No sanction for social worker who breached standards ‘out of fear for his family’s safety’

A fitness to practise panel found misconduct but decided ‘exceptional’ circumstances meant sanction would be inappropriate

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A social worker who admitted a ‘data protection breach’ after he accessed and shared confidential information about a service user who threatened him has escaped sanction from the HCPC.

A fitness to practise panel accepted that the social worker was “genuinely concerned as to his own safety and that of his family” when he used council systems to twice access files related to a father, despite having no authorisation or professional purpose to do so.

He admitted to sharing information from the records with colleagues and his family.

The panel found the social worker’s actions amounted to misconduct but decided he should not face any sanction because they arose from an “exceptional set of circumstances” with several mitigating factors.

The service user, who had a “history of inappropriate behaviour” towards social services staff since his children had been taken into care, was twice involved in incidents with the social worker outside the social services team’s offices. Both led to the police being called.

In the first incident, which led to a ‘restorative justice’ settlement, the service user blocked the social worker from leaving the office car park and behaved in a way described by a witness as “volatile” and “extreme”. In the second incident, the service user tailed the social worker “for some distance” after he’d left the office before banging on his car window to tell him “he would follow him all the way home”.

The social worker’s local authority gave him special leave from work after the second incident. After a police investigation, the service user was bailed with conditions not to have any involvement with social services or to contact the social worker. A month later he was convicted of a public order offence for the incident. The social worker gave evidence at the court hearing.

At a return to work meeting requested by the social worker he told his employers he was “extremely concerned for his and his family’s safety”. Days earlier the service user had appeared in a TV documentary and the social worker had noted the way he had behaved towards social services staff.

At the meeting the social worker admitted having accessed the records of the service user, his daughter and another of the man’s children because of his concerns.

In a statement provided during his local authority’s disciplinary investigation into the matter, the social worker fully accepted he accessed the data without authorisation and that “technically, it was a data protection breach”.

However, he said he had done so in order to safeguard himself and his family, adding:  “I made the conscious decision to access the records…to know precisely what I was up against.”

The social worker said he had discovered information about previous convictions relating to the service user, including previous incidents of violence against social services staff and other alleged violence committed by the man.

A second investigatory meeting was scheduled by the local authority but the social worker resigned before this took place. He since indicated to the HCPC he has retrained in another profession and has no plans to re-enter social work.

The panel concluded that the social worker had accessed the records without authorisation or a professional purpose for doing so. It rejected his submission that concern for his welfare and safety and that of his family constituted a professional purpose. It also found he had shared confidential information with colleagues and/or immediate family members.

The social worker’s actions amounted to misconduct and breached professional standards around professional boundaries and confidentiality, the panel concluded.

In considering a sanction, the panel gave weight to several mitigating factors. It accepted that the events had “a significant impact” on the social worker’s health and contributed to him behaving in a way that he would not otherwise have done. His decision to access the records was not motivated by “idle curiosity or financial gain” and he came forward to disclose that he’d accessed the records.

The council, which had known the service user was “volatile”, had not taken adequate steps to protect the social worker from possible harm or at least to provide him with appropriate reassurance, the panel added.

The panel concluded: “The registrant was faced with an exceptional set of circumstances which are extremely unlikely to occur. There is no specific guidance as to when no further action might be taken following a finding of impairment.

“The panel has however given full weight to all the mitigating factors…and having regard to all those matters has decided not impose any sanction or restriction upon the registrant’s ability to practise.

“The panel did consider making a caution order but did not think that a caution order would serve to protect prospective service users or the public interest and thus was not necessary. Furthermore the Panel concluded that having regard to the strong mitigating circumstances identified above a caution order would be disproportionate.”

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21 Responses to No sanction for social worker who breached standards ‘out of fear for his family’s safety’

  1. Tom J October 4, 2016 at 10:19 am #

    I am sure that the social worker will take little solace from this having been dragged in front of a council disciplinary panel, then a HCPC one before leaving the social work profession all together.

    I once returned to my car and observed someone taking photos of it. They then ran off when they saw me. When I got back to the office I described the person and one of the social workers said ‘oh yes, that the dad of one of my cases, they must have thought it was my car as we both drive a Ford’. Needless to say my next question was ‘Am I at risk now that he has photos of my personal car which I drive my own children in?’. The social worker then advised me on the likely level of risk. Should I have been pushed out of the profession based on my question?

