Social worker sanctioned for keeping case files at home ‘too long’

Conduct panel finds social worker potentially deprived service users and professionals of crucial information

Picture: eaglesky/fotolia

A children’s social worker has been sanctioned for keeping case documents at home for too long and failing to store them securely.

The social worker, who was in her first job since qualifying, kept the documents at home for up to four years, a fitness-to-practice panel found. They included original copies of a life story book, photographs, court orders, parenting assessments and legal letters.

She returned the documents to her local authority in February 2014 while serving a suspension for unrelated concerns. She admitted she should have returned them sooner so they could be added to service users’ files but said she had been busy and had been in the early stages of pregnancy at the time so was worried about lifting heavy papers.


The social worker argued the documents had been stored securely in a locked cupboard prior to her moving house in August 2013. The panel said it did not accept this was secure and said the documents were “retained in an unsecure manner” throughout the four year period.

The panel gave the social worker a conditions of practice order after concluding her actions amounted to misconduct. This is because she had potentially deprived service users of “crucial information” about themselves and left other professionals working with the families with incomplete files, the panel said. By failing to keep the documents securely she also risked breaching confidentiality of service users, it added.

The panel said: “As a social worker for vulnerable children, the registrant had a responsibility to ensure that any documents that were removed from the council premises would be returned within a reasonable period of time.

“The panel considers that the registrant’s actions in failing to return those documents for a significant period of time and keeping those documents in an unsecure manner was a particularly serious failing and demonstrates a fundamental departure from the standards expected of a social worker.”

Mitigating factors

In the course of the case the social worker apologised for her actions and said she had not realised the “vast amount of documentation” she had accumulated. When asked what the consequences would have been of the information not being on the care files, she said “it wouldn’t have been good”.

The conduct panel considered mitigating factors in the case. These included that the social worker had been in her first job since qualifying at the time and had attended a data protection course since the failings had been identified. However, it found she lacked full insight into the issues with her conduct.

The panel said: “It is also apparent from her answers that she fundamentally lacks understanding as to the seriousness of her failings because she stated in evidence when she was returning the documents she had not realised that this matter would be a disciplinary issue

“Additionally she stated she had not been concerned about having the documents at her first address because they were in “a safe place”. This demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic duty of a social worker to properly safeguard sensitive and confidential material.”

It concluded a conditions of practice order was “appropriate and proportionate” sanction. For the next year the social worker must now maintain a log detailing every time she takes personal or confidential documents out of the office and produce a reflective document on the problems raised by her past conduct. She must also remain under the supervision of a workplace supervisor who will report on her management and safeguarding of confidential information.

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20 Responses to Social worker sanctioned for keeping case files at home ‘too long’

  1. Del Toro June 16, 2016 at 12:23 pm #

    Looks like weak supervision to me.

    • Jenny Eckersley June 16, 2016 at 5:07 pm #

      Looks like terrible supervision to me!

      • sabine June 17, 2016 at 2:31 pm #

        Looks like totally absent supervision.

  2. LongtimeSW June 16, 2016 at 1:44 pm #

    Taking files/documents home? Educated guess this was to work extra (unpaid) hours, evenings and weekends, to catch up on a report/statement/case notes that were overdue/ a competing priority, whilst juggling caseload commitments (time spent with families anybody?)

    Whilst taking the point being made about information not being availiable, shouldn’t need to take case files home if there is a decent work environment and protected time to complete urgent work (and I mean protected, not ‘oh can you just make this call and then go back to that’)

    • sabine June 17, 2016 at 2:34 pm #

      Basically do not ever take work home and waste your weekends/eves on it if that leads potentially to a misconduct scenario because the working environment is bad and support lacking.

  3. Stuart June 16, 2016 at 8:32 pm #

    So why exactly have we not heard of this young woman’s manager/supervisor being sanctioned for letting the situation get that bad??

    • FrenchSW June 17, 2016 at 10:41 am #

      Quite easy to blame the young social worker alone, any question on her service/institution ?

