Gateshead council will apologise to a couple after it insisted they bear the costs of taking their disabled foster child to a special school agreed by the council, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has said.
The Ombudsman found the council wrong not to provide free school transport for the boy, who has multiple disabilities and complex needs, when it agreed he should attend a new school 17 miles away.
This meant the foster carers were significantly out of pocket, and drove nearly 70 miles a day to and from the school.
The council believed the independent fostering agency, which it employed the couple through, should have covered the transport costs. This was despite the council naming the school in the boy’s Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plan, for which government guidance says financial responsibility rests with the council.
To avoid the same thing happening to others, the council has agreed to review its policies in this area. It will also ensure the foster carers in this case are reimbursed for the costs they’ve outlaid.
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:
“I welcome Gateshead council’s willingness to learn from this case, and implement our recommendations to review its practice in this area. While it is unfortunate the family had to pursue their case all the way to us, I’m pleased to provide some resolution for them and see these problems finally put right.
“The family had been doubly penalised in this case. Not only did they have to meet the additional costs of transport, but they were worse off than other carers looking after children with similar needs that could attend schools nearer their home. Ultimately they had to pay for considerable transport costs out of the money they received for his other needs.”
The couple had been looking after the boy since 2012. The council has a full care order, meaning it makes all significant decisions for the boy, including where he goes to school. Until July 2016 he had been attending a school closer to the couple’s home, and the council had been providing a taxi. The carers identified a school further away which they thought would better suit his needs.
The council issued a new EHC Plan identifying the school. But it then told the couple it would not pay the transport costs, saying they should come out of the money it paid the couple’s agency.
The Ombudsman’s report found the council should have considered the consequences of moving the boy to the new school, and properly explained the implication to the foster carers before the move was arranged. There was no evidence this happened.
The Ombudsman also found the council did not examine the terms of the contract it had with the fostering agency to ensure the additional transport costs were not passed onto the foster carers.
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public, and adult social care, services.
As well as apologising to the couple and ensuring they are not out of pocket for transporting the boy from 2016, the council has agreed to pay them £500 to recognise the distress and inconvenience caused. It will pay a further £250 to recognise the avoidable time and trouble bringing the complaint to the Ombudsman.
It will now also take responsibility for arranging transport or covering the additional costs incurred by taking the boy to school.
The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve a council’s processes for the wider public. In this case the council will undertake a comprehensive review of its policies regarding free home to school transport for looked after children in which they contract independent fostering providers.
It will also clarify its expectations with the agency on how costs are met for school transport, rather than passed on to the foster carer, and ensure this is clear in its contracts and tendering details.
Article date: 24 October 2018