    • Martin Porter October 5, 2016 at 8:38 am #

      I fail to see how accessing information to safeguard yourself is a data protection breach. Surely it is a duty under the Health and Safety at Work legislation?

      By the same argument if you visited a client who lived with an offender, or sent staff in to that house, it would be an offence to check out the partner’s history.

  2. PP October 4, 2016 at 1:43 pm #

    ‘The council, which had who had known the service user was “volatile”, had not taken adequate steps to protect the social worker from possible harm or at least to provide him with appropriate reassurance, the panel added.’

    – That should be the story.

  3. Hilton Dawson October 4, 2016 at 1:51 pm #

    Welcome to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
    Is it any wonder that someone decides to leave the social work profession when faced with threats of violence to his family, an unsupportive employer and a regulatory body that takes action against him then with lordly munificence decides to let him off.
    Meanwhile the real issues of how one works safely in the best interests of service users go by unnoticed.
    Pure nonsense – on stilts – and one more example of those who should know much better making it much harder to do real social work.

    • Chris Mitchell October 5, 2016 at 8:52 am #

      Well put Hilary.
      The professional negligence of the employer and the fact this went to a hearing would have driven even Mother Teresa out of the profession.
      No wonder people have more sense than to want to do this for a living.

  4. LongtimeSW October 4, 2016 at 3:17 pm #

    Agree with all the above – wonder if it would have been dealt with in the same way if it had been a police officer, judge or solicitor?

    Thought not.

    Just wondering if the social worker could have made a case to ask for a Judicial Review of employers decisions regarding disciplinary action. Employers have health and safety responsibilities and a Duty of care to all employees – they failed in that duty – where is their sanction?

    Folks, the reality is the frontline is on its own.

  5. A Man Called Horse October 4, 2016 at 3:30 pm #

    I think HCPC Should be sacked. The question should be why was the Social worker not allowed access to all the information in the first place? You cannot protect yourself if you don’t fully understand the risk. The next time asocial Worker is killed because they didn’t know the situation perhaps the HCPC will reflect on that? HCPC is unfit for purpose., exists only to beat up Social Workers.

    • Mel October 4, 2016 at 8:19 pm #

      His employer should have looked at the information they had and considered the risks to their employee and advised him appropriately. They could’ve avoided him having to act out of desperation that way. Instead he took matters into his own hands and was punished for that. I’m not sure anyone else would’ve done any different if they thought their children could potentially be at risk. It can be hard enough to sleep some nights in our job as it is without that level of fear!

    • Josephine October 4, 2016 at 10:19 pm #

      You are right !!! 100%! We have no protection from angry service users!

    • MeltheSW October 5, 2016 at 8:17 am #

      I wondered why they didn’t have access to the information in the first place…surely they need access to inform their risk assessment…

  6. Dawnie October 4, 2016 at 8:08 pm #

    Why wasn’t this dealt with in-house?? Why did the.LA feel the need to drag their employer through the HCPC fitness to practice?? Hasn’t he suffered enough? And you wonder why people are leaving the profession in their droves

  7. Fayeos October 4, 2016 at 8:46 pm #

    Why has this social worker been put through this ? Is this a joke ?

  8. Tuck your shirt in October 4, 2016 at 8:51 pm #

    I received death threats from a SU; these were written and included threats to my family. The police came to my house to take a statement and do safety planning – so my husband was fully aware and involved……or should that be hidden from the HCPC? Or should I have hidden the threat to our family from my husband?!

  9. Doctor Carrott October 4, 2016 at 9:19 pm #

    I’m the [ex] social worker in question. Just off to bed with a cup of peppermint tea and a good book, but I’ll be back soon to flesh out the bones of this little story if anyone’s interested.


  10. Betty October 4, 2016 at 10:17 pm #

    The panel concluded this was ‘an exceptional set of circumstances extremely unlikely to occur’ who are the panel ? Any frontline social worker will have had similar – for me I have been threatened with being shot and stabbed and service users following me home and hiding in my garden. My hair fell out from stress. what did the panel think this social worker should have done? The latest in a series of punitive dressings down – shame

  11. Neil October 4, 2016 at 10:37 pm #

    What did this social worker think he was doing ? If he feared for his safety and that of his family then the proper response was for him to have notified the police and made his employers fully aware of his fears so they could put provisions in place to afford protection. Instead he knowing breaches the Data Protection Act (a criminal offence) and yet miraculously escapes prosecution and sanction from the HCPC

