Councils' care of 'looked after' children

This fact sheet is aimed primarily at parents and young people who have concerns about the way a child or young person is being cared for by the local authority and may be considering making a complaint to the Ombudsman.

The council is not looking after a child in its care properly. Can the Ombudsman help?

In many cases, yes. A child may be ‘looked after’ by a council either as a result of a care order made by the court or on a voluntary basis. Either way, the council has certain duties and we can consider a complaint that a council has failed to carry out those duties.

For example, the council has to carry out a detailed assessment of the child’s needs and prepare a care plan, setting out the proposed arrangements, as well as regular reviews of the arrangements for a child (a ‘Looked After Child Review’ or ‘LAC Review’). We can look at how these things are done.

There are some things we can’t deal with. We can’t look at anything that has been dealt with in court. So if the council has taken care proceedings we can’t look at any evidence or reports given to the court by a council or review a court’s decision.

If you want to change a decision a court has made you will need to seek legal advice. But we may be able to look at any steps the council took before starting court proceedings and at services provided after the court case has finished.

How do I complain?

You should normally complain to the council first. We will not normally consider a children’s services complaint until the council has dealt with it under the children’s services complaints procedures.

When you make a complaint to children’s services you should be told about what will happen to your complaint and how long this will take.

There are three stages, and normally the time to complain to us is if you’re not happy with the outcome at the end of the third stage, where an independent review panel considers your complaint.

Usually, you should complain to us within 12 months of when you first knew about the problem. If you leave it any later, we may not be able to help.

Social care complaints can take longer than others to complete. But as long as there is evidence that the complaint is being actively investigated, we would normally want you to allow the council's procedure to be completed before we would accept the complaint.

For more information on how to complain, please read our step by step process. If your complaint involves a child it would be helpful if you could provide their full name and date of birth.

If you are a child or young person making a complaint to us we’ll give you extra help. We’ll help you make your complaint to the council if you haven’t done that already, and keep in touch with you regularly while it goes through the complaints procedure. Once we’re in a position to consider your complaint ourselves we’ll give it priority, and we’ll use the means of contact with you that you prefer – including email or text, if you like. If you want us to, we’ll also help you find an advocate to support you with your complaint.

If you can consider my complaint what will the Ombudsman look for?

If a council has investigated something under the children’s services complaints procedure, we would not normally re-investigate it unless we consider that investigation was flawed.  But even where we consider the investigation was thorough and conducted properly we may look at whether a council properly considered the findings and recommendations of the independent investigation.

If we decide that an investigation was flawed and we decide to investigate we will, for example, look at:

  • delay in carrying out an assessment, preparing a care plan or carrying out a LAC Review
  • failure to follow Government guidance; in particular guidance on how assessments and LAC Reviews should be done
  • failure to keep proper records of information
  • failure to communicate with those involved or to co-operate with other agencies, such as health or education, and to ensure that health and educational needs are addressed
  • preparing assessments or care plans that are inadequate, are based on inaccurate information or that fail to take account of relevant information, and
  • failure to monitor the arrangements for a looked after child, to make sure their needs are being met, or to respond properly when concerns are raised by the child or someone else.

We do not review the merits of decisions or professional judgements about someone’s needs or the services given to them unless we find fault in the way those decisions were taken.  If we do consider there was fault we may ask the council to consider them again. 

What happens if the Ombudsman finds that the council was at fault?

We cannot usually overturn a decision. But if we find that something has gone wrong in the way the council has assessed the child’s needs or prepared a care plan, we may ask the council to carry out a review.

If the council has failed to provide the right services we may recommend that it take the necessary action to make sure the child’s needs are met.

We may ask the council to make a payment. Whether we do this and the amount we suggest will depend on how you and/or the child have been affected by what has gone wrong.

We may also recommend that the council review its procedures so that the same problems don’t happen to others.

Examples of some complaints we have considered

Three siblings, X, Y and Z complained about the way the council looked after them and had moved their foster placements without warning or consideration of their education. They also complained the council delayed investigating their complaint and did not investigate it properly. We found the council had delayed in arranging school placements for the siblings, did not respond to X’s repeated request for a tutor and did not consider the impact of the move on the sibling’s education including that X was not able to complete two of the GCSEs they had been studying. It also delayed completing its investigation into their complaint.  
We recommended the council should make symbolic payments totalling £4,550 into the siblings’ saving accounts to recognise the frustration and distress that was caused to them, and for the impact of the half term they were all out of education. The council also agreed to make service improvements to ensure children moving foster placements were not out of education longer than necessary.

Mr X complained about the care he received from the council when he was a 12 year old unaccompanied migrant child. Mr X said the council failed to complete a proper assessment of his age in good time which meant that its needs assessment, care planning and placement review decisions were flawed. Mr X said the council had failed to help him with his asylum claim and had failed to provide suitable foster placements for him. The council considered some of Mr X’s complaint through the children’s statutory complaint procedure and found it had not provided appropriate assessment and care for Mr X. We investigated and found the council had wrongly refused to consider all of Mr X’s complaint, had only completed an age assessment when Mr X had a solicitor and after he had been in the council’s care for two years, and had failed to properly assess his needs.
As a result of Mr X’s complaint the council set up a specialist team to care for unaccompanied asylum seeking children. As a result of our investigation the council agreed to pay Mr X a symbolic amount of £15,000 to recognise the impact of the council’s fault of his care, education, mental health, asylum status and the distress it caused him.

Ms B cared for her grandson, who had Downs Syndrome and other medical conditions under a special guardianship order. Ms B told the council she could no longer care for her grandson and he became looked after by the council with Ms B’s agreement. Ms B complained about how the council handled various matters in relation to her grandson. We investigated and found the council failed to follow the right process when investigating the concerns about one of the foster placements Ms B’s grandson stayed in, and did not investigate the concerns about the second placement. The council also made decisions about contact without involving Ms B when she retained parental responsibility for her grandson and gave her misleading information about the options the council was considering for her grandson.
Following our investigation the council apologised for the distress and time and trouble Ms B was caused, and paid her a symbolic amount of £750 to recognise the distress. The council also carried out training for social workers about their responsibilities for care planning, communication and considering concerns relating to children the council looked after with parental consent.

Other sources of information

The Department for Education has issued the following guidance:The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has published two focus reports relevant to this subject:

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has published various reports relevant to this subject:

Our fact sheets give some general information about the most common type of complaints we receive but they cannot cover every situation. If you are not sure whether we can look into your complaint, please contact us.

We provide a free, independent and impartial service. We consider complaints about the administrative actions of councils and some other authorities. We cannot question what a council has done simply because someone does not agree with it. If we find something has gone wrong, such as poor service, service failure, delay or bad advice and that a person has suffered as a result we aim to get it put right by recommending a suitable remedy.

April 2024

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