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.”