Gloucestershire County Council's assessment of a child protection case was subject to "serious procedural fault" after the local authority excluded the father from the process, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has said.
The Ombudsman also found that the local authority failed to share information with the father in a timely manner and unjustifiably identified him as a person who misuses alcohol.
The father, referred to as 'Mr F' in the report, first complained to the Ombudsman that he had been unfairly excluded from the council's child protection process in relation to his son.
He further argued that the council built a "false narrative" that he abused alcohol which led to a flawed decision that he was a risk to his son.
The council became involved with Mr F's family after his son sustained an injury. Basic enquiries were undertaken and concerns were raised about Mr F's alcohol consumption.
Later, following a child protection meeting in which further reports about the father's drinking were discussed (including a drink-driving conviction in 2006), the council decided to convene a Child Protection Conference (ICPC).
The ICPC determined that the threshold for significant harm to Mr F's son needed to escalate the case had not been met and that it could continue to be managed under a child in need (CIN) plan.
Mr F then complained about being excluded and treated unfairly during the course of the investigation. Specifically, he alleged the following:
- The council excluded him from the child protection process and did not prepare him for the Initial Child Protection Conference (ICPC).
- The council failed to share key documents and reports with him, including, but not limited to, the conference report, a Child and Family (C&F) Assessment report and minutes of the ICPC.
- The council drew inappropriate and unfair perceptions of his ability to parent based on a 14-year-old conviction which related to driving under the influence of alcohol. He also says the council built a false and unjustified narrative that he was a person who abused alcohol.
- The council ultimately made a flawed decision that he was a risk to his child.
Mr F said the council's actions led to the break-up of his relationship, time off work and serious emotional distress.
The lack of "meaningful engagement" with Mr F until seven weeks after the council's involvement was fault, the Ombudsman said. "I do not consider Mr F received sufficient support by the Council, nor that he was included in the process as a primary party whose views were essential to understanding the family dynamics."
Mr F should have been contacted to ensure his views were fully ascertained as part of the section 47 process, the report added.
"In this case, the council held a strategy meeting in mid-December 2020 and decided to undertake formal s47 enquiries," the Ombudsman noted. "It was from this point the Council was required to complete the enquiries within 15 days and produce a conference report."
Mr F claimed that the council did not properly ascertain his views once the conference report had been produced. The Ombudsman found fault and said that there was "ample opportunity" to consult with Mr F.
In regard to Mr F's allegations that the council failed to share documents and reports with him in preparation for discussions in a timely manner, the Ombudsman also found fault.
The council said a social worker read the report to the father over the phone as he was unwilling to receive postal documents to his address over Covid-19 concerns.
The Ombudsman said: "I do not consider it was good administrative practice by the social worker to run through this report with Mr F over a single telephone call. Further, I do not accept, on balance, that the social worker read the whole report to Mr F given its length.
"This was fault by the Council and I agree with Mr F that this meant he was unprepared for the ICPC which is reflected in the minutes of that meeting."
The Ombudsman also found that the council failed to adhere to statutory guidance which says parents must be given sufficient information to understand the purpose of the ICPC.
Regarding the assessment that Mr F abused alcohol, the Ombudsman found that the council "unjustifiably identified" him as a person who misuses alcohol and failed to consider his views in this respect.
The council inappropriately referenced Mr F's historical and spent conviction in supporting a view of alcohol misuse and domestic abuse, the Ombudsman added.
The Ombudsman also found that the council's judgement about the level of risk Mr F presented to his child was based on procedural failings.
A spokesperson for Gloucestershire County Council said: "The council fully accepts the findings of the Ombudsman in this matter and regret that our service fell below the standards we would normally provide. We have formally apologised to Mr F and put in place a number of remedies to improve our practice as agreed with the Ombudsman, to prevent this happening again."