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Exclusive: Taxpayers left with £1.3m bill after council chiefs falsely accused foster parent of ‘sexual impropriety’

The family won a legal battle against Moray Council after finding themselves subject to "erroneous and misleading" complaints, reports
Dale Haslam
Two foster carers have been given a payout after Moray Council took a girl from their care. Image: Shutterstock
Two foster carers have been given a payout after Moray Council took a girl from their care. Image: Shutterstock

A council has been forced to pay out £1.3 million after social workers falsely accused a Moray foster carer of “sexual impropriety”.

The foster family took legal action against Moray Council after finding themselves subject to a raft of allegations from council staff, which a sheriff later ruled to be “erroneous and misleading”.

Despite the local authority being found to have breached the family’s human rights and being ordered to pay them compensation, the council appealed – but lost.

As a result, Moray Council was ordered to pay the foster parents and their children a total of £840,000, plus both sides’ legal fees of £500,000 – bringing the total cost to taxpayers to £1,340,000.

In our investigation into the case, the foster parents – who cannot be named for legal reasons – say they believe Moray Council’s actions were carried out “for revenge” in the wake of an earlier complaint about social workers – and a sheriff has backed that judgement.

We also revealed how social workers:

  • held an “inappropriate” secret meeting and decided to remove the child from the couple.
  • told them it was a temporary separation when they knew that wasn’t true.
  • made false allegations of sexual impropriety towards the foster dad.
  • were branded a “disgrace” for shouting at the vulnerable girl during a meeting and making her cry.
  • called the couple “snobbish”, “really middle class” and “a nightmare” behind their backs.

Simon and Sarah – not their real names – had been fostering a teenage girl and her two younger brothers, who all had complex needs, for five years without incident, but said everything changed after they lodged a complaint about the social work department’s conduct.

Moray Council eventually apologised to the family, but six weeks later – and in a blow that devastated Simon and Sarah – the same social work boss who had handled their complaint ruled that the girl should be removed from their care.

That decision, in 2018, set in motion Simon and Sarah’s five-year fight with Moray Council and lifted the lid on a culture of secrecy within the council’s social work department.

‘False sexual impropriety allegation’

In order to justify removing the girl, social workers claimed there had been “sexual impropriety” from Simon towards the girl.

They argued that Simon had failed to report a “sexual” text message he got from the girl.

However, it turned out the message was not sexual – and Simon HAD reported it.

A sheriff would later brand these allegations “erroneous and deliberately misleading” resulting in “reputational damage” for Simon.

Two of the children fostered by Simon and Sarah on a day out. Image supplied by Simon and Sarah

It then emerged that, though council chiefs had told Simon and Sarah the girl was just going into temporary respite care, it was actually a permanent move.

The council did not listen to the girl’s views about where she wanted to live, contrary to the law.

In fact, at one key meeting, senior council staff refused to let the girl read a four-page account of why her childhood trauma shaped her behaviour.

Teacher branded shouting social worker ‘a disgrace’

Instead, a council employee shouted at her, prompting her teacher, who was at the meeting, to describe it as “a disgrace”.

Simon and Sarah took Moray Council to court and a sheriff ruled the council had breached their human rights by infringing on their right to a family life.

That judgment came after a shocking court hearing in which the girl’s social worker admitted a catalogue of errors and culture of secrecy within the council.

Despite those failings being exposed in that August 2022 verdict, the council prolonged the legal fight by appealing the payout – knowing it could increase the cost to ratepayers.

In November 2023 three appeal court sheriffs upheld the original outcome – and the cost to the taxpayer did indeed increase.

‘We think they took her out of revenge’

The foster parents were so traumatised by their ordeal, they have since moved away from the north-east and feel only able now to discuss what happened.

“We do think they did it for revenge for our complaint,” said Sarah.

In her ruling on the case, Sheriff Olga Pasportnikov said this was a “logical deduction”.

The three children in Simon and Sarah’s care on a family skiing holiday. Image supplied by Simon and Sarah,

Sarah added: “We are sharing what happened to us in the hope that it will never happen to anyone again.”

