Social worker’s case management delays caused ‘actual harm to service users’

Suspended practitioner left assessments uncompleted and failed to report a missing child, tribunal finds

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Photo: Monkey Business Images/REX/Shutterstock

A children’s social worker has been suspended from the register for 12 months after being found guilty of misconduct.

The experienced practitioner, who was described as “pleasant and likeable” and had been at Southwark council since 2008, was deemed to have displayed a lack of competence in relation to 16 different service users and their families. In some cases this was found to have caused actual harm, according to a Health and Care Professions Council panel.

The social worker was a member of the local authority’s children with disabilities team and many of the cases related to children with autism. On numerous occasions he was found to have failed to complete assessments – on some occasions for years – despite reminders from managers to do so.

The tribunal noted that there were some mitigating circumstances in the case, notably around workload and difficulties with IT systems. But the panel said that the factors “did not significantly lessen the Registrant’s culpability for his failures”.

Period of support

Concerns about the social worker’s performance were raised in late 2014, the tribunal heard. There followed a period of support, including supervision and guidance meetings at which the social worker’s performance was discussed.

An investigation was then carried out by ‘RW’, a team manager who worked alongside the social worker and carried out some of his supervisions, and submitted to the council’s HR department in November 2015.

“The evidence of RW was that during guidance meetings and the capability process the Registrant acknowledged that his work fell below the required standards,” the tribunal found. “He did not dispute the facts, but put forward mitigating factors of difficulties with IT system and pressure of work.”

The social worker waived his right to attend the tribunal. Among a long list of examples relating to 16 different service users, which were found to be proved, the panel heard that:

  • In 2015, the social worker received a call from the chronically ill mother of ‘Service User 1’, who “was acting as a young carer and was exhibiting emotional and behavioural difficulties both at home and at school”. The mother said her son had gone missing with another child, but the social worker failed to report this to the duty manager, for whom he was working that day.
  • In 2014, the social worker was asked to interview a 13-year-old boy with moderate to severe learning disabilities and other health concerns, at his school. The boy’s father was the subject of a sexual abuse allegation relating to a teenage girl and RW wanted the social worker “to ascertain whether there were any concerns of sexual abuse within the family”. The social worker did not carry out the interview, nor did he visit the boy’s home until almost a year later.
  • In 2014, the social worker was contacted by the school of an eight-year-old boy with autism and a long history of psychosis who was exhibiting sexualised behaviour and language. The social worker did not respond, nor did he notify his manager. “Given that these concerns related to sexualised behaviour, they were predominantly safeguarding issues, and should have been responded to quickly,” the tribunal found.

A small number of additional allegations, relating to the same group of service users, were not substantiated because of insufficient evidence.

The tribunal heard that some of the social worker’s other practice was satisfactory and that he “appeared to be busy at work, but spent much of his time on the telephone or engaged in lengthy home visits”.

He had during guidance meetings been offered support and training around organisation and time management, as well as opportunities to join a buddy system and receive counselling. “The Registrant did not ask for help or take up any of the suggestions, other than the offer of increased frequency of supervision,” the panel found.

‘Actual harm’

The tribunal concluded that the social worker had caused actual harm to service users in cases where families entitled to services had been deprived of them because of assessment delays.

“There was the potential for further harm such as family breakup or a family being unable to care for the child, so that the child needed to be taken into care,” the panel noted. It added that the social worker’s conduct could have caused families or other service users to lose confidence in Southwark council and so not seek help when needed.

In deciding on an appropriate sanction the tribunal considered a number of aggravating factors, including the social worker’s repeated failures despite frequent reminders, lack of remorse or engagement with the HCPC and likelihood of repeat behaviour.

A 12-month suspension, rather than striking-off, was deemed appropriate based on the lack of serious bad behaviour – such as dishonesty or sexual misconduct – and the possibility the social worker could decide to take steps to remedy his actions.

“It is not in the public interest that a qualified and experienced social worker is removed from the register if there is a prospect that [they] will be able to remediate past misconduct and return to safe practice,” the tribunal concluded.

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One Response to Social worker’s case management delays caused ‘actual harm to service users’

  1. leah September 6, 2017 at 11:45 pm #

    There are a few issues here, which need to be addressed. The Social Worker had worked at the council for 6 years, before problems began to surface about his practice.

    Had anything changed in his personal or professional life which may have impacted his work, and also what were the numbers and complexity of his case load? There was a mention of there being problems with 16 families, so it would appear he a lot more families to manage than this, which is quite high.

    He was noted to ‘always be on the telephone and undertaking lengthy home visits’ – well what do management and the HCPC expect of a social worker in a busy social care department? Often we social workers do the ‘real work’ (i.e. writing reports and case notes) in our own time, as there is no time during our working day.

    In relation to his assessments not being completed for years, and urgent matters being ‘a year out of date’ – where the hell was his manager in all of this, and I hope they fronted the HCPC too, as there is a lack of managerial oversight and accountability in all of this-just a lot of managerial buck-passing (and BS-ing) to be honest.

    Having worked previously for this council as an agency social worker (which is often regarded as one of the worst councils in London); I can concur with the poor working conditions there, the heavy caseloads, lack of support, and overall lack of morale. It’s one of the few places I was glad to leave, and I would never work for again. They even say in their advert they ‘make no bones about it being a difficult place to work’ (their actual words).

    It’s high time that these chaotic and crisis driven social work departments akin to a ‘hot mess’, are given a complete overhaul, as the reality is they are a slowing ‘sinking and stinking’ ship for their staff.