What’s the point of children complaining?

The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) published a short report yesterday (10 March) giving the results of its survey of councils about the children’s social care complaints procedure. It includes five case studies where complaints were not investigated or resolved properly by local authorities. One of the complaints came from a 17 year-old girl who ran away from home because of abuse by her father. Children’s services refused to help her, telling her to return home or stay with a friend. It failed to follow its legal duties to assess her as a ‘child in need’ or provide her with accommodation as a ‘looked after’ child. The girl made a complaint under the Children Act 1989 procedure, and received two apologies – though no response to the main issue, which was the lack of support provided by the council. With the help of an advocate, the girl contacted the Local Government Ombudsman and her complaint was upheld.

Councils taking part in the LGO survey reported that the majority of individuals using the statutory complaints procedure are adults, not children. The LGO reports that many councils see this ‘as evidence that the process isn’t supporting the people it was designed to benefit’. More than 20 years after the statutory procedure was introduced, partly in response to the children’s homes abuse revelations of previous decades, this is a very depressing finding. It shows local authorities still have a great deal to do to inform children of the procedure; reassure them their complaints will be dealt with swiftly and fairly; and to ensure that complaints are an effective mechanism for identifying where the law is not being upheld, and quickly rectifying this. Even with the assistance of an advocate, the 17 year-old in the case study was unable to obtain the support from social care she is legally entitled to and had to take her complaint to the LGO. What a disincentive to other children. The LGO observes that ‘some question the best use of public funds when costs for [the independent element of social care complaints] can run into thousands of pounds for each complaint’. In human terms, the cost to extremely vulnerable children of not receiving the protection and services to which they are entitled can be devastating, as recent reviews in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire make clear.

Since April 2014, the Children’s Commissioner for England has been empowered to give advice and assistance to children living away from home and receiving social care services in England. The advice line is open weekdays 9am to 5pm: 0800 528 0731.