A complaint decision published by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) has confirmed that the council watchdog will re-investigate poorly handled complaints submitted by parents with regard to child protection allegations.

The decision also reinforces the obligation on councils to ensure that parents are given clear information about their rights and the processes involved in safeguarding investigations.

The case involved a man who had been told to leave the family home by children social workers at Newcastle upon Tyne City council, following an allegation that he had been harming his children.

The social workers did not tell the parent that leaving the family home was voluntary, or that social workers could not force a parent to leave their home without a court order, which the council did not have.

The agreement the father signed, known as a Safety Plan, in which the request to leave was set out, was also not regularly reviewed.

One week later, the allegations were withdrawn and the father returned home. The family was allocated a support worker, but after seven visits the support ended abruptly, and without warning.

The father complained to the council, but the investigation of the complaint took seven months longer to complete than allowed under the current timeframes in the children’s services statutory complaints procedure.

During a stage three complaint hearing, an investigating officer at the council told the father that he may have misunderstood advice given to him about leaving the family home because his first language was not English.

The father, who is of North African origin, speaks fluent English and is also fluent in two other languages.

No reports or recorded comments during the child protection investigation and subsequent complaint suggested there was a language barrier or any concerns with regard to communication or understanding.

The ombudsman noted that the panel investigating the father’s complaint was comprised only of white members, and that the child protection investigation had been conducted by a white investigating officer.

Finding the council at fault, Michael King, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and Chair of the Ombudsman Commission said:

“Councils have a duty to safeguard children when allegations are made that they are at risk of harm, but they cannot insist on a parent leaving the family home without first gaining their voluntary consent.

“In this case, the events that unfolded left the man feeling distressed and insulted. He says his relationship with his family has been irreparably damaged, so I welcome the council already recognising it had work to do to improve its services before the complaint came to me, and had already gone some way to remedying the situation for the man.

“I hope the further recommendations I have made will ensure this situation cannot happen again to other families in the city.”

The Ombudsman ordered the council to pay the father £1,150 ‘in recognition of the time, trouble, uncertainty and distress his family have been caused’; amend its Safety Plan to make sure that parents who sign the plan understand the agreement is voluntary and explain any consequences of not following the agreement; remind staff to provide parents with all the information needed to make informed decisions; produce a strategy to complete its statutory children’s complaints processes within the timeframes; and to train staff to combat bias and understand the importance of inclusive and diverse services.

Of equal significance is the Ombudsman’s confirmation in its report that where a council fails to investigate a children’s complaint properly, the Ombudsman will re-investigate that complaint.

In its analysis of the complaint, the LGSCO says:

“If a council has investigated something under the statutory procedure for complaints about children’s services, we would not normally re-investigate it unless we consider that investigation was flawed.

There is fault in the way the Council considered Mr X’s complaint about the safeguarding process. The IO [Investigating Officer] relied on the Council’s account of what happened and did not consider whether the written evidence supported the Officers’ version of events. Officers were interviewed over a year after events happened and, as set out below, records made at the time do not show the C ouncil properly explained Mr X’s options to him.”

This is an avenue that can be considered for parents and families who have experienced improper handling of their complaints but it may be sensible to contact the Ombudsman before deciding to take a complaints case through the family courts, as the Ombudsman is reluctant to investigate children’s complaints once they’ve been through the legal system.