Local Government Ombudsman urges local authorities to scrutinise services for children in care

Local Government Ombudsman urges local authorities to scrutinise services for children in care

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has urged local authorities to scrutinise the services they are providing for children in care.

Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman Michael King has published a report highlighting the cases of children who have been let down by local authorities and the difficulties they have endured as a result.

Michael King said: “Each case highlighted in this report is a case too many, and reflects the real life experiences of some of the most vulnerable in our society.

“While these cases reflect a time before the Covid-19 pandemic, we know the system is under even more pressure today. Although the councils’ actions in these cases were disappointing, we want to drive home the importance of learning from mistakes. In doing so this can help avoid repetitions and improve the lives and opportunities for all children in care.

“I am issuing this report so councils providing children’s services can use the learning and reflect on their procedures and processes. At every turn, I invite them to ask themselves, ‘would this be good enough for my child?'” he added.

Cases outlined in the report include:

- Billy, 17, who was thrown out of accommodation he had been sharing with his father and had no accommodation, was known to children’s services as vulnerable, with identified difficulties with drug use, mental health problems and criminal behaviour. Billy was offered somewhere to live, but it was a long distance from where he ordinarily lived and so he refused. The council gave Billy a tent and later placed him in a static caravan. After around two months the council placed Billy in supported accommodation. However, Billy’s mental and physical health had seriously deteriorated during his ordeal and he was detained under the Mental Health Act 1983 where he remained for nearly a year.

- Tim and Nikki fostered two particularly vulnerable children when their birth parents were no longer able to look after them. Professionals reported the children made good progress and after two years, Tom and Nikki told the council they wished to adopt the children and would need continued support to help with the children’s complex needs. The council agreed to assess the couple as prospective adopters, but delayed in carrying out these actions. The council started to have concerns about Tom and Nikki’s ability to care for the children, given the substantial amount of support they were requesting and questioned whether the children were making an expected level of progress. The council decided the children should be removed from Tom and Nikki’s care and not to give them any notice. Social workers collected the children from school and told them Tom and Nikki had gone on holiday.

- Albert was 11 and living with foster parents, when he was told his birth mother had died. Four years later, during a statutory review meeting, Albert learned his mother had been on life support, but it had been decided to switch this off. Albert complained to the council about not being told this at the time, potentially denying him the opportunity to visit her before she died. He also complained the information was shared with him in an insensitive way.

Children in care are more likely to have a special educational need or mental health problems than their friends who live with parents. Looked after children are more than three times as likely to be out of education, training or employment once they leave care.

Yet there are increasing numbers of children being brought into the system with 28% more children were in care in 2019 than 2009.

The report shares case studies, learning and best practice guidance for local authorities at every stage of a child’s journey through the system. It also suggests a range of questions council scrutiny committees can ask to ensure their authorities are providing the best services they can to the children in their care.

Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive of Family Rights Group, said: “The themes in this report reflect poor practice that is commonly reported by families to our advice service. Whilst some local authorities are striving to get it right for every child and are keen to learn and improve, there is huge variation in practice across the country. This can too often result in children and families not getting key advice or support to prevent problems escalating into a crisis. At times authorities are failing to comply with the law or their own internal procedures, including refusing some young people the help to which they are entitled.”

“This report highlights how poor decisions can be so damaging at a critical moment in the lives of children in care or at risk of care. It is particularly concerning given that more children are now in the care system than at any times since 1985, and the pandemic is increasing the pressure and strains on families and on children’s services.”

“Putting the voices and experiences of children and families at the centre is key to getting this right. We particularly welcome the Ombudsman’s checklist for local authorities which is designed to help each authority give every child the best life chances,” she added.

Association of Directors of Childrens Services President Jenny Coles said: “The role of the corporate parent is one of the most important roles a council has. We continuously try to do everything we can to support all children in care but we are faced with multiple challenges that can hamper our efforts. Recent ADCS research shows that the number of children in care in England has increased by 34% over the past decade, whilst during the same period local authority budgets have been halved, and there is an estimated £3.1 billion funding gap in children’s services by 2025. As the report highlights, placement sufficiency continues to be a key issue for a vast majority of councils and ADCS has called for a national strategy to recruit more foster carers, to increase capacity in children’s residential homes or to address geographic mismatch of placements.”

“It is important that local authorities learn from their successes and also where things have gone wrong. The case studies in the report provide an opportunity for the sector to learn and subsequently improve practice. We still await the government’s much anticipated care review which provides an opportunity to be bold and ambitious for all children in our care, to learn from what works well and what does not and crucially involve care experienced young people. Children in our care deserve nothing less,” she concluded.

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