National Ombudsmen
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Social worker’s flawed assessment separates mother and child for nearly five years

A Northamptonshire mother was separated from her adopted child for almost five years because of faults in a social worker’s assessment, the Local Government Ombudsman has said.

The child had significant needs and for a long time the family shared the boy’s care with foster carers.

The mother had two further children who each had their own medical needs. At a time of crisis, the mother called on Northamptonshire Social Services for help.  When that help was not forthcoming the mother, in her desperation, left her son with social services.

Following the end of her shared care arrangements in 2010 new arrangements were needed.  The social worker was told by Northamptonshire County Council’s Childrens’ Services team to consider various options including another shared care arrangement, but instead he only considered one option which was a full-time foster placement away from the mother, whose parenting he saw in a negative light.

The social worker expected the mother to either accept a foster placement or resume full-time care for the boy. However, he had already admitted that full-time care would not work. He also decided that any contact in the foster placement should be kept to a minimum.

The closest placement the council could arrange was a journey of more than two hours away.  The council resisted the mother’s attempts to move her son closer to the family home, and instead threatened to take care proceedings if she challenged the placement. This left the mother compelled to accept a foster placement that she found difficult to challenge.

It was only when the mother exercised her parental rights not to return her son, after a visit as he neared his 18th birthday, giving up her job in the process, that the family were reunited.

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. 

“This report serves to remind all authorities of the real impact of failing to reach proper decisions and take clear courses of action when faced with a choice of accommodating children or allowing them to remain with their parents.”

To remedy the injustice the LGO has made a number of recommendations including apologising to the mother and making a payment to her, on her son’s behalf, of £500 for its failure to consider his wishes and feelings when making the placement in 2011.

In view of the significant avoidable distress and frustration its failings caused over a prolonged period, and the avoidable uncertainty, it should also make a payment to the mother of £1,500 and an additional £250 for the unnecessary time and trouble of having to approach the Ombudsman as a result of the council’s delay in dealing with her complaint.

The LGO has also recommended the council changes its policies and procedures for dealing with complaints about children’s services.  It should also arrange training for relevant staff in a number of areas and ensure it carries out statutory visits to children in care according to the timescale laid out in regulations under the Children Act 1989.

It should also ensure it complies fully with the timescales set out for dealing with children’s complaints.

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