  4. Paul Bennett June 17, 2016 at 10:32 am #

    It may have been that this SW had no fixed base- like many of us “hotdeskers”. This is part of a wider issue of home working. When “flexible working” was introduced many of us in our LA were concerned about the insecurity of storing documents at home. The issue was never resolved, and it was expected that we were to fund any changes to our homes to transform them into offices, an unreasonable expectation in my view. I am sure that this case is the “tip of the iceberg.” I would not have viewed this as an individual disciplinary matter for the reasons stated.

  5. Olu June 17, 2016 at 10:43 am #

    There is no mention in this case the level of supervisions/ support by her line manager nor sanction given to the line manager. This show how lonely a social worker is when things go wrong!!

  6. LongtimeSW June 17, 2016 at 11:09 am #

    Not just the line manager – how come the sewage silo only flows downwards to the individual frontline worker? What about the part Councillors, Ministers, Central Govt have played in recent years in creating the environment wher trhis can happen?

    Answer is:

    pay us more,

    employ more,

    have REALISTIC and manageable caseloads (in the hours we are employed for),

    stop closing early intervention services,

    stop privatisation for the fatcats to pick over the bones of the carcass (BHS & Phillip Green anyone?)

  7. Planet Autism June 17, 2016 at 11:14 am #

    It should be illegal to bring confidential case files home! I am appalled that this is even allowed. The material contained is so sensitive and I don’t care how overworked someone is, their home is not an office and is highly unlikely to be secure no matter what cupboards they have because there is no verification of who else has access to the key! Not only that, there will have been occasions when the files were not in the cupboard and what about the issue of being transported to her home? Even if she went by car, her car could have been stolen or broken into or she could have given someone a lift with the files in, or lent her car out etc.

    If a parent had done an SAR on their child’s files all that data would have been missing which could have had immense consequences had they been filing a complaint or legal action.

    For all those people making excuses and asking about her supervisor being held responsible that is not on. She is perfectly able to speak up if she is overworked instead of taking work home, she has a mouth to ask if there are DPA considerations over any aspect of her work (or to look up DPA information herself!) and I don’t care how newly qualified she is. This is just an excuse. What on earth is the SW training that it’s considered an excuse that a qualified SW has not got a clue about data protection!

    • Becky clissett June 18, 2016 at 9:08 am #

      If only life as a social work was that cut and dry. Clearly you are not a sw. We have no desks, hardly any cupboard space, no offices, no available parking for ‘touch points’ and we hardly see our teams. We are actively encouraged to work at home. I must say that amount of paperwork left at home is ridiculous but data protection issues could happen to any one of us. I drive everywhere with my laptop and core group plans in my car and when I have to I take them home. It’s a dangerous game!

    • planet realism June 22, 2016 at 5:22 pm #

      wow you must be so perfect to give such advice. jump off the bandwagon and live in the real world of social work where your employers are priortised ahead of your own life and family. oh to work office hours what bliss! shame it just doesnt happen whether it’s completing visits on the way into work, on the way home from work, weekends anyone -yes even them, not to count the overload of completing reports at home because if you dont you are disciplined because you havent been able to file on time. As for telling your manager/employer you are overworked, as if that isnt communicated, does it make any difference, hardly ever and if it is it’s only for a short time. no wonder social work is on it’s knees…

  8. Catherine June 17, 2016 at 11:31 am #

    I agree that this is probably the tip of the iceberg, and I think there are other organisations and charities who will be turning a blind eye to similar but unavoidable practice, e.g. both paid and voluntary staff knowing what they should be doing with case files,etc but constantly finding that they have no choice but to work from home because of lack of appropriate storage in the Office, lack of a desk or other appropriate workspace, unreliable and out-dated IT systems that aren’t fit for purpose (but too expensive to replace), far too much work to do in ‘official’ voluntary working hours, far too many essential home visits and meetings to go to (leading to a lack of time to write up the outcome of such meetings).

    I’d love to see the results of a survey that asked both paid and voluntary staff what they have to put up with in terms of working conditions, and how much of their work they fit into official working/voluntary hours, and how much has to be done at home, and how much of this they keep quiet about, because of the risk of being sanctioned or simply because they don’t want to admit they just can’t manage the amount of work expected of them.

