Hertfordshire County Council reviews adoption recruitment process following Ombudsman report

The complaint claimed the county council had not properly considered her application to adopt or fairly assessed her

Monday, 20th September 2021, 3:50 pm

Hertfordshire County Council has agreed to review the way it recruits adopters, after a complaint was upheld by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman.

The complaint was made by a woman – know only as Mrs M – who claimed the county council had not properly considered her application to adopt or fairly assessed her.

And she suggested the council had discriminated against her due to her ethnicity and her husband’s mental health.

Hertfordshire County Council reviews adoption recruitment process following Ombudsman report

Following an investigation, the Ombudsman did not find evidence that the council’s decision not to progress the application was based on ethnicity, ethnic heritage or religion.

But he did find that the council was ‘at fault’ for not following statutory guidance.

And he suggested that the council’s procedure ‘gatekeeps’ who can register to adopt.

As a result of the finding, the council has agreed to apologise in writing to the complainant and her husband – referred to in the report as ‘Mr and Mrs M’ – and to pay them £300, in recognition for the distress caused and the delay.

The council has also agreed that by January 18 it will review its adoption recruitment procedure, to ensure it adheres to the Department of Education’s 2013 statutory guidance on adoption.

According to that statutory guidance, an adoption agency should respond impartially to requests for information about becoming an adopter.

And potential adopters need to formally register their interest with an adoption agency, in order to enter ‘stage one’ of the approval process.

But in this case the council initially rejected the couple’s application after assessing checks from a previous enquiry – BEFORE any formal registration of interest.

And, as a result says the Ombudsman’s report. ‘the council’s procedure gatekeeps who can register their interest to adopt and circumnavigates the statutory time frames for assessment’.

According to the Ombudsman’s report into the complaint, Mr and Mrs M made an enquiry about adoption in January 2020.

But in late February – before the couple had made a formal expression of interest – the council refused to progress the enquiry.

That decision, said the council, was based on checks that showed previous involvement with children’s services and enclosing a previous refusal letter that followed a previous enquiry in 2017.

The couple had then complained to the council that said the decision was ‘unfair’ and ‘discriminatory’.

And in response the council had pointed to previous disclosures and alleged threats in 2015, ‘incidents of note’, Mr M’s ‘complex’ mental health needs and further info gathered through earlier adoption enquiry.

But according to the Ombudsman this caused the couple an ‘injustice’.

“While I acknowledge the council’s explanation this was to safeguard children, this assessment took place before Mr and Mrs M signed a formal registration of interest,” says the report.

“There was no cogent reason why the Council could not have undertaken the checks and assessment within the procedure set out in the statutory guidance and time limits this provided.

“This was fault and caused Mr and Mrs M an injustice.

“They lost the opportunity to discuss their interest to adopt within the procedure set out in the statutory guidance and experienced unnecessary and significant delay of twelve months before proceeding to Stage One.”

According to the report the couple met with the council’s adoption service in July 2020.

And the following month they were advised that the council would pay for counselling sessions – after which they would be prepared to take the couple through to the first stage of the adoption process.

But the Ombudsman says that this should have been an ‘impartial visit’.

And he states: “Instead, the council used this visit to assess the couple as potential adopters. This was fault.

“The council should not have undertaken an assessment until Mr and Mrs M had formally registered their interest with the adoption agency.”

After agreeing to the period of counselling, the couple did sign a formal expression on interest and were allowed to attend events, that included an adoption training course.

But they were asked not to continue to day two of that adoption training, after highlighting their historical issues with the council during the training session.

And – after an emergency meeting with the council – the couple withdrew their registration of interest in January 2021.

"The Ombudsman ordered the council make the 'symbolic payment' to the couple 'in recognition of the distress caused and the avoidable delay'.

Following the publication of the report, a spokesperson for Hertfordshire County Council said they had conducted a thorough review of the processes, in response to the Ombudsman’s findings.

“We take the Ombudsman’s findings very seriously and where they find we have been at fault, we work hard to understand why it happened, how we can put it right and how we can prevent it happening again,” she said.

“Following this investigation, Hertfordshire County Council have conducted a thorough review of their adoption recruitment processes at the initial stage, working alongside partners in Adopt East to ensure that all procedures are consistently followed and enable the fairest approach for all candidates.”

The Ombudsman does not determine whether a council’s decision was right or wrong – but whether there was maladministration or service failure.

The ombudsman’s report can be found at www.lgo.org.uk.