An experienced social worker who was “overwhelmed” by her workload has been cautioned by the HCPC after she failed to admit she was struggling.
A conduct committee found the social worker, who was a team manager in children’s services at the time, moved a disabled child into a foster placement without a placement planning meeting having taken place and failed to ensure visits were carried out to service users in two high-risk cases that needed urgent action. These matters constituted misconduct, the panel found.
The social worker put the failings down to the pressures and staff shortages in her team which had left her social workers “fire-fighting”.
Witnesses described the team as facing a “chaotic” situation.
“The registrant was overwhelmed by the work and was not coping. She was working long hours, including evenings and weekends. The registrant was carrying out case work which would not normally be carried out by a manager. She now acknowledges the hours she worked were not healthy” the judgment said.
However, the panel said the social worker did not communicate fully to her managers the extent of the difficulties she was facing and instead “made efforts to deflect any impression that she was not coping”.
“Her focus was to ask for more resources for the team,” the panel said. It was not until the social worker had been in place for more than a year that she shared concerns about the safety of children, the panel said.
“Even then, she did not highlight either orally or in writing any specific cases that were of particular concern,” the panel added, these included cases where she made alleged failings.
Four team members
At one point the team, which was meant to have 7.5 full time equivalent members, was reduced to four. As a result of the short staffing, many cases had not been allocated to social workers. This meant, as team manager, the social worker had around 40 unallocated cases in her name in line with her local authority’s policy.
The panel said the staff shortages and high workload of the social worker’s team were the most important “mitigating factors” when considering her conduct. However, it found she should have prioritised visits in two cases due to the high level of risk, “even in the context that not all cases could be allocated” to social workers in her team.
“It is an essential requirement for a social worker in a management position to prioritise the cases involving the highest level of risk,” the panel said.
The social worker expressed remorse for failings where children were put at risk. She agreed there were steps she should have taken in relation to three service users but did not take and said she had learned lessons from her experiences. She told the HCPC she was committed to social work and enjoying her role, particularly direct work with children.
But the panel said it was concerned the social worker had not “demonstrated full insight” into her shortcomings.
“The panel was concerned that, while the registrant agreed that she should have acted differently, she did not accept personal culpability in respect of any of the particulars. She denied that any of the particulars amounted to misconduct,” it said.
“In her answers she placed great emphasis on the mitigating factors, to the extent that she was suggesting that they exonerated her from wrongdoing.”
The social worker, who has since moved jobs, said she would not wish to work as a manager again in the future as she had had problems in that role which had affected her confidence and health.
The panel concluded that, while it didn’t have to sanction the social worker as the risk of her repeating the failings was “negligible”, a three-year caution order was the best option to maintain confidence in the profession and act as a “deterrent” to other social workers.
“This is not a case where the lapse can be described as isolated, limited or relatively minor in nature. However, in the panel’s judgment, it is a case where meaningful conditions of practice cannot be imposed and suspension from practice would be disproportionate,” the panel said.
“This is a case where the risk of repetition is low and the conduct is out of character. In the context of the registrant’s long career, the misconduct occurred over a relatively short period of time. The Panel considered carefully whether the level of the registrant’s insight was sufficient to impose a caution order.
“The panel has made a clear finding that its concern about the level of the Registrant’s insight does not have implications for the registrant’s work as a social worker and that there are no public protection concerns in this case. The panel decided that the Registrant has a sufficient level of insight for consideration of a caution order.”