A council did not do enough to keep a family safe despite their “multiple appeals” for help to protect their younger children from threats of violence made by their teenage son.
The Local Government Ombudsman said Northumberland council didn’t properly consider the needs of the children, failed to speak to them about what was happening, and did not involve other agencies, such as the police, in assessing the risks to the younger children.
It criticised the council’s failure to start a section 47 investigation despite numerous allegations about the boy’s behaviour, and said the council “continually attempted to minimise” the seriousness of these allegations during the Ombudsman’s investigation.
The family asked for the council’s help “on numerous occasions”, saying the teenage son had held a knife to his mother’s neck and threatened to stab his younger siblings.
The boy eventually had to be removed from the home by police, “causing significant distress to the family”, the Ombudsman said.
The council also refused to accept the family’s complaint until the Ombudsman intervened.
An independent investigator appointed by the council upheld a number of the family’s complaints after the Ombudsman intervened. But this took more than a year even though by law it should only take 65 days.
The Ombudsman said the council should pay the couple £1,000 for their “time and trouble in pursuing the complaint”, as well as for the “uncertainty, distress and anxiety caused by the council’s failure to carry out an investigation into the children’s welfare”.
Michael King, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “Northumberland council has continually attempted to minimise the seriousness of the allegations made against the older son. The council was aware of the family’s turbulent situation, but there appears to have been little thought given to the impact this had on the younger siblings, and the potential harm this could have caused.
“Throughout the complaint, the council has failed to acknowledge the voices of the children. I am disappointed it has yet to agree to my recommendations to put things right and would urge them to review my report and consider what actions it will now take.”
In June 2013 the council received information alleging that the father had assaulted the teenage boy. A social worker spoke to the boy about what had happened, and started an initial assessment on the boy, then aged 15, and his younger siblings, then aged between 1 and 7. The parents said they asked the council to accommodate the boy.
The council referred the family to its community support team, which agreed to support the family for 12 weeks with a view to the boy remaining in the family home.
However, on two occasions in the same month, the father visited the council offices and stated that the boy had hit him. The boy’s school also contacted the council to express concerns about him.
The following month, the father called the council’s emergency out of hours service and asked that the boy be removed from the home due to the risk posed to the younger children. He informed the council that the police had attended the property as the boy had been “making threats which culminated in him threatening to get a knife and stab one of his younger siblings”.
The parents were in regular contact with the council over the following three months, and in October the boy was removed from the home by police following an incident where he allegedly assaulted the mother and the younger children. The boy was then placed in emergency accommodation by the council’s housing service.
Complaint to council
Later that month the parents wrote to the council to complain about what had happened. The council wrote back six months later saying it could not investigate the complaint without the boy’s consent to do so.
The parents then complained to the Ombudsman about the council’s refusal to accept their complaint, and in September 2014 the Ombudsman found the council was at fault for not accepting a complaint. The council agreed to carry out an investigation at stage two of the statutory complaints process, and an independent investigator was appointed in the same month.
The investigator’s report was not issued until 27 April 2016, but found that no one in the family was informed of the outcome of the assessment which started in June 2013.
Although social workers “correctly attempted to maintain [the boy] at home in line with the relevant legislation”, there were “significant gaps in case records” kept by a social worker, and the investigator also found that a section 47 investigation should have been carried out in relation to the younger children witnessing acts of physical violence as well as similar historic allegations on the council’s files.
The Ombudsman did not investigate any parts of the complaint relating to the way the council dealt with the boy as it did not have his consent for the parents to act on his behalf.
However, it said the council and the independent investigator had failed to fully address the fault identified by the investigator in the way children’s services dealt with the family.
Younger children not acknowledged
The Ombudsman said it was “clear from the council’s records” that social workers were concerned about the impact of the boy’s behaviour on the younger children.
However, although an initial assessment was carried out for the boy and the younger children, this was focused on the boy and did not involve other agencies such as his school, health professionals or the police.
“There is also no evidence that the needs of the younger children were acknowledged or addressed and none of the younger children were spoken to by social workers,” the Ombudsman said. “This is fault. Had social workers spoken to the children they would have gained a better insight into what was happening in the family home and been better placed to address the allegations and counter allegations being made as well as the impact on the children.”
The report added: “The seriousness of the allegations being made should have resulted in a section 47 investigation into the welfare of the children. Any investigation would then have considered evidence from the Police and other agencies before reaching any conclusions. This would have also given the Council the opportunity to explore the family’s reasons for giving differing accounts of incidents when Police were called.”
In a statement, Northumberland council said: “This incident originated in 2013. Since that time the local authority has reviewed all its policies and procedures and is confident new arrangements are robust and fit for purpose.
“However, the council takes reports such as these very seriously. We do note the ombudsman’s recommendations and are currently reviewing the report so any further action we need to take can be put in place as soon as possible.”