When a local authority has concerns over the welfare of a child it will usually assign a social worker to get in touch with the family and investigate the matter.
When this happens, it is of course essential that the parents are able to speak freely and frankly to the social worker, in particular without fear for their personal wellbeing.
But a problem can arise when the parents have separated, or where their relationship is such that one parent may not want the other to know what they have said to the social worker.
The problem was illustrated in a recently decided complaint by a mother to the Local Government & Social Care Ombudsman, regarding the actions of a Dorset council (it should be noted that the complaint predated the establishment of the present Dorset Council in 2019 – a different council, which was abolished at the same time Dorset Council was established, took the action complained about, although Dorset Council took responsibility).
The complaint concerned a family who had been under investigation by local children's services, due to concerns related to the father's violence towards the mother and children.
In 2018 a social work report was prepared, following an assessment by a social worker, which included confidential and sensitive information about the mother that the mother had given to the social worker.
The social work assessment confirmed that the father had been violent towards the mother and children, and included a lot of information about the mother's background and childhood, about the father's background, and information related to children living in the family home.
The report was hand delivered to the family home by the social worker, despite the mother specifically asking the Council not to disclose the information to the father, in the light of his violent history.
Upon finding out about this the mother rushed home, in an attempt to intercept the report before the father read it. Unfortunately she was too late. After reading the report the father subjected the mother to verbal and emotional abuse, which heightened her existing fear of him. The mother said it also caused her to suffer flashbacks, panic attacks, and contributed to a recent diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The mother initially complained about the disclosure of the report to the council, but did not receive a satisfactory response.
The mother therefore took her complaint to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, who looks at complaints about councils, and some other authorities and organisations.
The council accepted that it was at fault in disclosing the information.
The Ombudsman found that this fault caused the mother injustice, in the form of avoidable distress and exposing her to a risk of harm.
In the light of this, the council agreed to formally apologise to the mother for the injustice caused to her, and to pay her the sum of £1,750, as recommended by the Ombudsman, including £1000 to recognise the severity of the avoidable distress caused, and £500 to recognise the risk of harm.
Describing the error as "very unhappy and unacceptable", a spokesperson for Dorset Council said:
"The council accepts that there was fault in disclosing the information described and that this caused the complainant distress and potential risk, and has made a written apology and financial acknowledgement of the impact caused at the level recommended by the [Ombudsman]".
Hopefully this decision, and the acceptance of fault by the council, will help to reassure parents in a similar position that they can speak in confidence to social workers, without fear of the information they provide being passed on to an abusive partner.
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