Panel ‘swayed by child’s death’ in barring social worker

A Care Council for Wales conduct committee has been accused of being overly influenced by a child’s death in its decision to bar a Swansea social worker in relation to the case.

That was the damning verdict of the First-tier Tribunal (Care Standards) as it reinstated Eleni Cordingley on the Welsh social care register, eight months after she was banned for misconduct in relation to the Aaron Gilbert case.

Following the decision, Swansea Council, which sacked Cordingley following the conduct committee’s decision because she was unable to continue working as a social worker, said it had offered the social worker her job back.

‘Poor professional judgement’

Cordingley had admitted misconduct in exercising “poor professional judgement” and breaching child protection procedures in her handling of an anonymous referral concerning risks to 13-month-old Aaron, made nine days before his death in May 2005 at the hands of his mother’s boyfriend.

However, the tribunal said removal had been a disproportionate sanction and the committee’s decision had made no reference to her remorse, insight into her actions or subsequent performance, or the poor conditions she worked in at the time.

The tribunal said: “The impression is gained that the committee was so influenced by the fact that underlying all the issues was the death of Aaron, that they failed to analyse forensically the decision making on 27 April 2005 objectively and dispassionately.”

Cordingley ‘suffered vilification’

It said Cordingley had “suffered vilification in the press and ill-informed public opprobrium”, and had shown “great moral courage” in continuing to live in Swansea and wanting to stay a social worker.

The tribunal said of the conduct committee: “It is important that those charged with the regulation of the professions remain vigilant not only in rooting out dangerous practice but to the necessity not to be swayed by apparent calls for retribution towards professionals.”

‘Punished enough’

The tribunal, which is unable to impose an alternative sanction, said Cordingley had been “punished enough”, making suspension or admonishment by the Care Council for Wales inappropriate.

It pointed out that before the case was investigated by the Care Council for Wales, Cordingley only received a “second level warning”.

Care Council for Wales chief executive Rhian Huws Williams said it accepted and respected the tribunal’s decision, and promised to examine it to see whether there were any implications for future cases.

But he added: “The care council takes its regulatory role very seriously and is scrupulous and fair in the way it investigates every case of alleged misconduct involving social workers or social care workers.”

Case background

The case revolved around an anonymous referral taken by an unqualified officer on Swansea’s assessment and information team on 27 April, 2005, for which Cordingley was then the sole social worker.

This warned that Aaron was covered in bruises and had been seen out at 2am with Andrew Lloyd, his mother’s boyfriend and a drug dealer, and that his then seven months pregnant mother, Rebecca Lewis, was taking drugs.

Cordingley asked the officer to write up the referral, but it was made in the name of the unborn child, not Aaron, contained the wrong address for the family and did not include Aaron’s age or Lloyd’s surname.

Day of Aaron’s death

She then wrote to Lewis requesting a meeting on 5 May, and when Lewis did not turn up, Cordingley decided to discuss the matter with her manager the following day – which turned out to be the day of Aaron’s death.

The tribunal confirmed that Cordingley had made the wrong decision in not referring the case to Swansea’s child assessment team.

But it said that it would have been unlikely that Aaron would have been assessed before his death, given the information that the child assessment team was frequently failing to carry out initial assessments within the seven working day target time.

Would not have been seen as section 47

It also said the lack of clarity in the information recorded meant it would not have been treated as a section 47 referral, involving the risk of serious harm to the child.

It also said that the assessment and information team was at the time under-resourced and under-trained, while the child assessment team was over-worked and had previously complained about Cordingley referring matters inappropriately.

The tribunal found that, as well as being overly influenced by the referral’s focus on the unborn child, Cordingley decided to investigate the issue herself because of the past complaints about inappropriate referrals to the child assessment team.

Cordingley ‘accepts error’

In a statement, Cordingley’s solicitors, Thompsons, said: “Eleni Cordingley accepts that it was an error of judgement on her part not to immediately refer Aaron’s case to the child assessment team and she continues to suffer huge remorse as a result. However, the tribunal was clear that there was no evidence that this misjudgement on her part led to Aaron’s death.”

Earlier this year, the Welsh government placed Swansea Council’s children’s services under the scrutiny of an external intervention board for its failure to improve sufficiently after a damning 2007 inspection report that found it was poor for safeguarding.

A spokesperson said: “It is now more than four years since the tragic death of Aaron Gilbert. Since that time policies, practices and procedures within child and family services have changed immensely. Swansea Council has learned lessons and continues to learn.”

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