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Poor record keeping and supervision of staff left a family with significant emotional impact and uncertainty around decisions made about a child’s care

Organisation we investigated: The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass)

Date investigation closed: 6 November 2019

The complaint

Complainants W and L complained that Cafcass had failed Complainant L by allowing them to remain in a placement with a foster carer who they had accused of abuse. They complained Cafcass acted with bias, lied in court and allowed other parties to lie and mislead the court.

Complainants W and L complained that Cafcass had not fully and appropriately responded to their complaint and had withheld information from them.

Complainants W and L said that as a result, they had been separated from each other for four years. They said Cafcass had misrepresented them. They said the experience had been emotionally draining.

What we found

Complainant W complained that the guardian had disclosed elements of the psychiatrist and psychologist’s reports to Complainant L. We found that it was appropriate for the guardian to do this.

The guardian acted appropriately in supporting Complainant L to live with their birth parent. We found that the guardian was supportive of Complainant L and did not bully or otherwise unduly influence their choices. We also found that the guardian did not act to exclude Complainant W from mediation.

The guardian acted appropriately in supporting the recommendation that Complainant L return to live with Persons I and F, despite the allegations against Person I.

However, as the case progressed, the guardian should have done more to provide the court with information about Complainant L, including their vulnerabilities and welfare. The guardian should have raised her concerns about Person I’s relationship with Complainant L earlier than was the case. This would have allowed the court to have made a fully informed decision about what was best for Complainant L.

The guardian did not comply with Cafcass’s record keeping policy. They did not ensure their records were a clear, transparent and accessible record for the child and family in the future. Cafcass’s claim that some of the records were illegible was not open and transparent, as we were able to read them and make our own transcripts.

Cafcass’s supervision of the guardian was lacking. The supervision was not frequent enough and was mostly factual. The supervision was poorly recorded, and the records were not properly maintained. This was not in line with Cafcass’s policy.

Cafcass did not handle Complainant W’s Subject Access Request (SAR) effectively. It unreasonably decided to stop communicating with Complainant W about the SAR. It did not release all records Complainant W was entitled to. Part of the reason for this was the poor record keeping by the guardian. The record keeping by the guardian and the management of the records, including transcription of the guardian’s notes, was so poor it led to Complainant W believing records had been wrongly destroyed or withheld.

We also found that Cafcass did not handle the complaint fairly or objectively and was not open and transparent in its decision making.

Background

Complainant L had been adopted by Complainant W and their partner, Person J. Later, Complainant L began to have contact with a birth parent. Complainant W then separated from Person J.

A letter from a third party was sent to social services with concerns about Complainant L. They had been living with Person J at this time, but soon went to live with youth leaders from their church. After a week, Complainant L went to live with Complainant W but told the local authority they wanted to live somewhere neutral. Complainant L then went to live with Persons I and F, who they knew from church.

The local authority then placed Complainant L on the Child Protection Register under the category of emotional abuse. It considered Complainant W and Person J were involving Complainant L in their disputes. At this point Complainant L indicated that they wished to go and live with their birth parent and family in a different city.

The local authority began care proceedings to secure a long-term plan for Complainant L. This resulted in Cafcass appointing a guardian for Complainant L. The local authority then concluded Complainant L’s birth parent was a suitable and safe option, which is where they then went to live. There was then a court hearing about the case. The court ordered that Complainant W, Person J and Complainant L should all be assessed by a psychologist and a psychiatrist.

Complainant L had some trouble settling with their birth parent and continued to have contact with Complainant W and Person J. The guardian liaised with all parties in the case, including social workers and the psychologist and psychiatrist.

Complainant L returned to Complainant W and Person J’s hometown, and again stayed with Persons I and F. Complainant L later raised concerns about Person I and inappropriate touching and they were placed into temporary foster care.

Complainant L withdrew the allegations about Person I and decided to return to live with Persons I and F, which the court allowed. Complainant W raised concerns about this. All parties, including the guardian, social workers and the police, continued to monitor the placement with Persons I and F, and whether it was a safe environment for Complainant L to continue to live.

Putting it right

The record management failings we found in this case were so significant and widespread that they had a clear emotional impact on Complainants W and L, contributing to their uncertainty about what happened, and the amount of time they had to spend in pursuing answers to their questions. This continued for many years.

We recommended that:

  • Cafcass’s chief executive write to Complainants W and L to apologise for the failings we identified
  • Cafcass pay Complainant L £6,000
  • Cafcass pay Complainant W £2,000

Cafcass outlined to us how, since the time of the issues in the complaint and the time it spent investigating L and D’s concerns, it has significantly improved its record keeping, management of Subject Access Requests and supervision of guardians. For this reason, we did not recommend any service improvements.

Cafcass complied with our recommendations.

This case summary is featured in the Ombudsman's Casework Report 2019.