  12. dfeb5e98-18e8-4af2-a19b-e4a5ed45483c October 5, 2016 at 8:28 am #

    And people wonder why Social workers are leaving the profession, if the social worker had defended himself after the person followed him and banged on his window and made threats would he be also facing sanction?,personally I would have dealt with that situation then. how unrealistic of both the employer and HCPC to not expect any social worker to access information to protect himself but more importantly his family.
    I for one would take any action needed to protect my family from harm, as for the HCPC, they could go and sing, family comes first, no ifs no buts,
    And if they cant see that they should not be overseeing the profession.
    The social worker should consider action against his managers and employers for not taking reasonable steps to protect him, eg providing him with all the necessary information for a considered risk assessment of the situation.

  13. Yvonne Bonifas October 5, 2016 at 2:48 pm #

    Take note all oxbridge graduates looking at fast tracking into social work.

  14. David Hicks October 5, 2016 at 4:02 pm #

    There may be more to this than meets the eye. If information was accessed by a social worker facing such clear threats, then it might regarded that there was a clear social purpose in accessing it. Among the standards of proficiency for social work are: –

    “understand the need to protect, safeguard and promote the wellbeing of children, young people and vulnerable adults

    understand the need to address practices which present a risk to or from service users and carers, or others

    be aware of applicable health and safety legislation and any relevant safety policies and procedures in force at the workplace, such as incident reporting, and be able to act in accordance with these”

    Safeguarding others and maintaining our own health and safety often means that we have to know about the background of service users. That does not mean carte blanche to dig up information but perhaps that is where it gets complicated. The report of this decision simply does not say enough to clarify that.

  15. Adele October 5, 2016 at 7:04 pm #

    what a shame that the LA felt it necassary to act in such a punitive way in what was a proportionate response to a genuine risk of potential threat. Siutations do happen like this and when I worked in childrens homes prior to becoming qualified I know one of the residential SW’s was followed home after a late shift by one of the family members of a child in secure unit. On my placement in childrens service I know of one SW who was woken up during the night by a mattress set alight at the side of her house & this was found to have been done by some family members of a child she had removed. The threat to SW is real & they are on the end of a persistant threat to their safety by the actions they need to undertake in their job. There is a real ironry in this that the people trying to protect vulnerable children are not offered protection themself and live ‘looking over their shoulders’ , police and other agencies have much more protection for similar threats they face by merely doing tbe functions of their job! it is not acceptable and highlights the desperation this guy felt for ensuring his and his families safety, the LA are to blame for not ensuring adequate safegaurds to ensure staff safety. And just for curiosity I wander how many HCPC panel members know what it feels like to live under the threat for their own safety? ……. the story may be different if they did!

  16. burnt October 6, 2016 at 9:50 am #

    What a shocker and I wish the best of luck to the gentleman in whatever he does next. I can’t see myself carrying on longer after 10+ years in the ‘Twilight Zone’..
    We had a similar story at my work 4-5 years ago. NQSW reported child sexual abuse / domestic violence via the 0800 Social Care Direct number for 2 years. He knew these kids from his own kids local school and mutual friends in community. After nothing happening and the victims themselves turning up and asking for help at his office- he checked the system, saw the name of their SW and went and spoke to her to report his concerns before also ‘handing himself over to management’ for the Data breach (never mind ‘its everyone’s job to make sure I’m alright!). The 3 children were removed and placed on CPR soon after and criminal proceedings took place. HOWEVER, the council then pursued TWO final written warnings, a lengthy investigation and tried at every chance to connect the SW with the local “undesirables” who had given the initial info.
    As a union rep we managed to help him keep his job, however, he had a breakdown, still remains on medication, attends counselling and vows never to return to C&F’s. All C&F’s workers involved praised his actions and stated the children would be further harmed had he not have acted, the mother of the children (after 1 year in recovery) now also cites the NQSW’s actions as saving her and her kids…
    But still, I supported him as he was bullied, interrogated and slandered at every turn, dragged before the SSSC, published on their website, given TWO final written warnings which stayed on his file for 2 years! And I am sure is still the first thing that comes up on Google if you search his name, he called last month upset stating the SSC file now has over 1000 hits! All it says is “Data confidentiality breach” – how does this look to service users and employers who don’t know the story?
    The topsy-turvy world of Social Work eh!