    I changed from paid work to voluntary work (in the same job, same office, etc) as I thought it would give me my life back and some time to spend with my kids, but it didn’t. The voluntary work took up far more time than the official work I had previously done. Then when the funding cuts came along, the organisation had to find even more voluntary staff to replace paid staff who had been on temporary contracts. Clients still had access to a good service that met their needs, and I’m sure staff did their very best, but some compromises and concerns had to be accepted.

    However, despite all I’ve said here, I do agree that keeping files at home for four years was excessive.

  9. Gill June 17, 2016 at 3:38 pm #

    Always misses the systemic issues and blames the worker.

    Provide us with secure mobile technology that is fast and easy to use (yes it does exist) and there won’t be an issue. Simple solution!

  10. Tom J June 17, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    Planet Autism. You make some valid comments regarding data protection. However one challenge is that some LA policies can be wordy and very long. So questions like ‘the office is closed after 6pm, its now 6.30pm, so do I refuse to take an education form from a parent, causing her great inconvenience, when I could help her out by just keep it in my bag overnight? Or do I say no, you’ll have to come into town with the form tomorrow as I’m not keeping it on me’. Clarity is vital as I agree with you that information should be as secure as possible.

    Re your comment ‘She is perfectly able to speak up if she is overworked instead of taking work home’. I don’t think that you have any idea about what it is like to work as a Local Authority social worker in 2016. Many LA social workers across the country have 30+ cases right now which is double where it should be. Many of these social workers do speak up but are given constant platitudes. If you were to do a Freedom of Information request now to any local authority in the country you will find caseloads to be through the roof (assuming they have not massaged the figures to count people who are on maternity leave etc). You cannot blame social workers for this.

    And trust me when I say that its not as simple as ‘hey boss I have 34 children open to me right now, and I know that others have even more cases than this, but I find that its totally unmanageable’ and the reply to be ‘okay, i’ll take those cases off you’.

    The reality is that social workers are encouraged to muddle on and its only when something goes wrong that the HCPC will then gladly fly in to sanction the social worker.

    I think that social workers do need to become stronger in speaking up and speaking as a collective. Alongside this they need strong trade unions to be there to consult on policies e.g. around data protection and all other issues.

  11. Mike June 18, 2016 at 7:48 am #

    Where were the file audits? This is a system issue but I am afraid the sw should have known better. Let’s not blame others for our mistakes. What would have happened if the papers were robbed or burned in a fire at the sw home. Those poor clients would have lost all their private and personal information. The question is why did she keep these at home for so long. It leaves me curious. The Sw was lucky she could continue to practice.

  12. Nula June 18, 2016 at 9:04 pm #

    Planet Autism, I think you need to come and live in the real world!

  13. londonboy June 19, 2016 at 10:05 am #

    As the parent of an autistic young man who is a former looked-after-child this case explains so much to me:-

    -why his social worker phoned asking if we knew where his passport and long copy birth cert. were, when these had been handed to social care circa 8 months earlier.

    -Why the govt. regards social work as an ‘immature profession’

    -why so many children’s services ‘requires improvement’

    The failure to invest in industry standard IT services that allow remote working, and the development of associated protocols – no ‘brainer’ measures – is incomprehensible and demonstates how hard it is to effect positive change.

    The Children and Social work bill debates are an opportunity to get some of these things right. ( from my perspective you have to ask -can they be much worse?)

  14. Andrea June 21, 2016 at 4:18 pm #

    Bottom line – personal and professional responsibility must be accepted – worker states that she hadn’t realised the amount of paperwork she had accumulated – really?! – how aware of anything else is she – sounds, at best, disorganised at worst incompetent.
    Article also states that she was on suspension for unrelated matter – why are readers ignoring the fact that this worker is responsible for herself – this knee jerk defensive attitude doesn’t help us.
    Frankly, sounds like another student who should never have been allowed to qualify – suspect she frequently requested extensions to complete essays.