Northumberland County Council criticised for treatment of family in crisis

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The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has criticised Northumberland County Council for failing to assess vulnerable young children at risk of harm.

The Ombudsman’s investigation found that despite multiple appeals from the family to the council for help to protect their younger children from threats of violence made by their teenage son, the council did not do enough to safeguard them.

The council didn’t properly consider the needs of the children, it failed to speak to them about what was happening and it did not involve other agencies, such as the police, in assessing the risks to the younger children.

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The situation eventually escalated to such an extent the boy had to be removed from the home by police, causing significant distress to the family. The council refused to accept the family’s complaint until the Ombudsman intervened.

Michael King, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: "Northumberland County Council has continually attempted to minimise the seriousness of the allegations made against the older son. The council was aware of the family's turbulent situation, but there appears to have been little thought given to the impact this had on the younger siblings and the potential harm this could have caused.

"Throughout the complaint, the council has failed to acknowledge the voices of the children. I am disappointed it has yet to agree to my recommendations to put things right and would urge them to review my report and consider what actions it will now take."

The family called on the council's help on numerous occasions, saying the teenage son had held a knife to his mother's neck and threatened to stab his younger siblings.

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The council failed to take into account the impact the volatile situation had on the young children, the atmosphere in the family home and the fact they were witnessing distressing incidents. Had social workers spoken to the children and other agencies, they would have been better placed to address the allegations being made and the impact on the children.

Following the Ombudsman’s intervention, an independent investigator appointed by the council upheld a number of the family's complaints. But this took more than a year even though the law says it should only take 65 days.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman's role is to remedy injustice and share learning from investigations to improve local, public and adult social-care services.

In this case, the council should pay the couple £1,000 for their time and trouble in pursuing the complaint as well as for their uncertainty, distress and anxiety caused by the council's failure to carry out an investigation into the children's welfare.

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It should also ensure a copy of the independent investigator's report and other information be kept on the children's files in the event further information comes to light.

It should provide the Ombudsman with details of measures it will put in place to ensure it meets its statutory timescales for investigating children's services complaints and carry out a review to ensure staff and contractors have undertaken up to date training on dealing with children's services complaints.