“Serious procedural failings” led a council to wrongly assess that a man presented a risk to his son, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.
The watchdog found it unfairly excluded the man (“Mr F”) from the child protection process and unjustifiably decided that he misused alcohol, which led it to believe he was a risk to his son.
Gloucestershire council has apologised to Mr F and paid him £1,100 in compensation for injustice and the “serious harm and distress” its decision making caused him.
The authority has also agreed to amend its formal records in relation to the case and carry out an in-depth review into what went wrong, reporting by next month.
Alcohol misuse concerns
The council decided to carry out a child and family assessment of the family in October 2020, after Mr F’s son sustained an injury – which records showed was not caused by his father – and was also displaying challenging behaviours.
During the assessment, some of Mr F’s relatives raised concerns that he was a regular drinker and this resulted in arguments in the family home. The council did not contact Mr F for his views and input on this issue.
In mid-December that year, Gloucestershire held a strategy meeting and decided to initiate a section 47 child protection enquiry, for which it took into account a 2006 conviction Mr F incurred for driving under the influence of alcohol.
The council’s social worker also noted that Mr F’s son had reported seeing his father drinking while in the family home. The council decided Mr F was “drinking too much alcohol” and this could present a risk to his son’s emotional stability and wellbeing.
Father not involved in section 47
On the back of the enquiry, the council decided to convene an initial child protection conference (ICPC) – implying that concerns of significant harm had been substantiated – with the section 47 outcome document referencing Mr F’s 2006 conviction as evidence of alcohol misuse and domestic abuse.
However, Gloucestershire did not contact Mr F for his views or input during the section 47 enquiry. The council’s social worker only met Mr F in early January 2021, after it had decided to convene the ICPC.
During this meeting, the social worker expressed concern relating to Mr F’s drinking, which he denied, saying he was not currently drinking because of the Covid-19 restrictions in place at the time.
In preparation for the ICPC, the social worker prepared a conference report, which the ombudsman said was “unequivocal” that Mr F misused alcohol, his son witnessed it and he domestically abused his then partner.
It also said Mr F had admitted drinking too much alcohol, which Mr F denied to the ombudsman, saying drinking was something he only did socially.
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Delay in sharing report
The conference report was not shared with Mr F until March 2021, however, the council’s social worker said that they read this, as well as the child and family assessment report, to him over the telephone four days before the ICPC.
In preparation for the ICPC, another social worker assessed the family. The resulting “families first” report also referred to alcohol misuse by Mr F, and said it was difficult to comment on Mr F’s views due to limited contact with him and that, when present, he had not expressed any views about the situation.
In mid-January 2021, the ICPC determined that the threshold for significant harm to Mr F’s son had not been met and that the case could continue to be managed under a child in need plan with supportive strategies being implemented for the family.
Mr F said in that meeting that he had not had a lot of involvement in the child protection process. He told the ombudsman that he did not receive the minutes of the ICPC until May 2021.
‘No reasonable excuse’ not to involve father
As specified by Working Together to Safeguard Children, the ombudsman said that parents and carers should be interviewed by social workers as part of a section 47 process.
However, though it had ample time and opportunity to include Mr F in the process within the 15-day timescale set by Working Together, the watchdog found that it excluded him.
“There was no reasonable excuse for this and so I find the council was at fault and that this had the effect of undermining the accuracy and rationality of the conference report and s47 enquiries more generally,” found the ombudsman.
While the social worker carrying out the families first assessment said it was difficult to comment on Mr F’s views because he did not express them, the watchdog agreed with the man that he felt unable to because he was “so estranged from the process”.
Acting contrary to Working Together
“I consider my assessment so far supports Mr F’s view that he was unable to provide sufficient input due to the exclusionary process undertaken by the council’s social worker,” said the ombudsman.
The report also found that the council acted contrary to Working Together in not making sure that Mr F understood the purpose of the ICPC, leaving him unprepared for the meeting.
While the social worker said that they had read him the report over the telephone a few days before, the ombudsman concluded that they did not read the full report because of its length (about 8,500 words). In addition, it was not good practice to run through the report over the telephone in any case, the ombudsman found.
‘Unjustifiable weight given to family view’
The report also said that it was “wholly unsatisfactory” that social workers formed a judgment that Mr F misused alcohol without discussing it with him.
This was based on the perception of family members – primarily that of his ex-partner – that he was a regular drinker and he argued with his ex-partner when he returned from the pub.
The ombudsman found the council “unfairly attached greater weight” to family perception without justifiable reason, when Mr F had firmly denied he misused alcohol. The ombudsman also said he “[failed] to see the merits and coherency in the council’s perception that regular drinking and arguments between partners amounts to a fully evidenced judgment of alcohol misuse”.
‘Manifestly unfair and improper’
In addition, the report found “no analysis or evidence by the council” that Mr F’s 14-year-old conviction for driving under the influence was a relevant factor in the child protection process.
“I therefore consider it was manifestly unfair and improper for the council to have regard to this conviction in its assessment of presenting Mr F as someone who misuses alcohol in present day,” it added.
The ombudsman also found there to be a “fundamentally inaccurate” reference to police information supporting a concern of domestic abuse by Mr F towards his ex-partner, in the child and family assessment report, as there was no such information on police records.
‘Serious harm and distress’
“I believe Mr F has suffered serious harm and distress by reason of the faults identified,” the report concluded. “He has suffered an injustice.”
The ombudsman said he could not direct the council to restart the child protection process with Mr F’s involvement, as it had already been completed. But the report said Mr F had the right to have the council’s failings acknowledged by having the authority’s records amended, which Gloucestershire has agreed to do.
It has also agreed to the watchdog’s recommendations to:
- Send Mr F a detailed written apology at a senior level which acknowledges each area of fault and injustice identified by the ombudsman.
- Pay Mr F £1,000 for the “serious distress and emotional difficulty” its failings have caused him, plus an extra £100 for his time and trouble pursuing the complaint.
- Carry out a detailed review into the failings, focusing on the reasons why Mr F was excluded from the child protection process and why a view of alcohol misuse was supported despite little engagement with him.
- Provide additional training to the lead social worker involved in the case related to each identified failing.
- Review its information sharing procedures to ensure all parties involved in the child protection process are given timely information to prepare and provide input at key milestones.
Council accepts findings
A spokesperson for Gloucestershire council said: “The council fully accepts the findings of the ombudsman in this matter and regret that our service fell below the standards we would normally provide.
“We have formally apologised to Mr F and put in place a number of remedies to improve our practice as agreed with the ombudsman, to prevent this happening again.”