A senior council source, who asked not to be named, told us: “This has been a very difficult case.

‘It should have been handled better’

“It goes back a long way – to 2017 – and things have changed for the better since then, but this was definitely a case that should have been handled better, by many people at the council.”

Simon and Sarah became foster carers in 2012 and many reports about them were glowing.

The three children they cared for – all siblings – referred to them as “mum and dad” and enjoyed family trips and holidays abroad.

Moray Council Annexe.
Moray Council has said its children’s care standards have improved in recent years.

The family say they had a positive relationship with their social worker until 2017, when he left to take up another role at the council.

A new social worker came in – but she admitted never bothering to speak to her predecessor, despite him working in the same building.

She also never visited the three children privately, refused to read Simon and Sarah’s diary entries about their sometimes challenging behaviour – and even questioned why the couple should be keeping a note of it at all.

Staff called couple ‘snobbish’ behind their backs

In evidence heard during the court case, it emerged social workers regarded Simon and Sarah as “snobbish”, “really middle class” and “a nightmare”.

When Simon and Sarah complained, the council agreed there had been failings and so the council apologised.

Later, the council called a “clandestine” meeting in which a social work boss – Kathy Henwood – decided to remove one of the children from Simon and Sarah’s care.

Ms Henwood now works service director as children’s services manager at Edinburgh City Council.

During the subsequent court case, and under questioning from Simon and Sarah’s lawyer, a social worker admitted the secret meeting was inappropriate.

The lawyer asked: “So the manager (Kathy Henwood) asked you to make inquiries about alternative placements for the girl?”

She replied: “I think so.”

The lawyer followed up: “Do you think, in retrospect, that kind of clandestine planning in the background was appropriate?”

“No I don’t,” she replied.

The lawyer also asked the social worker if she was aware that Kathy Henwood had handled the family’s earlier complaint and also agreed to the child being taken away from Simon and Sarah.

“Yes,” she replied.

‘Decision to take the girl away was made on a whim’

In her ruling, Sheriff Pasportnikov was scathing of social workers’ conduct, saying that decisions about the girl’s care were taken “on a whim” and “in complete ignorance of any facts”.

Sheriff Pasportnikov said: “In January 2018, a looked-after child review took place, but the decision permanently to end the child’s placement with council staff had already been made without any discussion with the child or the respondents.

“Prior to the review, council staff made erroneous and misleading statements about [Simon and Sarah] including a false allegation of sexual impropriety being levelled at [Simon].

Sheriff Olga Pasportnikov. Image supplied by Scottish Court Service

“Decisions in relation to one of the children were made on the basis of erroneous information, on a whim, and, in some cases, in complete ignorance of any facts and without regard for the information provided by the child or the child’s carers.”

The sheriff’s ruling exonerated Simon and Sarah, but for the couple and their family, the emotional repercussions are still being felt.

Speaking from her new home in England, Sarah told us: “This has caused us years of stress.

“We felt like we’ve had to move house for a fresh start.

“We couldn’t stay in a house we loved, had rebuilt from being almost derelict and created amazing gardens.

“Emotionally, we are still far from recovered and the damage to the children was significant.”

‘Fostering processes have changed’

Moray Council requested that we not publish the name of the council manager involved in the case as it might identify the children involved, but did not explain how this would be the case.

Moray Council’s interim chief social work officer Jim Lyon said: “Moray Council respects the court’s decision and is complying with the court order.

“We have settled the financial claim as specified recognising this is a significant sum for the council.”

He added: “Fostering processes have changed since this matter first came to light with a firm commitment to developing and improving practice by training, clarity on multi-agency working roles, procedural standards and operational guidance.

Care Inspectorate reports since December 2017 show consistent improvement across the services involved in the care of children and young people in Moray.

“We are determined to continue that trajectory.

“Giving evidence in court can be stressful for witnesses and the council is committed to ensuring appropriate support and guidance for its members who may have to present evidence in court.”