Councils seeking to carry out ‘child in need’ assessments must get parental consent first, and must also explain to families that such assessments are not mandatory, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (the Ombudsman) has confirmed.

Crucially, the Ombudsman also made it clear that heavy case loads are never an excuse for poor practice in child welfare cases.

The complaint which gave rise to the Ombudsman’s investigation involved a mother (Ms J) who had sought out counselling services, but was later threatened with a safeguarding investigation by the council.

The counsellor the mother was seeing suggested she contact her local authority to see if she could access the counselling through them, so the council could pay for the service.

The mother felt coerced into accepting the suggestion by the counsellor, who subsequently referred the mother to Hackney Borough council on the grounds that she suspected one of the children was at risk of harm from the mother and requested the council engage with the family.

The request was made in a referral letter which was not shared with the mother, so she did not know the content of the letter at the time.

After Hackney Council received the referral letter, it decided to carry out an assessment on the family. The mother asked for a copy of the letter on two occasions, but it was not sent to her.

When the mother finally received the letter, she was concerned by its contents, which she said were incorrect.

At no time was the mother told that the assessment, which had been carried out under Section 17 of the Children Act 1989, was not mandatory.

Under Section 17, councils have a legal responsibility to safeguard and promote a child’s welfare, and to promote wherever possible their upbringing by their families. 

The mother then discovered that the assessment required her consent and was not mandatory, when the council sent her a letter intended for another family facing the same investigation.

To make matters worse, the mother said she was told she should press ahead with the assessment in order to “clear her name” and get closure. Feeling enormous pressure to continue on, she agreed.

The manager claimed he did not say this, but the Ombudsman took the view that he did, concluding that “on the balance of probabilities, however, given her strength of feeling Ms J would not have wanted to continue unless she felt the assessment would exonerate her.”

What follows next is even more appalling.

An officer came to the mother’s house to interview her son, and wrongly assumed the child was 6, instead of 4 which was the child’s actual age. He then asked the mother why her child was still in pull-up pants at night even though this would not have been unusual given his age. The officer also appears to have misunderstood the child, who had divulged information about an assault at school. The mother said her child was visibly shaken after speaking with the officer. Once a second meeting had taken place, the officer said there would not be a safeguarding investigation, and left.

The ombudsman found several failures by the council in this case.

  • The council was wrong to tell the mother the assessment under Section 17 was mandatory – the mother was never required to comply, rather she needed to give consent. If the mother did not want to give consent, the investigation should  not have been carried out.
  • The council was wrong to tell the mother that doing the assessment would “clear her name” – she should have been told that refusing to continue with the assessment would not lead to any further action.
  • The council should have made sure that its details about the child were accurate before sending out an officer – knowing a child’s age is fundamental. The council blamed a high case load for the error, but the Ombudsman did not accept that as an excuse, saying, “Officers should conduct their work to a high standard irrespective of their caseloads.”
  • The officer should have made sure she understood fully what the child had said before leaving the house.
  • The council should have asked the mother to return the copies of the letter she received in error and investigated the data breach (sending the mother a letter intended for another family) when the mother complained about the incident.

The Ombudsman ordered the Council to do several things, including:

  • Changing its procedures so it ensures parents are asked for consent, where appropriate, prior to assessments. 
  • Ensuring that social workers ask for appropriate information about a family prior to scheduling an assessment.
  • Being clear about what the council will provide after information is requested about a referral and periodically quality manage the response.
  •  Considering whether the information the council provides for Stage One complaint responses is sufficient.

The mother was awarded £450 for her trouble, and offered an apology by the council.

The Working Together To Safeguard Children document, which councils must engage when dealing with child welfare cases says the following, which is worth highlighting:

“All practitioners should aim to gain consent to share information, but should be mindful of situations where to do so would place a child at increased risk of harm. Information may be shared without consent if a practitioner has reason to believe that there is good reason to do so, and that the sharing of information will enhance the safeguarding of a child in a timely manner. When decisions are made to share or withhold information, practitioners should record who has been given the information and why… When you gain consent to share information, it must be explicit, and freely given.”

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