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Ombudsman criticises London borough over failures as corporate parent to former looked-after child who alleged abuse

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has said the London Borough of Lewisham exposed a former looked after child to "significant harm" after it failed to address her claims of abuse while in foster care properly.

The woman complained to the Ombudsman that the council did not properly investigate when she made allegations – first made in 2010 – of significant and repeated incidents of physical, sexual and emotional abuse while she was a child in foster care and council-run residential units.

She told the Ombudsman she was left homeless at one point while in the council's care, was not provided with adequate support when she left care, and was never told of the outcome of the investigation into her allegations.

The council investigated, but the Investigating Officer (IO) and Independent Person (IP) who investigated at Stage Two of the complaints procedure were not provided with all the records they needed to complete the investigation. At first, the council refused access and then made it difficult for the IO and IP to view the records - often only giving them redacted versions.

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In one case, the council did not allow the Ombudsman's investigators to read through records without a council officer present. According to the report, the council stated its decision to deny investigators complete access to the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) casework system was based on legal advice.

The Ombudsman's investigation found several faults with the way the council handled the woman's case. These included not telling her the outcomes of referrals, following some of the incidents she reported, and not providing the Ombudsman with information about the outcome of the investigation into the woman's foster carers.

The council also failed to complete a standards of care review and child protection enquiries following allegations made about the foster carers. The Ombudsman said this meant there was a lack of evidence for it to address or act to mitigate any continued risk of significant injustice caused by its faults, and for the delay in completing the stage two process; and it failed to have sufficient regard for the woman's human rights.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: "My investigation found London Borough of Lewisham failed in its role as this woman's corporate parent to keep her safe, provide her with the minimum of 'good enough' parenting, and prevent her being exposed to further significant harm while placed in its care.

"And instead of being open and transparent, both with my investigator and those tasked with its own internal investigation, it sought to impede the process by withholding the full body of evidence it holds. This has left the young woman distressed not only by what happened to her, but also by being denied closure without knowing the outcome.

Mr King added: "It is important the council uses this case as a chance to learn. So I welcome it agreeing to my recommendations to improve its processes, which should benefit all looked after children in the borough."

Following the report, the council agreed to the Ombudsman's recommendations to pay the woman £7,500 for the avoidable distress and harm caused. It has also agreed to provide her with the outcome of the investigation into her former foster carers, together with details of any other action taken following her allegations relating to the foster carers' continued approval and child protection enquiries where this relates to her.

Additionally, Lewisham has agreed to review its approach to information sharing in the statutory children's complaints procedure and with the Ombudsman's investigations.

Responding to the report, Cllr Chris Barnham, Cabinet Member for Children's Services at Lewisham, said: "Children in our care are often among the most vulnerable, and ensuring they are properly looked after is one of the most important things we do as a council."

Cllr Barnham added: "We take this responsibility extremely seriously. Lewisham Council accepts the findings of the LGSCO report and acknowledges that historically there were a number of shortcomings in the quality of services delivered by Lewisham Children's Social Care and how we responded to a complaint made by a young person in our care.

"The complaints and the events referred to date back a number of years, and there have been significant service improvements since that time. Nevertheless, we take the criticisms very seriously and have ensured the LGSCO's recommendations are acted upon."

Cllr Barnhma said a comprehensive plan to drive up standards had been in place in Lewisham Children's Social Care since 2018 and the council was seeing a positive trajectory of improvement. "We are committed to continually improving our services for children in care, and the learning from this report has informed our improvement planning.

"We have apologised unreservedly to the complainant and have shared with them the reports requested by the Ombudsman."

Adam Carey

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