A local autority had been ordered to pay thousands of pounds in compensation to a father whose children were taken to Australia by their mother.
The case concerned a man who had attended the offices of Somerset County Council in Taunton one day and asked for assistance, saying he was unable to work and complaining that the Australian mother of his children had now also lost the right to work after the expiry of her visa. The man become angry when told he would have to make an appointment.
When council officers met the mother later that day, she made various allegations about the father, complaining of domestic violence and saying he was “emotionally abusive” and “controlling”.Social workers assessed the couple’s children and offered the mother a place in a domestic violence refuge, but she declined.
During a number of subsequent meetings between the mother and social workers from the council, she mentioned plans to renew the children’s passports and the council officers suggested that she have these sent directly to the offices. Later the mother told the social workers that she had gone ahead and booked flights back to Australia, even announcing her departure date. She did not tell the father however.
When she subsequently disappeared and he discovered where she had gone, the father unsurprisingly launched legal proceedings for the return of the children.
A famly court eventually ruled that the mother could not take the youngsters with her to Australia permanently and that they should spend equal amounts of time with both parents.
The father subsequently complained to Somerset County Council about its apparent encouragement of the mother. An internal investigation concluded that allowing that mother to use the council offices for her passport application had not been appropriate and that also criticised the failure of staff to alert authorities to the fact that the mother might leave the country.
But the father felt the investigation had not gone far enough and had been conducted too slowly. He took his complaint further, escalating it to the Local Government Ombudman (LGO).
Following an investigation the LGO concluded that social workers had been obliged to respond to the mother’s allegation but said its failure to notify authorities of the mother’s travel plans had indeed been wrong, as had helping her to renew the childen’s passports. In addition, the council’s investigation into the father’s complaints had taken too long.
Ombudsman Michael King explained:
“Whatever the circumstances, children should not be taken out of the country without the consent of all who have parental responsibility for them. In this case, Somerset council were aware of the mother’s plans, and should have alerted the relevant authorities to her intentions. Had they done so, it is likely she would have been prevented from taking them to Australia, and the father would have been spared both the heartache of losing contact with his children for a number of months and the cost of returning them to the UK.”
The LGO ordered the council to pay the father £5,000, to cover the travel expenses he had incurred during the case and in compensation for the distress and anxiety he had suffered.