Council made ‘serious and unsubstantiated allegations’ against vulnerable mother and support agency

Sandwell council also denied woman, who was claiming asylum, her entitlement to be accompanied to meeting to answer safeguarding allegations

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A council breached statutory guidance by denying a vulnerable mother her right to be accompanied to an important meeting by a representative organisation, and made serious and unsubstantiated allegations about both of them, a report has found.

And while Sandwell council initially said some of the failings in the case, which involved Mrs X and her son Y, were due to an individual social worker, the report from the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman  said it bore corporate responsibility for the practitioner’s actions.

Other council failings, as identified by the ombudsman, included:

  • Taking over 100 days to conclude the investigation of Mrs X’s stage two complaint, well exceeding the 65-day deadline.
  • Failure to properly consider the views of a nurse practitioner who wrote to the council in August 2017 and said Mrs X and Y were isolated and would benefit from social assistance in the school holidays. This was contrary to its Children Act 1989 duty to safeguard and promote the welfare of children in need.

Sandwell council has accepted the ombudsman’s findings and, in a joint statement with Sandwell Children’s Trust, which now runs children’s services in the borough, said it had “worked swiftly” to implement all recommendations made by the watchdog.

Safeguarding concerns

In May 2013, Mrs X approached the council for help as she was unable to support herself and Y, who is now eight years old. At the time, Mrs X did not have the right to remain in the UK, but this has since changed.

The council provided Mrs X with a flat attached to bed and breakfast accommodation to stay in while her application for leave to remain in the UK was resolved.

On 2 August 2017, a representative from a not-for-profit immigration agency supporting Mrs X emailed the council and said he had received an email from her that said she had thoughts of self-harm and was being subjected to domestic abuse by Y’s father. He requested a multi-agency child in need meeting urgently as he had safeguarding concerns about Y.

The same day, a social worker (social worker A) and a social care assistant visited Mrs X, who said she had sent the email following an argument with Y’s father and was “emotionally fine”.

She said she would visit her GP the following day to discuss her mental and emotional health needs. Mrs X said the social worker asked her when she planned on killing herself and that her son would be taken into care if she didn’t see the GP. She subsequently complained to the council about this and various other matters.

Though the social worker denied making the comment, the council’s stage 1 complaints officer upheld this aspect of her complaint and the council then said it had asked the social worker to reflect on how he could have communicated better with Mrs X.

On 15 August 2017, Mrs X’s representatives emailed the council saying Mrs X was feeling severely distressed and a multi-agency response was needed to assess her capacity to care for Y.

Nurse identifies isolation

On 18 August 2017, the council received a medical report from a nurse practitioner at Mrs X’s GP’s surgery.

She recorded that Mrs X and Y were becoming socially isolated in the accommodation and they would benefit from structured holiday activities and play groups which they could both attend.

The nurse also said some parental classes in a safe environment may be beneficial for Mrs X.

There is no evidence the council considered whether it should provide this support to benefit Y. The ombudsman said that by not acting on the nurse’s concerns, the council failed to safeguard and promote Y’s welfare, contrary to section 17 of the Children Act 1989.

No record of ‘disclosures’

On 28 November 2017, social worker A visited Mrs X and said the accommodation manager then reported that Mrs X had been leaving the premises overnight and leaving Y behind. The ombudsman said it could not give any weight to this claim because it was not supported by any contemporaneous record.

When the ombudsman interviewed social worker A, he said Mrs X had made a number of disclosures to him which caused him concern about Mrs X and the conduct of the immigration support agency representing her.

Social worker A told the ombudsman he’d recorded the allegations and Mrs X had signed a working agreement stating she would change her behaviour. The claims aren’t recorded anywhere on council files and, when asked for evidence of Mrs X’s disclosures, the council said social worker A had forgotten to record it.

The council then began investigating the actions of the organisation representing Mrs X because, claimed social worker A, it was sending threatening and abusive emails and unlawful letters to the council. However, the ombudsman found no abusive or threatening language in emails the council provided.

