Special report: The failure of Welsh local authorities to appoint a children’s complaints officer


A finding that only a third of local authorities in Wales have
implemented a key recommendation of the inquiry report into child
abuse in north Wales, has appalled report author Sir Ronald
Waterhouse, writes David Callaghan.

After investigating sexual and physical abuse of more than 250
children in care over a 16-year period, Waterhouse found the two
former social services departments involved in the north Wales
abuse scandal – Clwyd and Gwynedd – had “grossly defective”
complaints procedures.

He said it was essential all councils in Wales appointed a
specialist children’s complaints officer.

The third recommendation of his report read: “Every social
services authority should be required to appoint an appropriately
qualified or experienced children’s complaints officer.”

The Welsh Assembly responded by saying they agreed to this
recommendation in principle.

But three years after Waterhouse published his report ‘Lost in
Care’ only eight of 22 councils have appointed a dedicated officer
to listen to children when they find the courage to pick up a
telephone. The remaining 14 councils have a designated complaints
officer, but the difference is that they deal with complaints from
all services, not just children.

The creation of a children’s commissioner for Wales was also a
recommendation of the Waterhouse report, and ironically it was the
first holder of that post, Peter Clarke, who discovered the failure
to respond to Waterhouse’s call for specialist children’s
complaints officers.

In his new report ‘Telling Concerns’ Clarke said there were
“worrying inadequacies” in Welsh services to protect vulnerable
children, and he urges local authorities to comply with the

So what are the other two thirds of Welsh councils doing instead
of having a complaints officer?

In Caerphilly, south Wales, the council has not appointed a
specialist children’s complaints officer. In the last year 50
complaints about children’s services were received by the
authority, of which 11 came directly from children, with most of
the remainder coming from parents.

Assistant director Derek Millington told communitycare.co.uk the
authority has a customer services manager, who deals
with complaints from all client groups, and a children’s rights
officer who may take a complaint but does not then handle it.

“Having a complaints officer for children is one way of doing
it, but there may be others,” he says.

“We appointed a children’s rights officer and we wondered
whether that person should deal with complaints, but we decided it
would be better if this person provided support to children, making
sure they have advocates,” he says.

New enhanced contracts for independent advocacy have recently
been awarded, he says, enhancing the service offered to looked
after children.

Having said all that, Millington says the authority had not
ruled out the possibility of appointing a children’s complaints
officer, and it will be looked at again in light of Peter Clarke’s

For Jane Isaac, NCH Cymru public policy officer, it is crucial
that councils do respond to Waterhouse: “The Waterhouse
recommendations are very important, and complaints officers are a
vital element in listening to children and we fully support their

“Complaints officers are in a position within local authorities
to prioritise children’s complaints and build up the necessary
expertise in relating to children,” she says.

Greta Thomas, director of the NSPCC in Wales, agrees: “The
importance of actually having a dedicated complaints officer is
that you are able to ensure that children and young people’s
complaints are dealt with in a much more proactive way.”

Isaac and Thomas both stress that complaints officers are
important elements of what must be wider approaches to handling
children’s concerns, with independent advocates also playing a key

Perhaps the last word should go to Waterhouse. “We called our
report ‘Lost in Care’, because children feel isolated if they do
not have access to a complaints procedure that they understand and
are prepared to use, and without that, the sense of isolation will
continue,” he  says.

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