One Legal Sept 21 Director 600

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Ombudsman criticises council after poor practice led to disabled boy missing out on education and support

A boy missed out on suitable schooling and support because his disabilities did not meet West Sussex County Council's criteria for an assessment, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has reported.

The boy, who has Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, did not have his social care needs met because the county council said it only supported children with Autism or severe learning disabilities, the report found.

The boy's conditions mean he is prone to volatile outbursts; he can be aggressive at times, and his behaviour is often unpredictable. He was excluded from school in February 2020, and although he has been provided with home tuition, he has been out of full-time education since.

The boy's adoptive parents complained to the council because it refused to assess them for support for respite care, direct payments or a personal budget. The council said as the boy did not meet strict criteria, he was not eligible.

West Sussex's policy says its Child Disability Social Work Team offers a specialist social work assessment and service for three groups of children who have:

  • a severe learning and/or severe physical disability;
  • lifelong complex health needs;
  • autism with moderate or above learning disability and mental health needs.

Council policy also allows children who do not fall under the three criteria to be considered on an individual basis.

During the Ombudsman's investigation into the family's complaint, the council started to provide six hours a week of respite care and reimbursed some of the care the family had previously paid for. He is due to start at a new specialist school in September.

The investigation found there was a delay in finding a suitable school for the boy, which meant he has been without a suitable school for 16 months and without full-time education for 13 months. The council also delayed providing alternative education to the boy for two months.

The council was also found to be at fault for not assessing the boy's needs promptly when he was excluded from school. It took 23 weeks to assess his situation - and then only backdated its support by a month. The council also failed to carry out its own assessment of the appropriate level of respite care needed.

The council's complaint handling was also criticised by the Ombudsman. The council refused to allow the family to complain through all three stages of the Children's Statutory Complaints Process, instead directing them to the Ombudsman after its Stage 1 investigation.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said he was "concerned the council appears to be gatekeeping access to its services".

He added: "By applying criteria to people requesting assessments for their children it is placing barriers in front of them.

"Throughout the time the boy was out of school, it appears the burden of finding a school placement has rested on the boy's mother."

Mr King said: "The council has a duty to ensure there is sufficient educational provision available in its area to meet demand. The lack of suitable placements for the boy in the council's SEN schools suggests it is not meeting this duty.

"I welcome that the council has agreed to my recommendations to improve its services and complaints handling."

Following the report, West Sussex has agreed to apologise to the family and pay them £1,250 for the gatekeeping of its assessment process and the delays this caused, along with the delays in its complaint handling and provision of respite care. It will also reassess the current respite provided to the family and decide if this is appropriate, as well as pay them a further £1,800 for the boy's missed education.

The council has pledged to review its process for assessment to ensure it is meeting its duties for all children and not just those who fall under specific criteria. It will also complete an audit or review of the educational provision available in its area for children and young people who have SEND to ensure there are enough places to meet demand.

West Sussex County Council's Executive Director of Children, Young People's and Learning Services Lucy Butler said: "I am truly very sorry for the standard of service we provided to the young boy and his family, which was not the level of care and support we should have provided.

"We accept we should have undertaken an assessment on this occasion.  

"Since this case, our Children, Young People and Learning Services has been on a rigorous improvement journey and we have made significant progress.

"This is not how we practice now, and a child in similar circumstances will receive an assessment.

"Our Children and Disabilities service has been a high priority focus of our improvement work, and a key part of our commitment to keeping all children and young people safe from vulnerable situations."

Ms Butler added: "We accept and have already actioned the findings and recommendations of the Ombudsman's report, including a review of our safeguarding processes. I am confident we are clear as a service of our responsibilities to ensuring children in need are appropriately referred.

"Once again I apologise to the family for the standard of service we provided and the impact it has had on their lives."

Adam Carey