“I get this email and I didn’t even need to open it up to know it was about me. I ran and I hid in the toilet.”
Siobhan Condon is retelling the moment she received Community Care’s weekly email which led with the story about her being sanctioned by the Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC) for posting comments about a case on Facebook.
She read the article, eventually. With the story being viewed more than 42,000 times, shared more than 550 times on Facebook and attracting 29 comments, there must be few social workers who did not.
However, Community Care was not the only news outlet to cover the story – the local media and the Daily Mail both gave the case extensive coverage.
And whilst she lost her original agency position because of the comments and the complaint which was subsequently filed, Siobhan says it is the media attention given to the verdict which forced her out of her second job. She has also had to move house after her personal details were published online and she received threats.
The Mail Online story alone attracted 652 comments, many of which, she says, displayed “absolute hate for social workers, and social care, and social work”.
“Maybe I’m naïve but I was so shocked at the hatred and the degree of it.”
Why then does she want to speak publicly, despite the advice of several of her close friends telling her to leave it alone?
“I can’t take it back, but if there’s anything from what’s happened over the last 16 months that I can share, to help a social worker ever going through that; ever going before a HCPC panel that’s what I’ve got to do.”
Her first action, whilst sitting on her sofa talking to Community Care, is to apologise for making publicly available comments about a case on her Facebook page.
“To both the family and to social work. It was never my intention, ever. I didn’t think about what I was doing and I didn’t think about the impact of it. I’ve lived with that.”
Whilst the 16 months after the incident have been incredibly difficult, Siobhan says it has also been the first time in a 15 year career in child protection that she’s been able to take stock of the life she was leading as a social worker in the lead-up to her “huge, huge, stupid mistake, absolute mistake”.
It featured in the HCPC verdict of her hearing that Siobhan felt extremely burned out. Expanding on this, she speaks more about her way of living that “really wasn’t quite conducive” to social work.
She acknowledges how she was caught trying to balance a difficult personal life along with a number of extreme cases, allocated to her because of her knowledge and experience.
The day she took on the case she made the comments about, she recalls telling her manager that she had just finished dealing with a very high risk and tough case and she was feeling exhausted.
“But my manager said: “Siobhan I can’t give it to anyone else, this is too high risk.” … “So I said ‘Okay then’ … I really regret saying that now.”
The new case meant inheriting 8 years’ worth of case notes and felt, Siobhan says, like a hurricane.
The comments that followed the case ending were an expression of relief: “Relief that this whole thing was over, exhaustion was thrown in with that and I felt proud.”
She still, however, looks back distastefully on the comments she made, admitting she finds it hard to read them now, especially the use of the phrase ‘monumental moment in my career’ which she has spent 16 months trying to explain to herself: “It was all so big. That job was so big and I think that’s where the monumental came in. Completely in the wrong context, completely.”
However, Siobhan also says she feels she was abandoned at the moment she made her first mistake in 15 years.
“The biggest lesson I learned was when you’re an agency social worker, no-one has a duty of care to you. And I’d never needed to think about that because I never thought I could make such a foolish mistake that would lead to what happened for the whole of the following of that year.”
“No-one has a duty of care to you, so if you make a mistake, you have nowhere to go. I wasn’t a member of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and I didn’t belong to a Union as I had never had that time,” she says, reflecting on being so focused on working and parenting that other areas never became a priority.
Early media attention, and a lot of that which followed both before and after the hearing, described Siobhan’s comments as ‘gloating’, and when addressing the role the media reaction played in her hearing, she states she doesn’t think the sanction would’ve been as severe if the media hadn’t got involved.
“The panel hit on the fact that because of the press interest a sanction was required, because it had attracted so much press attention it was in the public interest that I should have a sanction.”
Siobhan still has questions about her hearing and the outcome. For example,the panel found that she lacked insight into her sole responsibility for the posts, she says hearing that nearly made her fall off of her chair.
There were suggestions that she tried to apportion blame to her managers, but she denies ever bringing that up – those were questions asked by the panel and were misinterpreted, she claims.
The panel also said that it was her responsibility to seek out management support about the comments, yet she points out her direct manager commented on the posts on her Facebook page.
She does, however, admit how the enforced step back has allowed her some perspective. When she rejoined the workforce for a brief period she says she was suddenly struck by “social workers running around… the stresses, and the burden they carry is massive.”
“There’s no self-care. If you don’t look after you, no-one is going to look after you, and that’s what social work is about at the moment.”
The experience, she says, has also helped her see first-hand the terrible relationship between the profession and the media- with its willingness to try and destroy people who do their best to protect children.
Focusing particularly on the comments in the Daily Mail, she says there were some which defended her; said she had done her job to protect children and that she had simply made a mistake. However, she is left questioning why there isn’t a body that does this, not just for her, but for the whole of social work.
“We’re at this point in time where there needs to be a social work revolution. Social work is an excellent career to be in, we get to change people’s lives. We get to change children’s lives, families lives. And that’s really powerful.
“If social work isn’t proud of what it does then that gives a really negative message to the public… What the press are doing, and what social work is doing in itself is just annihilating itself.”
Animated and flamboyant (she knocked the dictaphone out of my hand when showing how she hid from Community Care’s news story), Siobhan is adamant that, despite a mistake which she regrets immensely, she is steadfastly proud of what she has done as a social worker, pointing to a highly complementary audit report about her practice whilst she worked at Essex Council.
Above all else, for the future, Siobhan says she wants to return to the profession that she loves and felt married to. But she concedes that “no-one will touch me with this bubbling in the air, I know that; I respect that.”
But as for now, she’s done hiding away in the toilet.