A social worker has been struck off the register for developing an intense personal relationship with a prospective foster carer she was assessing.
The Lincolnshire social worker breached professional boundaries when she allowed an emotional and physical relationship to develop with a woman referred to as Service User A, a Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) panel was told. The social worker had worked for the council for more than 25 years prior to this with an “unblemished” record.
The pair met when the social worker began assessing Service User A for her suitability as a foster carer, a process which required her to complete an assessment document called a Form F.
In order to complete the form, a social worker must gain in-depth information about the prospective carer, including multiple home visits addressing issues of a highly personal nature and interviews with family members, children and ex-partners. The HCPC said this process meant the prospective foster carer was vulnerable while the social worker was in a position of relative power.
Service User A also told the panel she was additionally vulnerable because she realised she was confused about her sexuality. She said at times she thought the social worker was using some information elicited for her “own personal gratification”.
The panel was told the social worker saw the similarities between Service User A and her own background, which prevented her from acting objectively and extracting herself from the situation.
“She allowed her personal experience and feelings to interfere to a significant extent with her professional duties,” the panel concluded.
During the course of the assessment period, the social worker and Service User A began to exchange messages of a personal nature via text, email and the private message facility on Facebook.
The pair used nicknames, signed off messages with a kiss and sent sexually explicit Facebook messages referring to potential sexual contact between Service User A and a possible partner. The social worker also accepted gifts of flowers, wine and chocolates without recording them according to the council’s policy.
In the week the Form F was submitted for approval, a kiss instigated by Service User A occurred between the two, and the social worker in question did not report this to her manager or anyone else in the council. However, she did put a stop to the kiss, saying “this can’t happen,” the panel was told.
Service User A told the panel she was “equally to blame” and that it was a “mutual attraction”.
The panel acknowledged the social worker had been under significant work pressure and did not feel able to approach her line manager. Her team manager was also new to the post.
The team manager responsible for internal investigations said if the social worker had had better quality supervision, she might have been able to disclose the developing relationship with Service User A at an earlier stage.
The social worker did eventually make a voluntary disclosure of the relationship, shortly after the kiss had taken place, at which point she was suspended from work and her assessment form was withdrawn from consideration.
The proper course of action when receiving a “friend request” from a service user on social media would have been to decline politely with an explanation as to why it had to be the case. She should also have reported her acceptance of gifts, the HCPC judgment stated.
Independence and integrity
The panel said the social worker should have appreciated the importance of maintaining her independence and integrity throughout the assessment process, knowing that Service User A’s approval as a foster carer would depend in large part on her assessment.
“Any diminution in the impartiality of the assessment could compromise its reliability and might lead to an improper decision by the approving panel. This could, in turn, put either Service User A, her daughter or a foster child placed with them at risk,” the judgment stated.
The social worker has been removed from the HCPC register and barred from practising.