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Councils must give parents clear information during safeguarding investigations

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is reminding councils of their duties to parents when asking them to leave the family home during safeguarding investigations, following an investigation into a complaint about Newcastle City Council.

A man complained to the Ombudsman that, following an allegation he had been harming his children, social workers told him to leave the family home, but did not make it clear to him this was voluntary.

The council did not review the agreement while the accusations were investigated and instead left the man with the distress and uncertainty of not knowing for how long he would be away from his family.

The allegations about the man’s behaviour were withdrawn and the man returned home. The council referred the family to a family support worker but after just seven visits, that support was stopped without warning.

When the man complained, it took the council around seven months longer to complete its investigation than the timeframes in the children’s services statutory complaints procedure. During the Stage Three hearing, the investigating officer offended the man by suggesting he may have misunderstood advice given to him, when he was asked to leave the family home, because his first language is not English.

The man was particularly upset because it was not true, it had not been raised previously, and the panel investigating his complaint was comprised only of white members, following an investigation conducted by a white investigating officer. The officer’s comment led to the man losing trust in the objectivity of the council’s complaints process, and believing that his ethnicity was a contributing factor in the investigating officer agreeing with the council.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

“Councils have a duty to safeguard children when allegations are made that they are at risk of harm, but they cannot insist on a parent leaving the family home without first gaining their voluntary consent.

“In this case, the events that unfolded left the man feeling distressed and insulted. He says his relationship with his family has been irreparably damaged, so I welcome the council already recognising it had work to do to improve its services before the complaint came to me, and had already gone some way to remedying the situation for the man.

“I hope the further recommendations I have made will ensure this situation cannot happen again to other families in the city.”

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. In this case the council has agreed to apologise to the man and pay him a £1,150 in recognition of the time, trouble, uncertainty and distress his family have been caused.

The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case the council has agreed to amend its Safety Plan template to ensure signatories understand the agreement is voluntary and to explain any consequences of not following the agreement.

It has also agreed to remind relevant staff of the importance of providing parents with all the information they need to make informed decisions and keeping a record of any agreements. 

It will also produce a strategy to ensure it meets the timescales for statutory children’s complaints and provide guidance and training to relevant staff on unconscious bias and the importance of inclusive and diverse public services.

Article date: 11 February 2021