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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.

You should normally complain to us within 12 months of getting the council’s final decision.

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, visit our contact us page or complete an online complaint form. 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

Mr D, a young person with autism, complained that the council failed to look after him properly. We found that the council put him in placements that could not meet his needs, he was moved from one placement to another too often, and was too far away from his family. The council failed to monitor his care properly and took too long to take action when he complained about things. At some placements he suffered abuse. For long periods he had little or no education. We recommended that the council make a pay totalling £12,000 to recognise the inadequate care and loss of education, and take various actions including – reviewing his files; arranging for a fresh assessment by an independent medical expert; deferring any further decisions until the outcome of that assessment; reviewing its procedures and its provision for autistic children. The financial remedy was to be held in trust.
Mrs Y, whose grandson is in local authority care, complained that the council was not involving her sufficiently in the planning and review meetings relating to her grandson’s foster care and education. We found that the council invited her to biannual looked-after-child review meetings, invited her to school events, provided school reports, and organised regular contact sessions between her and her grandson. There was no evidence of fault in how the council dealt with Ms Y, so we were unable to question the merits of the service she received, even though she found it lacking. We decided there were no grounds to continue the investigation.
Mr X was father of three children who were subject to full care orders and living with foster carers.  The court agreed with the council’s care plan that Mr X would see his children for one and a half hours a month during term time and two hours during school holidays. After a year, the council changed the arrangements for Mr X to see his children.  Mr X was not at the LAC review meeting when the arrangements were altered although he should have been invited. The decision meant he would no longer see his children during term time.  Mr X complained to the council and the council agreed that he should have been invited to the meeting and also that it should have provided Mr X with updates about his children’s progress and copies of school and medical reports about them.  When the council still failed to do these things Mr X complained to us.
As a result of our investigation, the Council agreed it would apologise to Mr X, provide him with a yearly plan of contact arrangements and provide him with an update on his children’s progress.  It also agreed to invite Mr X to all future reviews and pay him £500 to recognise the avoidable distress he was caused.

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 three Focus 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.

May 2021