The watchdog said it would have expected the council to have started a safeguarding referral or involve the designated officer, who is responsible for investigating allegations of harm against children by professionals, after Mrs X made the “disclosures”, but it didn’t do so.

At no point did the council raise concerns directly with the support agency, which was a fault, the ombudsman found.

Representative excluded from meeting

On 21 December, 2017, social worker A visited Mrs X’s accommodation to discuss safeguarding concerns about her leaving late at night with Y and leaving him alone in the accommodation during the day. She asked to have her representative present but this was not allowed.

The ombudsman found this breached the Working Together to Safeguard Children statutory guidance. This states that, where a child is judged to be suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, social workers should explain that the family may bring an advocate, friend or supporter to an initial child protection conference.

Social worker A then threatened to call the police if Mrs X’s representative didn’t leave the premises, though he later agreed that the representative could wait elsewhere, with Mrs X being able to call on her if she wished.

The ombudsman found that the council did not provide any valid reasons for refusing to allow Mrs X to be accompanied by her representative and, as a result of this, Mrs X was caused distress having to respond to the council’s allegations without support. It appears Mrs X had not always fully understood her situation and having a representative present would have helped with this, the watchdog said.

Delayed complaints report

Mrs X covertly recorded the December meeting, in which social worker A claimed Mrs X’s representatives were not a support agency, and were taking advantage of their position to take action against the council.

Social worker A told the ombudsman that the agency’s aim was “literally to get money through litigation”. However, the organisation is not for profit and would reap no financial benefits if it took the council to court, the ombudsman found. 

In early January 2018, Mrs X made a complaint at stage two of the statutory complaints process, which involves a formal investigation. However, the investigating officer did not uphold any of her complaints.

The report was delivered to the council on 25 April 2018 but it did not provide its response to Mrs X until 11 June 2018, over 100 days after the stage 2 process started. The regulations on children’s social care complaints state that the stage 2 process should take no longer than 65 days.

In March 2018, Mrs X’s case was transferred to a new social worker, social worker B. She found Mrs X and Y were becoming isolated and had therefore provided Mrs X with details of social activities she could take Y to on weekends and during holiday periods. The ombudsman found that there was no reason similar advice could not have been given in response to the concerns from the nurse practitioner in August 2017.

When the ombudsman interviewed social worker B, she said she had a good working relationship with Mrs X’s representatives and had no issue with them attending meetings.

Unsubstantiated allegations 

The ombudsman found the allegations made by the council about Mrs X and her representatives were unsubstantiated and not supported by any records.

The council told the ombudsman views about the conduct of Mrs X’s representatives were held by “an individual worker”. However, these views were presented to the ombudsman as the council’s formal response to his enquiries, including allegations that the representatives were financially motivated. The watchdog also concluded that the actions of an individual officer were, by extension, those of the council.

He also found that the council’s distrust of the organisation supporting Mrs X had “had a significant negative impact on the service the council is providing to people represented by the organisation”. The ombudsman has also upheld another complaint about the council involving the same organisation.

“This investigation has been characterised throughout by inconsistent evidence presented by Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council,” said ombudsman Michael King. “It has made serious and distressing claims it cannot substantiate, and yet we have seen no evidence to call into question the behaviour of either this mother or her representatives.”

Recommended action

The ombudsman recommended that the council should:

  • Write to Mrs X to apologise for failing to allow her representative to attend meetings.
  • Pay Mrs X £250 to acknowledge the distress caused by its actions and time and trouble she was put to pursuing her complaint.
  • Arrange for a senior officer to meet with Mrs X and her representatives to offer a personal apology for the unsubstantiated claims made against them.
  • Remove any record of unsubstantiated allegations about Mrs X and her representatives and write to Mrs X’s representatives to confirm none of the allegations were shared with other organisations.
  • Arrange to meet with the organisation representing Mrs X to develop a better understanding of each other’s aims and responsibilities.
  • Review its protocol for families with no recourse to public funds.
  • Remind staff of the Social Work England standards of proficiency for social workers and remind staff that families have the right to be accompanied to meetings by appropriate representatives.
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