A Surrey family who struggled to cope with their disabled son’s behaviour were forced to begin legal action against the county council before it provided the right accommodation for him, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has found.
The family first asked Surrey County Council for help in October 2009 when their son, who has severe autism, was six. The parents were concerned about the impact of their son’s violent behaviour on his younger siblings, after he had injured them on a number of occasions, and were at breaking point.
But the council did not assess the family’s need for support properly.
Three weeks later, the boy’s behaviour had deteriorated. His taxi driver refused to take him to school; he frequently wet and soiled himself and his behaviour was described by his paediatrician as ‘taking the form of sudden, uncontrolled aggression’. The council wrote to the paediatrician to explain the boy did not meet its criteria for support.
During the next year, numerous professionals — including the boy’s headteacher and community nurse — wrote to the council expressing their concerns. At one point the boy’s refusal to use the toilet meant the family were short of nappies, and instead of the council providing help, the family were told to contact the NHS.
A package of care was eventually put in place in 2011.
By the beginning of 2012 the boy needed one-to-one support at school and two-to-one care when out and about. There is no evidence the council considered how the mother could meet these needs, and those of his three siblings, when the father was at work.
One day in January 2012 the family sent the boy to school as normal, but asked the council not to bring him home as they could no longer cope.
The council accommodated the boy in a specialist children’s home and he lived there for almost 18 months. However, the parents raised concerns about his safety while living there. They were notified of 60 incidents in the first six months including injuries, escapes, prolonged rages and members of the public contacting the police with concerns about his care. At one point he was found hanging out of an upstairs window.
The family believed this was a temporary placement, and had asked their son be accommodated in a 52-week residential school placement long before he was sent to the care home.
It was only after the parents threatened the council with legal action in 2013 that it made arrangements to send the boy to a residential special school, where the parents say his behaviour has improved.
The parents complained to the council about the way it had considered their situation. The council found no fault with its actions during a stage one investigation. Unhappy with this, the family asked the council to consider their complaint at stage two of the statutory children’s complaint process. This involves an investigation led by someone independent of the council. The council declined and instead offered them a sum of money.
The family declined this offer and approached the Ombudsman, who asked the council to first consider the complaint at stage two. The stage two investigator upheld 23 complaints about the service Surrey council had provided.
The family were unhappy with the outcome of the council’s stage two investigation, and asked the Ombudsman to formally investigate their concerns. The Ombudsman’s investigation upheld a number of complaints about the council’s handling of the case, which have had a major impact on the family, including:
- The lack of support between October 2009 and July 2011 and subsequent delays in providing it.
- The impact on the son of not having the proper support package.
- The impact on the family’s other children, having been the target for their brother’s violent behaviour.
- The distress caused to the parents as a result of having to ask the council to accommodate their son when they were left unable to cope.
Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, Michael King, said:
This distressing case serves to remind councils of the very real impact on families when councils get things wrong. The parents have described the trauma of having to make the decision to seek residential accommodation for their son — a decision they say they would not have made so soon, had they received the support they were entitled to.
Other councils can learn from our investigation highlighting this family’s experience. I would urge scrutiny panels and councillors to look at their own procedures and ensure vulnerable families are supported properly.
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 has agreed to apologise to the family and refund their legal costs.
It will pay the family £12,000 to recognise the significant distress suffered as a result of the council’s faults. It will also pay them an additional £1,000 for the time and trouble they have gone to in pursuing the complaint.
The full report can be downloaded here