Council ‘too quick to pass the buck’ over child abuse claims

Local Government Ombudsman orders Croydon to conduct an audit of child sexual abuse cases going back three years, after the authority’s response to a draft report ‘suggests wider systemic issues’

Croydon’s children’s services department may have “systemic” errors, according to the Local Government Ombudsman, who today accused the council of “being too quick to pass the buck”, after a suicidal teenaged girl was left without support when she reported two instances of serious sexual abuse.

The poor handling of the case by social workers from Kent has left the girl’s mother “emotionally broken”.

The Ombudsman’s report, made public today, is particularly scathing about Croydon Council’s attitude to the problematic case, which dates back to 2018.

The council’s response to the Ombudsman’s report was to state that its children’s services had recently been given a “Good” rating by Ofsted (following nearly three years when rated as “Inadequate”). “It is disappointing,” the Ombudsman’s report states, that, “Croydon appear to suggest this indicates the fault identified in this report is confined to the past.

“We feel this case is an opportunity to learn and make improvements to prevent other children and families experiencing the same issues.”

The case involved Croydon and Kent County Council. The assaults had occurred in Croydon, but the young woman and her mother now live in Kent.

The report states, “We are concerned by the failings we found with both councils. Although the period subject of this investigation is 2018-2019, the nature of the faults and both councils’ responses to our draft report, suggests wider systemic issues rather than being simple one-off errors.”

Both councils must consider the Ombudsman’s report “at a full council, cabinet or other appropriately delegated committee of elected members”, and provide the Ombudsman’s office evidence when this has been done.

They must also “conduct an audit of 50 cases closed in similar circumstances between 2018 to date. If more than 25 per cent of those cases identify similar issues, the council should make resources available to conduct a full case audit. The full audit should review all cases closed in similar circumstances between 2018 to date.”

And while the Ombudsman reports that Kent has agreed to carry out such an audit, it does not state that it has received any such agreement from Croydon.

For cash-strapped Croydon, which spent at least £30million between 2017 and 2020 on trying to drag its children’s services out of the Ofsted “Inadequate” status, the Ombudsman’s direction can only be seen as a huge set-back.

The Ombudsman has used this case as an example to all local authorities, urging them “to place children at the centre of decision-making in cross-border child protection cases”.

In the report, the girl’s mother is referred to as “Mrs B”, her daughter as “C”.

The girl reported she had been sexually abused in Croydon when she was younger. Her mother reported this to the police and was told by the police she would be contacted by a social worker.

Ombudsman Michael King: critical of Croydon Council’s response to his findings

In June 2018 Kent received a referral from the police stating a historic allegation of serious sexual abuse had been made. Kent advised the police to refer the case to Croydon for investigation. Kent did not contact the mother or the girl to assess if support was needed.

A second police referral was received by Kent in September 2018 relating to the same incident originally reported. Kent made contact with the family following the second referral and offered some support.

The mother felt the support offered was not appropriate. “The social worker did not speak to the girl directly before completing her assessment despite this being a clear requirement of the statutory guidance,” the Ombudsman said today.

In their full, 12-page report, the Ombudsman reports how Kent told Mrs B that it would refer her matter to its LADO – Local Authority Designated Officer. The mother, because of the nature of her own work, felt that she had been placed under investigation by social services. “This would have threatened her employment and added to her distress,” the Ombudsman said.

In her initial complaint, Mrs B wrote, “Imagine the anguish and trauma I felt knowing that my child had been abused and now I may lose my job.

“I cannot put into words the emotional trauma this incident caused me. I was managing to be strong for my family and primarily C since 22nd June [2018] when she made the initial disclosure. However once [Worker B] came to my home and questioned my ability to safeguard children and my job (a job that I love), a job that provides for my family a job that without that income I could not pay for therapy sessions for C or our family, I was emotionally broken.

“I managed to hold it together outwardly because I knew if I didn’t C would be let down even further.”

The Ombudsman says that their investigation found that “neither council took responsibility”. Shockingly, there was no direct contact between either council for nearly two years. “During this time the girl’s mental health deteriorated: she made three suicide attempts and went missing for a period. Neither council worked together to safeguard the girl,” the Ombudsman says.

Alisa Flemming: still responsible

The Ombudsman found Croydon at fault for failing to follow statutory guidance “because it did not convene a strategy discussion following the girl’s initial disclosure. This led to an uncoordinated response, lack of information sharing, failure to identify potential risk and poor victim care”.

Ombudsman Michael King said today, “This is a key example of the very real impact on vulnerable children when councils do not fully understand their responsibilities.

“In this case, both councils were too quick to pass the buck and look for reasons not to take action or ownership, while in the middle there was a distressed teenager desperately in need of significant support.”

At the time of publication, Croydon Council had failed to publish any part of the Local Government Ombudsman’s ruling on its children’s services failings. The council cabinet member responsible for schools and children is Alisa Flemming, who has held that position since 2014, including the period in which children’s services were rated as “Inadequate” by Ofsted.

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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