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LA's 'disproportionate and arbitrary actions' lead to removal of baby from mother

Ombudsman finds that authority misled mother

North East Lincolnshire Council has been heavily criticised by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) after social workers arbitrarily removed a young baby from her mother's care and handed the child over to her father.

The mother complained to the LGO that social workers removed her baby and in the process threatened to remove her other two children if she did not comply.

The mother was suffering from post-natal depression and a number of other conditions when she contacted social services for help. She threatened suicide when social workers visited. But despite the urgency of the situation, social workers left her alone with the baby for several hours.

At the mother's suggestion, the baby was taken to live with her father, and the mother and her two other children went to live with the children's grandmother for support. The mother also attended a number of support sessions during this time.

The council had taken the management decision that the baby should live with the father. However, this was not communicated to the mother and throughout the next few weeks the mother was led to believe that the baby could return to her and the grandmother's care as long as she was not alone with the child.

Following a doctor's appointment where both parents and the baby were present, the mother took the child home with her. Social workers then came to the house and removed the baby, warning that they would remove the other children into care if she did not co-operate. At no point had social workers told the mother the baby could not be returned to her care.

Social workers' grounds for removing the baby included that the mother had driven the baby home without a child seat, and that the grandmother had left the baby in her mother's care for a few minutes while she bought some nappies.

They also said the grandmother had left the baby with the mother on the day of the original call, despite the council also having left the baby in a vulnerable position for a number of hours after social workers visited on that day.

The LGO's investigation found that the council's one-sided actions in supporting the father having custody meant the women did not know whether the baby would be able to live with them at least part-time until a court reached a decision about her residence. This was a full nine months after she was sent to live with her father.

Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

"While I acknowledge the difficult task faced by councils in matters of child protection, in this case social workers fell so far short of what is acceptable that it is in the public interest for me to issue this report.

"The actions of North East Lincolnshire Council's children's services department were disproportionate, arbitrary and misleading and led to months of uncertainty and the mother to feel aggrieved because the council's support for the father having custody was one-sided.

"Any decision to remove a child from their family is difficult and likely to cause significant distress to all involved. This is why it is all the more important that parents can see they were treated fairly, the process was followed properly, and the outcome was in proportion to the events that necessitated it."

To remedy the situation, the council has been asked to apologise to the family and to prevent a recurrence, review its policies and arrange training for relevant staff.

The council has also been asked to pay the mother £6,000 to reflect the severe avoidable distress, anxiety, justifiable outrage and loss of opportunity she suffered as a result of the council's one-sided handling of the case and its disproportionate actions in removing the baby without following proper procedures.

To remedy the grandmother's injustice, the council should pay her £1,000 to reflect the significant distress and justifiable outrage its removal of the baby caused her over the same period of nine months.

The council has agreed to carry out these recommendations.