Council wrongly made man feel he had to leave home by not making clear safety plan was voluntary

A council wrongly made a man feel he had to leave his family home by not making clear that a safety plan was voluntary, causing him distress and uncertainty, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.

The watchdog is using the case to remind councils that they cannot require parents to leave their home without consent or a court order.

The ombudsman found that, after receiving concerns about how the man, Mr X was treating his children in April 2017, Newcastle council made a safety plan, signed by him and his wife, saying he would leave the home for the weekend pending “further direction” from social workers.

Then, following a strategy meeting after the weekend, which decided he should remain out of the home pending interviews with the children, it did not make a further agreement with him.

‘Uncertainty and distress’

The ombudsman found no evidence at any point that the council made clear that the agreement was voluntary, adding: “In the absence of such evidence, we find it likely Mr X did think he had to leave. This is fault. As a result, Mr X faced the uncertainty and distress of not knowing if or when he would return home.”

The allegations were withdrawn shortly after, the man returned home in May 2017 and the council put in place a family support service. However, the ombudsman found that it ended the service abruptly, and without warning. His report said this made Mr X feel let down by services and deepened his lack of trust in the council.

After the man made a formal complaint to children’s services about its handling of the case, the watchdog said that it failed to meet prescribed timescales and that the investigating officer (IO) made an “offensive and unfounded” comment about the man during a review of the complaint.

This concerned the fact that the man left his job as a personal assistant to an adult social care user after, Mr X said, the council had told him to do so, in the light of the allegations. Newcastle, on the other hand, said it asked him to inform his employer about the issue and that the council was due to make an adult safeguarding referral (though this did not happen in the end).

Man felt ‘understandably insulted’

The IO told the complaints review panel that Mr X, who is of North African origin but has lived in England for almost 40 years, may not have understood advice given to him because his “first language is not English”. The ombudsman said this was “inappropriate and [had] no basis in evidence, and left Mr X feeling ”understandably insulted”, as well as doubtful about the IO’s objectivity.

Newcastle has accepted the ombudsman’s recommendations, including to apologise to Mr X for the faults identified and pay him £1,150 in recognition of the time, trouble, uncertainty and distress he and his family have been caused.

The council also accepted further recommendations to amend its safety plan template to ensure signatories understand the agreement is voluntary; to remind staff to make sure parents are provided with all the information they need to make decisions; to produce a strategy for meeting statutory children’s complaints timelines and to provide guidance and training on unconscious bias.

Parental agreements ‘must be voluntary’

Ombudsman Michael King 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.”

A spokesperson for Newcastle City Council said: “We have apologised and paid compensation to the complainant as ordered by the ombudsman.

“We are now implementing all of the recommendations contained in the ombudsman’s report. We have co-operated fully throughout the investigation.”