The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is urging councils to place children at the centre of decision making in cross border child protection cases, after a suicidal teenager was left without appropriate support when she reported serious sexual abuse.
The girl, who lives in Kent, reported she had been sexually abused in Croydon when she was younger. Her mother reported this to the police and was told by the police she would be contacted by a social worker.
In June 2018 Kent received a referral from the police stating a historic allegation of serious sexual abuse had been made. Kent advised the police to refer the case to Croydon for investigation. Kent did not contact the mother or the girl to assess if support was needed.
A second police referral was received by Kent in September 2018 relating to the same incident originally reported. Kent made contact with the family following the second referral and offered some support. The mother felt the support offered was not appropriate and would not address the issues her daughter was experiencing. The social worker did not speak to the girl directly before completing her assessment despite this being a clear requirement of the statutory guidance.
The Ombudsman’s investigation found neither council took responsibility. It found both councils took no further action at the initial referral stage. There was no direct contact between either council for nearly two years. During this time the girl’s mental health deteriorated: she made three suicide attempts and went missing for a period. Neither council worked together to safeguard the girl.
The Ombudsman found Croydon council at fault for failing to follow statutory guidance because it did not convene a strategy discussion following the girl’s initial disclosure. This led to an uncoordinated response, lack of information sharing, failure to identify potential risk and poor victim care.
As the girl lived in Kent, that council had responsibility to properly assess and consider those needs. Kent believes appropriate support was offered. The Ombudsman found the council failed to carry out an assessment of the girl’s needs in a timely way. It also failed to adopt a child centred approach when it eventually did assess the girl.
The Ombudsman also criticised the support provided to the girl’s mother which she said she needed to support her daughter. Kent council failed to properly assess the mother’s needs and added to her distress.
Kent council also incorrectly told the mother it may need to refer her to the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) because of the nature of the case. This would have threatened her employment and added to her distress.
Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King said:
“This is a key example of the very real impact on vulnerable children when councils do not fully understand their responsibilities.
“In this case, both councils were too quick to pass the buck and look for reasons not to take action or ownership, while in the middle there was a distressed teenager desperately in need of significant support.
“We have issued this report to give other councils the opportunity to examine their own child protection strategies, and identify any learning they may benefit from to ensure vulnerable children in their areas are supported properly.”
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman’s role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to help improve public services. In this case Kent County Council has agreed to pay £2,150 to the family.
The Ombudsman has the power to make recommendations to improve processes for the wider public. In this case Kent County Council will remind all staff dealing with children’s services complaints when the statutory complaints process should be used, and who can make a complaint under this process.
Both councils should share the learning points from the case across their organisations to ensure staff are aware of their responsibilities in respect of information sharing, professional curiosity and cross-border child protection referrals.