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Child abuse - complaints about local authorities - getting started

This advice applies to England

In a case involving child abuse, it can be complicated to work out how best to make a complaint about the local authority’s involvement with your family. This page helps you to get started.

Things to think about before you make a complaint

In a child abuse case, it can be complicated to decide how best to make a complaint about the local authority. This is partly because it can depend on what you want to complain about. For example, if you want to complain about a child protection conference, the procedure can be different to complaining about how a child has been assessed as being a child in need.

Also it can depend on what outcome you want. For example, if the local authority has serious concerns about the abuse of a child, and they have evidence of this, complaining about their behaviour may not help your case if you’re denying that your child needs protection. Even if it’s found that the local authority didn’t act properly, you won’t normally get compensation unless you are successful in taking court action against them or unless you take your complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.

Also each local authority has its own procedure for dealing with complaints, so exactly how to complain may depend on where you live.  However, each local authority must follow general guidelines about complaints.

For these reasons, it is always best to get help before you make a complaint. In serious cases, you may want to take specialist legal advice.

Examples of things you might want to complain about

Here are some examples of things you might want to complain about:

  • an unfair decision, for example, if they take away a child who doesn’t need protection
  • a delay in making a decision
  • a delay in providing necessary services, including delays in assessing a child’s needs
  • how they deliver services to your family. For example, the local authority may have failed to provide a service that meets your cultural or language needs
  • the attitude or behaviour of an individual social worker
  • unfair treatment by a social worker because, for example of your sexual orientation or disability. This may amount to discrimination which is against the law
  • the way a child protection conference was run
  • the facts on which the local authority based their decision were wrong.

Before you make a complaint

Before making a complaint, you will need to be sure about:

  • what can be complained about
  • whether you are someone who’s allowed to make a complaint under a particular procedure
  • what outcome you want
  • whether you are within the time limits
  • what is the procedure for making a complaint.

What outcome do you want?

Before making a complaint, you need to be clear about what outcome you want.

In some cases, you’ll just want an explanation of what happened and perhaps an apology, for example, for rudeness or for being kept waiting. You may want to highlight what you see as bad practice so that other people don’t have the same experience you had. These outcomes can usually be achieved by using the official complaints procedure.

In some cases, you may want a social worker to be disciplined because of what they have done (or not done) for you. Making a complaint won’t necessarily mean that the social worker will be disciplined, even if the complaint is found in your favour. This is because the complaints procedures and disciplinary procedures are quite separate procedures. In some cases, disciplinary procedures may follow as a result of a complaint, but they will not normally start until the complaints process has ended. However, you may think that the social worker has been guilty of professional misconduct, such as sexual harassment or falsifying records. In this case, rather than make a complaint against the local authority, you could ask the social worker’s professional body to start disciplinary action against them.

If you think that the actions of the social worker amount to a criminal offence, for example, sexual assault, you should contact the police.

You can’t get compensation as a result of using the official complaints procedure. However, if the complaint then goes to to the Local Government Ombudsman, you could end up getting compensation. Another option to get compensation would be to sue the local authority which employs the social worker.  You will need legal advice about this option.

What is the procedure for making a complaint?

If you want to make a complaint about the local authority, you will need to get hold of a copy of their official complaints procedure. You can get this by asking your social worker, or local authority complaints manager.The website of your local authority or Local Safeguarding Children Board may also have details.

Time limits for an official complaint

You should complain as soon as possible after the incident you want to complain about. The legal time limit for an official complaint to the local authority is twelve months from the date of the incident, or twelve months from the date when you first became aware you had a reason to complain.

The time limit can be extended if it would be unreasonable to expect it to have been made in time, for example, because of grief or trauma. It must, however, still be possible to investigate the complaint effectively and fairly. If you want to make a complaint outside the time limit, you must give full details of why you couldn’t make the complaint within the time limit.

Get help

There are a number of specialist organisations that give advice about child abuse procedures and could help you make a complaint.

Local Healthwatch

Local Healthwatch organisations not part of the formal child abuse complaints system. However they are interested in hearing about the public’s experience of making complaints. They will use that feedback to help improve the complaints system as a whole. To find the contact details of your local Healthwatch, go to:

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