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Council fails to inform agencies when mother removes children from UK without father’s consent

Somerset Council asked to pay father's expenses to return them

A council which failed to alert border agencies when a mother took her children to Australia without their father's consent, has been asked by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) to pay the father's expenses to return them.

Somerset County Council first became aware of the family when the father visited council offices and called on its services for help. He said he was unable to work, and the mother, an Australian citizen, was now unable to work because her visa had expired. Staff raised concerns when he became agitated after he was told he needed to make an appointment.

Officers spoke to the mother later that day and she made accusations about the father's behaviour.  Officers assessed the children and met with the mother on a number of occasions, during which time the mother said the father was 'emotionally abusive and very controlling'.

The mother refused officers' attempts to find her a refuge. Notes of meetings between the council and the mother state she intended to apply for passports for the children and an officer suggested they be sent to the council offices. At one stage she told the council she had booked flights for her and her children and of their leaving date. She did not tell the father she was leaving the country with their children.

On learning the mother had taken the children out of the country the father contacted police and began court proceedings to have the children returned to the UK.

The family court determined the mother could not take the children to live permanently in Australia but said they should spend equal time with both parents. The allegations of domestic violence against the father have not been proven.

The father complained to the council about its involvement in helping the mother take the children out of the country. The council's own investigation found it had not acted appropriately in allowing the mother to use the council's address to apply for passports. It also found the council should have reasonably suspected the mother would leave the country and should have made contact with the Border Agency and police. It said the council should have sought legal advice to provide appropriate support.

The father was not satisfied with the council's complaints process and the time it had taken to respond to his complaint and asked the LGO to investigate.

The LGO investigation found no fault with the way the council responded to the mother's allegations of domestic abuse against the father because it had a duty to ensure the children were safe.

However, the LGO investigation criticised the way the council handled the passport applications. It also found fault with the council's failure to seek legal advice or notify the relevant agencies of the mother's travel intentions. Had they done so it is more than likely she would have been prevented from leaving the country without his knowledge.

The investigation also found fault with the length of time the council took to investigate the father's complaint.

Michael King, Local Government Ombudsman, said:

"Whatever the circumstances, children should not be taken out of the country without the consent of all who have parental responsibility for them.

"In this case, Somerset council were aware of the mother's plans, and should have alerted the relevant authorities to her intentions.  Had they done so, it is likely she would have been prevented from taking them to Australia, and the father would have been spared both the heartache of losing contact with his children for a number of months and the cost of returning them to the UK."

To remedy the complaint the council has been asked to pay the father £4,000 in respect of his expenses incurred when ensuring his children were returned to the UK. The council should also pay the man £1,000 for the distress, anxiety, anger and frustration he experienced.

For the LGO's report, click here