The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) and Kent County Council are at loggerheads over an investigation into the handling of a 'cross-border' child protection case.
The county council has challenged some of the recommendations made in the LGSCO's report and questioned whether it was in the Ombudsman’s remit to recommend the local authority offers therapy services that "local government are not currently required or funded to provide".
The Ombudsman found that Kent and the London Borough of Croydon were too "quick to pass the buck and look for reasons not to take action" in the case of a girl who had reported she had been sexually abused in Croydon when she was younger.
At the time of the report, the girl lived in Kent. Her mother reported the abuse to the police and was told a social worker would contact her. In June 2018 teh county council 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 London Borough of Croydon for investigation. Kent did not contact the mother or the girl to assess if support was needed.
The LGSCO said Kent received a second police referral in September 2018 relating to the same incident initially reported. Kent contacted 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 county council said it was confident the offer of ongoing support it made to the family was sufficient and complied with current government legislation and guidance.
The LGSCO report acknowledged that Kent believed appropriate support was offered but said 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 report said.
The report also criticised the support provided to the girl's mother. "Kent council failed to properly assess the mother's needs and added to her distress", the Ombudsman said.
The LGSCO's investigation said neither Kent nor Croydon took responsibility and both authorities took no further action at the initial referral stage. There was no direct contact between either council for nearly two years, until May 2020. 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 LGO said.
Tne 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."
Mr King added: "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."
In a statement, Matt Dunkley, Corporate Director of Children, Young People and Education at Kent County Council detailed the council's objections to parts of the report.
Mr Dunkley said: "Unusually, on this occasion Kent County Council disagrees with some of the conclusions and suggested remedies in the LGSO's report, and the decision to publish it in its current form. We have highlighted several inaccuracies and misleading statements in correspondence from the Ombudsman and their press release. In this case, while we do acknowledge some of our practice could have been better and more timely, and we have reflected that by agreeing to the suggested financial compensation to both mother and daughter, we do not accept some of the central conclusions, particularly in relation to understanding thresholds for statutory services. In addition, we have not agreed to implement some of the suggested actions, which we do not believe make sense and which are not legally binding on us. As you would expect, we have raised these issues prior to publication, but been unable to agree a way forward with the Ombudsman. I must stress how unusual this situation is - we can normally accept Ombudsman findings in full, agree fault, remedy and publication arrangements."
He added: "In this case, and as is always the case when allegations of child abuse are made, our first priority is to ensure all children are protected from any threat from an alleged perpetrator. In order to do that, it is common practice for police and social workers local to where the abuse is alleged to have occurred carry out the initial statutory assessment of the allegations and any threat posed to children. In this case, the alleged abuse occurred four years previously in the London Borough of Croydon. As is accepted practice, we therefore referred the case to LB Croydon for an initial statutory safeguarding interagency S47 strategy meeting. As the report acknowledges, LB Croydon have fully accepted it was their responsibility to carry out this initial investigation once we had referred it to them."
Mr Dunkley said that although both Kent and Croydon had accepted that there was a "short delay" in offering support exacerbated by the cross-authority involvement, they were confident that actions taken in relation to ensuring the safeguarding of the individual and the offer of ongoing support, subsequently declined by the family, were the correct response and in compliance with current Government legislation and guidance as it had also been interpreted by many other local authorities in similar cases.
"Some of the Ombudsman's conclusions suggest we should have offered therapy services to this family. These are services that we are not statutorily required to provide, nor funded to provide, and are not provided by any local council in similar circumstances. In order to provide what the Ombudsman suggests we should, both funding of and statutory definition of services provided by local government would have to change. While this may or may not be desirable, we question whether it is in the remit of the LGSCO to make any judgement of Kent on services we and the rest of local government are not currently required or funded to provide," he said.
Mr Dunkley said Kent agreed that the national 'Working Together' guidance was "lacking and unclear in its current form" regarding Initial S47 Strategy investigations, and had offered to work with the Ombudsman to seek greater clarity from government in its guidance.
"Our views and conclusions remain substantially different to those expressed by the LGSCO and KCC will reserve our legal position regarding the LGSCO conclusions and some of the suggested remedies which we believe inappropriate and misguided. We will be contacting the DfE to suggest improving the clarity of current Government legislation and guidance in such cases," he said.
The Ombudsman meanwhile 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, the LGO said.
A spokesperson for Croydon Council said it accepted the Ombudsman's findings and recommendations.
The spokesperson said: "Keeping vulnerable young people safe is a council priority, and in this case we did not provide the standard of support that we would expect. We accept the Ombudsman's recommendations, which will help us improve the way we work with other authorities and share information to support vulnerable young people."
Despite the disagreement on services, Kent has agreed to pay £2,150 to the family.
Kent County Council also agreed to 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.
The Ombudsman called for both councils to 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.
On top of information sharing the LGSCO said Kent and Croydon should conduct an audit of 50 cases closed in similar circumstances between 2018 to date. If more than 25% of those cases identify similar issues, the council should make resources available to conduct a full case audit.
Both councils have three months to confirm to the Ombudsman the actions they have taken or propose to take.