The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has criticised a council’s children’s trust after an investigation found it failed to support properly a couple caring for a girl whose mother had died.
The Ombudsman also uncovered that at one point it considered allowing the 11-year-old girl to be deported during a dispute with her foster carers.
Following the Investigation into Birmingham Children’s Trust, the organisation has agreed to recommendations from the Ombudsman, including paying the girl and her foster carers more than £2,000 in compensation.
The girl, who was born in the UK, was being looked after by family friends after her mother died as she had no other relatives in the country. According to the Ombudsman, the couple had maintained it was not a private arrangement to foster the girl and needed support as friends and family foster carers.
However, the council asserted it was a private arrangement, and so the couple did not receive the financial support they were due.
Because the council held firm it was a private arrangement, the girl was not treated as a looked after child. Support should have also included regular reviews of her care plan and appointing an independent reviewing officer to ensure her voice was heard, the LGO said. She also lost contact with her remaining relatives who lived abroad.
The Ombudsman found the council had a duty to secure legal advice and representation so the girl could make her case to stay in the country.
According to the report, the council suggested telling the carers to go to court if they wanted to continue to care for the child or she would be deported the following month when her leave to remain expired. The council did not act, and so the foster parents had to use money set aside by the girl’s mother in a trust fund to make a successful application for British citizenship.
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: "“A private fostering arrangement can only continue if both the private foster carers and a person who has parental responsibility for the child agree to it. Throughout the time the couple looked after the girl, they were clear the agreement to privately foster the girl only lasted until her mother died."
He added: “The foster carers experienced prolonged frustration at the council’s refusal to consider them as anything other than private foster carers. They have had to deal with the stress of meeting the girl’s needs, securing her residence and citizenship, and pursuing their complaint - all without the support they should have been entitled to.
“The council should have done more to ensure the girl’s needs were met. Her placement living with the couple was at risk, and the council did not do enough to make sure she had the correct legal protection to remain in the country and she lost contact with her only remaining relatives."
Mr King said: "The council should now take the actions I have recommended to ensure friends and family foster carers, and the vulnerable children in their care, are treated properly and in line with the law and guidance.”
A Birmingham Children’s Trust spokesperson said the trust understood the Ombudsman’s criticisms.
They said: “We accept the findings and recommendations made by the Ombudsman, and we recognise that there are aspects of this case that we could have managed in a better way. We have extended our sincere apologies to the complainant and the young person involved. We are in the process of completing all the immediate recommendations made by the Ombudsman. We will continue to support our staff to promote contact between privately fostered children and their parents, and we will commence a review of all open cases of private fostering and cases involving unaccompanied children.”
Following the investigation, Birmingham Children’s Trust has agreed to apologise to the girl for not acting sooner to secure her legal status and address the issues with contact. The trust will also pay her £1,000 for the uncertainty and distress this caused.
The trust has also agreed to apologise to the foster carer and her partner for failing to assess them as friends and family carers and pay them £1,000 for their frustration and stress caused by this. Compensation will also be paid for the allowances they should have received as friends and family carers. A payment to the girl’s trust fund to cover the cost of her application for leave to remain and citizenship will also be made.
Policy changes have also been agreed to in light of the investigation. The service plans to remind social workers of their responsibility to promote contact between children in private fostering arrangements and their parents. Additionally, it intends to review all open private fostering cases to ensure it has documented issues highlighted in the report.
Open cases of unaccompanied children are also scheduled for review to “ensure the service is offering the support outlined in the statutory guidance, especially regarding the child’s immigration status”.