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All options should be considered when protecting potentially vulnerable children

Ombudsman’s reminder prompted by urgent removal of fostered children

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) has reminded councils to consider all their options when taking steps to safeguard potentially vulnerable children.

The reminder comes from an investigation into how Sandwell Council managed an allegation about a foster carer of two young children. Their actions to remove the children urgently from the home were later described as a 'knee-jerk reaction' at a Position of Trust meeting convened to discuss the case.

The LGO report highlights that, while councils are duty bound to act promptly in response to safeguarding risks, they also must have fully weighed up their options and the impact of any subsequent actions, and have recorded these decisions.

The investigation report describes how Sandwell social workers acted after a serious allegation was made against a foster carer, who was the sole carer for two children, then aged six and seven. The council was told by the police that the foster carer would be arrested, and 90 minutes later, at approximately 9.40pm, social workers woke the children from their beds and removed them.

There was no evidence that a strategy discussion took place to decide the best way of removing the children from the man's care, and that the course of action they took was the only option available to them. The only recorded discussion was a Position of Trust meeting held the day before the children were returned home.

The police later identified that the allegations made against the foster carer were unfounded, and considered them to be malicious. The council returned the children two weeks after the police closed the case, and some four weeks after the initial event.

The foster carer complained to the LGO about his treatment. He said he wasn't given the proper support while he was under suspicion, was not kept informed of the council's actions and decisions following the allegations, and breached National Minimum Standards and its own handbook in respect of agreeing to pay a fostering fee when it suspended him.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

"Essential safeguarding processes are in place not to add time and bureaucracy, but to ensure that children's welfare is paramount.

"Clearly, councils do not take a decision lightly to urgently remove a child from their home, however they must be able to demonstrate they have thought about all their options and considered the child's best interests.

"I am pleased that Sandwell Council has agreed to my recommendations to address the impact this had on the family and to make improvements to avoid something similar happening to others."

The LGO has recommended that Sandwell Council apologises to the foster carer and to the two children. It should also place a copy of the LGO report in the children's files to help answer any questions they may have about the matters when they are older.

The LGO has also recommended the council reviews its policies in respect of carrying out and recording strategy discussions to ensure they comply with statutory guidance. In addition it should arrange training for staff to remind them of the need to carry out and record strategy discussions. It should also issue a new handbook for foster carers by the end of 2015.

The LGO has further recommended the council pay the children £500 each into their savings accounts for the time when they leave care, and pay the foster carer £750, comprising £500 for the avoidable uncertainty and £250 for the unnecessary time and trouble the man went to.

The council has agreed to these recommendations.

The report is here.

1/11/15