Ombudsman has asked Essex council to pay the man’s estate £4,285.03. This equals the unexplained regular withdrawals from his bank account between November 2012 and February 2013.

It should also provide the nephew with a written apology for the faults identified and pay him £150 for the distress caused and the considerable time and trouble to which he was put to in pursuing the complaint.

Article date: 11 February 2016