Errors in a social worker’s assessment left a mother separated from her son for almost five years, the Local Government Ombudsman has found.
The Northamptonshire council social worker had been told to consider various placement options for the boy, who had a disability and significant care needs and had been adopted by the woman, after a shared care arrangement between his adopted family and foster carers ended.
However, the social worker instead only considered a full-time foster placement away from the mother, whose parenting he saw in a negative light, and did not consider alternatives. He also decided that any contact in the placement should be kept to a minimum.
This led the boy to being placed in a town that took his family at least two hours to visit, and considerably more when traffic was bad. His mother told the council the distance of the placement denied the family proper involvement in their son’s life.
The placement was made as a section 20 voluntary arrangement but the LGO investigation found consent for it had been obtained unfairly, as the council had threatened to bring care proceedings if she made any attempt to disrupt the placement.
There was also no evidence that the social worker took the placement decision to a permanency panel, despite this being required, the LGO added. The core assessment also failed to show any attempt to find out the boy’s wishes and feelings.
The council also made several errors in planning for the boy’s needs after the placement decision had been taken, with a permanency planning meeting only taking place more than 18 months after a social worker was asked to arrange one.
The placement lasted for nearly five years. It was only ended when the mother exercised her parental rights not to return her son, after a visit as he neared his 18th birthday.
Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said: “Social workers should take every step to ensure they consider all options when making crucial decisions about vulnerable children’s futures.
“In this case, the foster placement was a voluntary agreement with the mother, yet the council acted as if it had taken child protection action against her; this amounted to ‘compulsion in disguise’, and led to serious implications for the family unit.”
The LGO recommended the council should pay the mother £2,250 to remedy the injustice caused and said staff should be trained to ensure that section 20 arrangements are not misused in the future.
A spokesperson for the council said: “We have accepted the findings of the ombudsman’s report and we apologise for any distress caused to the family.
“The voice of the child is crucial in our work with vulnerable children and young people and since the time of this complaint we have taken steps to remind all social care staff of the importance of ensuring that core assessments always take into account the wishes and feelings of the child.”