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Ombudsman raps council after girl with special educational needs left without vital therapy

A Suffolk girl did not receive vital occupational therapy for nearly two years because of council confusion, a Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman investigation had found.

The girl, who has Autism and hypermobility, attended a mainstream primary school with support. The Occupational Therapy (OT) it was agreed she needed should have helped with her co-ordination difficulties and sensory overload.

The council agreed to include the OT support in a draft Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) in February 2019. Although this plan was never formalised, the girl did receive some OT support until February 2020, when it stopped because of COVID-19 restrictions.

The girl then missed out on the therapy she needed for nearly two years until February 2022, when the OT was reinstated.

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Following this, the girl's mother asked the Ombudsman to investigate, leading to a finding that the council delayed completing the review of the girl's EHCP in 2019. It should have issued the final plan in May 2019 but did not do so until January 2021, the Ombudsman said.

The investigation also found that the council did not take any action to seek alternative provision for the girl when her OT stopped. Instead it wrongly believed it was the school's responsibility to ensure the provision was in place, according to the Ombudsman.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said councils have a duty to ensure therapies, as set out in children's EHC Plans, are delivered. "I am concerned the council wrongly believed it could delegate this duty to the girl's school," he added.

"This long delay between therapy sessions has had a profound effect on the family. The girl has missed out on vital support: she has become distressed and has had to move schools. Her mother tells me she has experienced anxiety and distress knowing her daughter's mental health was deteriorating.

"The changes I have recommended the council make should ensure it has better systems in place to monitor the support it provides to children such as in this case."

In light of the findings, the Ombudsman recommended the council apologise to the family and pay them £550 to recognise the anxiety and uncertainty about the loss of provision and lost opportunity to appeal, and for the time and trouble in bringing the complaint.

It should also pay a further £1,800 to reflect the loss of potential OT support between September 2020 and January 2021 and £4,000 to recognise the loss of provision from January 2021 to February 2022.

The council is currently changing its procedures following an independent review of SEND services carried out in 2021, which highlighted some of the same issues arising in this complaint.

In addition, the Ombudsman has called on the council to arrange staff training, review its processes to ensure EHC Plans are amended and issued in line with statutory timescales. It should also ensure it has a way to check provision is arranged from the start of a new or amended plan. It will also review sources of therapy services and develop a plan to ensure it can commission therapies needed to support the EHC plans it maintains, the Ombudsman said.

Allan Cadzow, Corporate Director for Children and Young People, Suffolk County Council, said: "Lessons have been learnt from this report and we have begun to implement the recommendations made by the Ombudsman."

He added: "We recognise the challenges we face within Suffolk's SEND provision and that is why we have embarked on a substantial and all-encompassing programme of reform. This is not an easy feat, especially against the backdrop of a troubled national system, however, we are confident in our plans and are steadfast in our determination to improve the way we do things."

Adam Carey

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