Giving reinstated social workers another chance

Sacked, reinstated and back in the job market. But who will give vilified social workers a second chance, asks Kirsty McGregor

Free to practise but able to work?

Lisa Arthurworrey, the social worker vilified by the media after the death of a child allocated to her, eight-year-old Victoria Climbié, hit the headlines again last month.

The General Social Care Council, allowed Arthurworrey to join the register for the first time, offering her a chance to rebuild her social work career.

Ten years on, having successfully overturned the bans imposed on her, Arthurworrey is looking forward to practising again. But will her past misfortune taint her future employment prospects?

She is not the only social worker to face this challenge. In January 2009 social worker Eleni Cordingley was struck off the register in Wales and dismissed from her job at Swansea Council following the death of 13-month-old Aaron Gilbert.

Cordingley successfully appealed against her removal from the register but she refused the offer of her job back in favour of compensation.

Employers are under a legal obligation to consider applicants for a job based on all the information available and also have to balance the interests of giving social workers a second chance with protecting the public.

Many take a “no smoke without fire” approach, and they are within their rights to turn down an applicant if they can demonstrate there are doubts about his or her suitability.

We asked a panel of experts how they would handle job applications from social workers with “tainted” reputations.

Job application omission

Laura faced misconduct charges after she was accused of lying on a pre-employment questionnaire about her health record.

She failed to declare that within the last three years she had been unable to work for a period of two months because of injuries sustained in a traffic accident.

The conduct committee found that, while Laura had provided inaccurate information, it did not necessarily follow that she had done so deliberately.

It took into account that th ere was no apparent advantage to be gained by Laura by her failure to disclose the details of her injuries and subsequent hospitalisation.

She mistakenly believed she didn’t have to disclose details of the accident – and so was allowed to continue practising.

Dara De Burca, director of services at children’s cancer charity CLIC Sargent:

“The conduct committee cleared her saying that she was fit to practise. Her failing was not directly linked with social work practice and was not deemed to be intentional.

If she has met the selection criteria in a rigorous recruitment process and deemed to be the best person for the job, there is no reason not to employ her. There is of course a slight risk that she might again withhold information relating to her personal circumstances, in which case she should be held accountable.”

Jo Cleary, executive director of adults and community services at Lambeth Council:

“As plausible as the committee’s finding is, as an employer my concern would be to establish whether there are any other omissions of important facts I needed to know about that could place a question mark over this social worker’s integrity.

I would double check her employee file to establish if there were any inconsistencies in details she provided at pre-employment stage. Also a new medical opinion would be sought to establish if she was fit to continue in the role.”

Relationship with a client

John was suspended from the register for six months after forming an inappropriate relationship with the mother of a child whose case he was allocated.

The relationship was not a sexual one. But John sent the woman personal emails, met her in a local park and at her home outside of working hours. He visited her once while under the influence of alcohol.

The conduct committee also heard he had failed to inform his current employer that his previous employer was investigating a complaint against him. It decided to suspend John for six months as no harm appeared to have been caused to the child, and he had an unblemished record and testimonials showing he was a conscientious and able social worker.

Christine Walby, children’s services consultant and former director of social services:

“I would have some serious concerns about employing this person. The fact that no harm came to the child is clearly a relief, but has he appreciated the danger? By definition, that child would have been vulnerable.

This is a business where judgement and professional relationships are crucial, and he doesn’t seem to have understood that. I would look at the content of his record and to what extent he could demonstrate this was a one off.”

Peter Beresford, chair of Shaping Our Lives, a national network of service users and disabled people:

“Service users know professional boundaries need to be flexible and sensitive. They are also aware of the power imbalances that can exist between practitioners and service users.

He has not been honest and he has breached the trust of the child’s mother. Perhaps John has been under pressure and his employer has a duty of care to support him. But it primarily has a duty of care to its service users, as John does.”

Poor professional judgement

Frances was struck off the register after admitting she had exercised poor professional judgement in her handling of an anonymous referral about a child who was killed two weeks later by her father.

At the hearing, Frances expressed a great deal of remorse and insight into her actions. She explained she had received poor supervision and little support from her managers despite her and her colleagues holding excessive caseloads.

She appealed the decision and the first-tier tribunal ruled the sanction had been disproportionate and overturned it. The tribunal said there was no evidence Fran’s misjudgement led to the child’s death. It concluded she had suffered enough and should be allowed to practise again.

Christine Walby, children’s services consultant and former director of social services:

“I would meet her and make a judgement based on her record and what she has done since.

You can’t overlook the point about excessive caseloads. I would want to know how much support she was given and what her previous practice was like.

I have sympathy for someone who found themselves in a bad situation but who, given the right kind of support and supervision, might turn out to be an extremely gifted social worker.”

Dara De Burca, director of services at children’s cancer charity CLIC Sargent:

“If she had successfully come through our robust recruitment process and was the best candidate, we would employ her.

Fran has shown insight into her actions, demonstrating she can apply reflective practice and improve based on what she has learned. She has had her confidence knocked and may need a lot of support in order to regain her decision-making ability. We would make an assessment of her supervision and development needs in order to build up her confidence.”

What the law says

The four UK care councils have statutory power to agree and enforce codes of practice for social workers, underpinned by a national register.

Conduct committees of the General Social Care Council, Care Council for Wales, Northern Ireland Social Care Council and Scottish Social Service Council have the power to issue admonishments, suspensions or removals from the register in cases where misconduct is found. The SSSC can also issue conditions for practice.

Social workers in England and Wales can appeal to the First-tier (Care Standards) Tribunal, in Scotland to the Sheriff Court and in Northern Ireland to the Care Tribunal.

A criminal conviction does not automatically warrant removal from the register. But social work as a profession is excluded from the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, which means that convictions do not become “spent” and any criminal convictions have to be declared.

Published in the 1 April 2010 edition of Community Care under the heading Prisoners of Their Past

Relevant links

More stories on conduct

Quiz to assess personals boundaries

Professional boundaries in children’s services

More from Community Care

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