Social worker who used Facebook to communicate with service user suspended

A conduct panel found a social worker should have known it was inappropriate to communicate with a service user on Facebook messenger

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Photo: Universal Images Group/REX Shuttershock

Social workers have been warned about using Facebook messenger to communicate with service users, in a conduct case that led to a practitioner being suspended for 12 months.

A conduct committee panel found that the children’s social worker should have known it was inappropriate to use the messaging service to communicate with one of her service users, now 17. This was one of three matters that were found to constitute misconduct and led to the social worker’s suspension.

The social worker also brought the service user to her home on three occasions but later phoned the young person to ask her to say she’d only visited once after the local authority launched an internal investigation into misconduct allegations, the panel heard.

The panel found this was dishonest and the social worker’s attempt to get the service user to lie in order to protect her interests was a “serious breach of trust” in their relationship that reflected an “oppressive” power dynamic.

The panel heard that the social worker had been in regular contact with the service user via social media.

In its evidence, the HCPC said the use of Facebook messages to contact the service user was “entirely outwith” the monitoring or control of the local authority and there was no audit trail by their nature. The social worker sent several messages late at night and some included “inappropriate content”, including an attempt to sell a used iPhone to the service user, it added.

The social worker initially denied the Facebook communications. She later acknowledged them but said she was unaware she should not have been communicating with the service user in this way.

The social worker said she was not ‘friends’ with the service user on Facebook. She said the messages had been taken out of context and although some were sent outside of working hours, all the conversations were also discussed face to face with the service user and other professionals.

In her written evidence submitted to the panel, the social worker said she was “extremely sorry” for her actions and regretted talking to the service user on Facebook and bringing her home.

“I do not use the lack of supervision or the staff absence as an excuse, though I do believe they play a part in my lack of judgment. It felt very chaotic unsafe and unmanageable in the team,” she said.

The panel accepted there were issues in respect of inadequate supervision and staff shortages at the time of the events. It said there was also evidence of at least one other incident in the past of a social worker taking a young person to their home, although not inside their house, and of other social workers breaching the social media policy in respect of communicating with service user through social media. These had led to management instructions being issued reminding the team to follow policy.

Having considered these factors, the panel concluded that the social worker’s practice was still impaired.

On the issue of the social worker’s social media use, it said: “In respect of the Facebook communications the panel is entirely satisfied that the registrant, as a highly experienced and senior social worker, should have been aware of the inappropriateness of using this form of communication.

“The council was unaware of the communications taking place, therefore raising obvious risks due to it not being recorded in the case records. The timing of the communications was often unacceptable being late at night and some of the content, for example where the Registrant seems to attempt to sell a used mobile phone to Service User A, inappropriate.”

12 Responses to Social worker who used Facebook to communicate with service user suspended

  1. Thelma olynn December 1, 2016 at 1:22 am #

    Nice to know that social sevices are taking responsibility for their mistakes.☺

  2. Rosaline December 1, 2016 at 6:12 am #

    This is the first case I have read in sometime , where the reaction is clearly proportionate. As professionals we must serve to be congruent and not find justifications, for actions that are unprofessional.

    I hope the social worker understands the professional boundaries to be learnt.

    • Anne Cameron December 1, 2016 at 9:46 am #

      I would think all social workers even students should be aware not to communicate on Facebook. If you are aware service user used Facebook you should add them to your block list and make sure your security is tight do they can’t send you friend requests. I would also take this a step further if you are a practice educator you should not accept friend requests from your students.

      • Stuart December 1, 2016 at 11:35 am #

        And neither should social work managers be social media ‘friends’ with their staff.
        But what happens when ‘real’ friends become social media ‘friends’ and then become manager & managee, or trainer and trainee?

      • Danny December 1, 2016 at 8:01 pm #

        Anna we are !! This, the importance of the PCF, HCPC and referencing,are hammered down on us everyday. Shocked that this is even news. The knowledge of this isn’t even social work related, it’s leaning towards common sense. Every professional shouldn’t add / speak with their students on social media, unless their role requires them to.

      • Simon December 5, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

        totally agree with Anne Cameron

        i will not accept any facebook requests for some one i manage or assess as a parctice educator

        did we not use to do a module on personal/professional boundaries???

  3. Stuart December 1, 2016 at 11:55 am #

    I don’t use bookface, never have and don’t expect I ever will so not totally sure how it works but –

    Is the issue here the medium or the content?

    I can’t see that a messaging service on a website is massively different from one on a voice phone, a texter or an emailer. There was a time when none of those three existed but when they became available they began to be used.

    So surely the focus should be on whether the content of the messages was appropriate?

    I used to be a youth worker in various settings before I became a social worker and can conceive that a (nocturnal) teenager might respond more favourably to a social worker who ‘got with the beat Baggy’ than a stuffy old git like I’ve become – and especially so if said teenager saw the social worker cared enough about them to communicate at the teenager’s prime time (i.e. at the teena/er’s convenience.)

    Not that I’m saying this is what happened here, none of us who weren’t involved know the whole story and there was clearly some inappropriate communication but are we sure it was the medium rather than the content of the messages that are of concern?

  4. AK December 1, 2016 at 4:34 pm #

    Whilst I didn’t agree with it, I did read an article recently to say that SWs could be modern and communicate with service users over Facebook and be ‘friends’. As a profession we have a reputation to uphold so there shouldn’t be anything unprofessional or inappropriate on our personal accounts. I didn’t agree with this article and can’t remember where I saw it, but I think this makes us very vulnerable and easily targeted if we have pictures of our family or a photo that could locate us. However, with such articles flying around, there’s no wonder people justify that these actions are okay. Hopefully if nothing else, this consequence will make this SW and others practice a bit safer. We’re vulnerable in our job as it is.

  5. Billy Todd December 2, 2016 at 8:41 am #

    As a children’s social worker ,I have also taken a service user to my home, kept them calm made them some food and let them watch TV ..he was four and his family had abandoned him at school . There was no placement available until the evening..the office was closed .I would stand by my decision to cross over this professional boundary again in such circumstances. I find that when working to assist people with making profound changes in their lives we work along the edges and push boundaries.

    • Esme Davies December 10, 2016 at 1:23 pm #

      Why didn’t you take him to a cafe? Even a bloomin’ pub? You put him and yourself in a really unboundaried situation. I’m in EDT, and often we don’t have placements etc, and I spend time with kids in this situation. I buy them a magazine, food etc, and sit with them at the police station or hospital or whatever until a carer is available.

  6. Martin Porter December 2, 2016 at 9:13 am #

    I agree this seems fair, for once.

    However I’d be interested to know if this would apply to an Adult Care worker who’s relationship with a client had not involved the statutory duties of a Children and Families Worker.

    I certainly don’t communicate with my clients using facebook messenger, but their relatives are regular contributors to our local community pages, and I often find out who’s died on facebook before the hospital tell me.

    Where is the line?

  7. Ruksana Chowdhory December 4, 2016 at 7:51 pm #

    It’s about the context and in this context the decision was fair and proportionate. There’s no need to communicate with teenagers late at night when 11 am in the morning suffices; and it’s inappropriate to try and sell anything of yours to a service user. Furthermore, taking a teen to your home (several times) is different than taking an abandoned little child home (on a one-off) when there are no other means available to keep him safe from harm. It’s common sense really and using it doesn’t require management oversight. In this case, the whole situation was avoidable. Sad.