Herts Council has 'pattern of mishandling children's services complaints'

Concerned woman

Hertfordshire County Council admitted that it had delayed providing information to a woman about injuries her child reportedly sustained in a children's home. - Credit: RODNAE Productions - Pexels

Hertfordshire County Council has persistently mishandled complaints about its children’s social care, a watchdog said. 

The claim was made in an official report about a mother who complained that County Hall had withheld information about injuries her child had suffered in a children’s home. 

The council admitted that it “delayed providing information” to her. 

Her complaint was one of 16 upheld by the against Hertfordshire Council in 2020/21 by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO). 

It described “a pattern of faulty complaint handling by the council in children’s social care cases”. 

Pattern of Failure 

The mother had complained twice to the council over concerns about the way her child was being treated in a children’s home. 

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The ombudsman said the council considered the woman’s first complaint under the wrong procedure and then failed to apologise for its failures. 

When she complained a second time, it again handled the complaint under the wrong procedure. 

That meant it was handled internally, instead of prompting an independent investigation. 

The ombudsman told the council to apologise and immediately launch an investigation into the woman's case under the correct procedures. 

Its report said: “This forms part of a pattern of recent cases we have seen where the council has failed to use the statutory complaints procedure for children’s social care complaints. 

“[The mother] has not had her complaint on behalf of her daughter properly considered. That is injustice to her.” 

Loss of Education 

In another of the 16 upheld cases, the council was ordered to pay more than £8,000 compensation to a woman whose autistic daughter suffered a “loss of education”. 

The girl missed 12 months of lessons because the council failed to ensure she was receiving education tailored to her needs. 

The girl’s mother emailed the council in January 2018 to say her daughter’s school was not meeting her needs. 

But the staff member who received the email deleted it and never acted on it. 

“This was a missed opportunity to take action and caused [the complainant] distress,” the ombudsman wrote. 

The council said the employee who deleted the January 2018 email “did not follow the correct protocol but has now left the council”. 

Hertfordshire County Hall

The ombudsman found Herts County Council had a 'pattern' of mishandling complaints about its children's services. - Credit: Google Streetview

Mishandled Complaint 

Failures to provide adequate education to the child then continued, on and off, until October 2019. 

The council also twice failed to respond to the mother’s request for a Sensory Integration Assessment. 

Meanwhile, the mother was left “unable to take up any study or employment opportunities while she had to remain home with [her daughter]”. 

When the mother complained, the ombudsman found that the council had failed to respond to several key elements of her complaint. 

Correspondence showed the woman had repeatedly told the council it had not addressed parts of her complaint, but the council kept insisting that it had. 

“This amounts to fault,” the ombudsman wrote. “This also caused [the mother] to spend longer in the complaints process than necessary, putting her to time and trouble.” 

The Council 

A Herts County Council spokesperson said the authority took the ombudsman’s findings “seriously”. 

“Where they find we have been at fault, we work closely with the LGSCO to ensure that we can understand why something has happened, how we can put it right and how we can prevent it happening again,” they said. 

The council said measures taken since concerns were raised included changing some of its processes, launching a review into its complaints handling and giving additional training to staff. 

“We are confident that these steps will address the issues,” a representative said. 

“We welcome feedback including complaints and compliments from parents and service users, and the annual statistics show that, considering the number of people we support every day, we receive relatively few complaints.” 

Hertfordshire County Council did outperform most comparable councils. 

Its 16 upheld complaints represented 70 per cent of those the ombudsman investigated – roughly in line with the average of 71 per cent among similar councils. 

But in Hertfordshire, 25 per cent of complainants had already received a “satisfactory remedy” before the ombudsman became involved. 

The average among similar authorities was just eight per cent.