A council failed to adequately assess the needs of a family whose eldest son has severe autism, leaving them without support for almost two years, the local government ombudsman has concluded.
In a report published this week, the ombudsman’s investigation found that Surrey council ignored repeated requests for assistance made by the boy’s parents and health professionals. When the council did eventually intervene, the watchdog said, it was “too little, too late”, leading to the boy being taken into care, which was again inadequate for his needs.
The parents initially asked for help in October 2009 because of the impact of the boy’s violent behaviour on their other children. The mother described herself as “at breaking point”, the ombudsman report noted. Having been told by the council that the boy, then six, was ineligible for services, the parents renewed their requests less than three weeks later after his behaviour deteriorated.
Despite being supported in their application by the boy’s consultant paediatrician, who described the boy’s “sudden, uncontrolled aggression towards his mother and female carers, the local authority reiterated that he did not meet its criteria for support.
The ombudsman uncovered “other records” demonstrating the family’s needs. “The June 2010 review of [the boy’s] Statement of Special Educational Needs noted that he had stopped using the toilet altogether; he would bite, kick and scratch; and he attempted to run away from school when he was angry,” its report noted. The corresponding review a year later described the family’s “desperate need for respite”, leading the boy’s headteacher to write to the council.
In July 2011 Surrey council carried out an initial assessment and agreed to provide direct payments to enable the parents to buy support – though this was delayed until after the school holidays, meaning a local charity had to step in.
Following a further request for help by the parents, relating to the boy’s refusal to use the toilet, the authority declined telling them that “the NHS was responsible for the supply of nappies”. However, it subsequently arranged for domiciliary support during weekday mornings.
On 16 January 2012, the parents asked the council to take the boy into care because they “could no longer cope”, requesting that he was not brought home from school that day. “[The parents] described the trauma they experienced putting [the boy] into care in such an unplanned way,” the ombudsman’s report noted.
“The fact they felt this was their only option, and [the boy] remained in care, further calls into question the Council’s assessment of the family’s needs and the support it provided.”
The boy remained in a specialist children’s home for young people with autism for nearly 18 months from January 2012. During the first six months of that time, his parents said that they were notified of more than 60 incidents “including injuries, escapes, prolonged ‘rages’, and members of the public contacting the Police with concerns about the boy’s care”, leading them to conclude that the home could not meet their son’s needs.
The ombudsman report said that an internal investigation, instigated after the parents complained to the council in March 2013, “concluded there was little evidence to show the council reviewed and monitored risk in response to the incidents reported by the home”. The report added that “the incidents, and the lack of response, call into question the suitability of the home” for the boy.
The parents maintained that they had, from before the time boy was initially taken into care, requested a year-round residential school placement for their son. In June 2012, this preference was backed by a social worker who calculated that their preferred placement would cost less than 1% more than the boy’s children’s home accommodation, his special school place and school transport.
“However, it was not until [the parents] threatened to take legal action against the council in March 2013 that it made the necessary arrangements and quickly agreed to fund a 52-week residential school placement,” the ombudsman investigation found. The report added that both the parents and the council’s own observations were that the boy’s behaviour had improved since starting the placement. “The delay in providing this level of support is an injustice” to the boy, it said.
In a series of conclusions, the ombudsman also noted the impact of the ongoing situation on the boy’s siblings and the distress to the parents. This was compounded by the circumstances around their son going into care, and the time, trouble and money they had spent pursuing their complaint.
As well as apologising to the family, the ombudsman recommended that Surrey council refund the parents’ legal costs and pay a total of £13,000 in the light of the “significant distress” they had suffered.
A Surrey council spokesperson said that the authority accepted the criticisms in this report and apologised to the family for the impact its failures must have caused.
“Our involvement with this child started in 2009 and since then a lot of work has been completed to improve our services and to ensure that placement decisions are based on the needs of the child,” the spokesperson said. “We’re confident that this young boy now has the right care in place and are pleased that he is doing well.”
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