Call For Investigation Into Social Services

27 January 2015, 07:56 | Updated: 27 January 2015, 07:57

MPs and foster carers have called for an investigation into claims Norfolk social services department wrongly removed vulnerable children.

The calls come after Norfolk County Council's children's services department - branded inadequate in an Oftsed inspection two years ago - suspended a team manager over allegations he removed a child from a foster carer without evidence of deliberate harm.

The Norfolk Foster Carers' Association (NFCA) said it had been contacted by dozens of parents and foster parents making similar claims over the last four years.

West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham and North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb said there were suspicions this was not an isolated case.

Both have been contacted by constituents claiming children have been removed from their care on the basis of apparently dubious evidence.

Norfolk County Council refused to comment on the specific allegations but said it was aware of concerns which are being "investigated thoroughly and carefully''.

Mr Bellingham said that, if proved, the case risked "massively undermining'' public confidence in the authority and should result in an independent inquiry.

He added: "If this complaint is upheld, such is the seriousness and level of public concern, the only way that could be assuaged is to bring in an outside, independent expert to examine previous cases.

"The public will suspect that this goes beyond one individual.

"We must be able to place absolute trust in social workers, who after all have the power to break up families and take children into care.

"That is a power which must be exercised responsibly.''

Mr Lamb, who is minister for care and support, said he understood an outside expert had already been called in to examine the allegations and he was keen that this process continued.

He added: ``The fact that somebody has been suspended and is awaiting disciplinary action reinforces the concerns that people have.

``It is essential that people have confidence in the process of the investigation into this allegation and any further allegations from foster carers and those who have been cared for.

``The complaints are of the utmost seriousness and we need to ensure that children are not taken away inappropriately.''

It is understood team manager Peter Barron was suspended following one of a number of investigations ordered by Sheila Lock, the department's interim head.

The council has refused to comment on Mr Barron's suspension, but documents seen by the Press Association show that he ordered a four-year-old boy to be removed from an experienced foster carer after a nursery worker found bruising on the child's leg in 2010.

Medical reports offered no evidence of abuse and both a consultant and a paediatrician said they could not offer any opinion on how much force was used.

A police officer supported this, saying there was insufficient evidence for a criminal investigation.

Mr Barron is alleged to have directly contradicted this evidence to a panel of experts, saying the paediatrician was "not happy'' with returning the child to the carer and was concerned about the degree of force which might have been used.

The foster carer involved is understood to have raised this evidence in 2011 but no action was taken until now.

Ray Bewry, chairman of the NFCA, said he had raised dozens of similar cases, involving different members of staff, with the authority since 2011.

Many of these were presented during a meeting with MPs last year when the NFCA claimed the council routinely departed from the law when removing children.

Mr Bewry himself won a 2010 High Court challenge against the authority after two teenagers were unfairly removed from his care after he criticised the council over its treatment of fostered asylum seeker children.

He added: "We have been contacted by parents, grandparents and foster parents and there seems to be a common pattern.

"We want a full investigation so that the public can be confident the council is acting in the best interests of children and families as this could go beyond one person, acting in isolation.

"These are cases which have a devastating effect on the people concerned.''

In a statement, Ms Lock said: ``Some concerns have been raised with us which are being investigated thoroughly and carefully, which is what anyone would expect a responsible authority to do.

"These specific allegations date back several years and have already been the subject of an independent investigator, which has led to a disciplinary process.

"Any member of staff is entitled to a fair hearing and it would be unreasonable of us to comment on specific details while our inquiries are continuing. Suspension is to allow a proper process to be followed, in the interests of everyone concerned.

"Ultimately our priority is always Norfolk's children and we have a duty to ensure their safety and investigate all concerns appropriately, whether they relate to members of staff, foster carers or those working with or caring for children.''

The department was judged to be inadequate in a 2013 Ofsted inspection which raised concerns over its failure to protect children and families.

Lisa Christensen, the then director of children's services, stepped down shortly after that report.