A social worker has been suspended from the register for 12 months after sending a string of inappropriate text messages to a service user during summer 2015.
The worker, who had only qualified the year before and has never worked in a role requiring registration, admitted exchanging texts with the woman, identified as ‘Service User A’, who had mental health issues. But he told a Health and Care Professions Council panel that a series of messages of a sexual nature sent on the night of 29 August 2015, after he had been drinking, were meant for his partner.
The panel dismissed his claims of mistaken identity, noting “significant inconsistencies” between his account at the tribunal and his descriptions of events given earlier in the investigation.
It concluded that his actions had “brought the social work profession into disrepute and [that] he has breached a fundamental tenet of the profession by placing his interests above those of a service user”.
But it stopped short of striking him off, taking into account personal and health issues, which were heard privately. “The misconduct was serious but it was out of character, and the Registrant appears able and willing to resolve the matters which gave rise to his behaviour,” the panel said.
Learning disability assessment
The practitioner became involved with the service user during April 2015, at which point he was employed as a prevention worker with Sheffield council’s learning disabilities team. He arranged for her to be assessed for dyscalculia (a difficulty with comprehending arithmetic), which she felt may be causing her to struggle with everyday tasks.
Her case was closed on 6 July 2015 and the worker moved on to a temporary role as a care manager, still within Sheffield council, three weeks later. But in late October a safeguarding adults alert was triggered after the service user disclosed to other council employees a series of texts he had sent her in July and August – all of them after her case had been closed.
The tribunal noted that two texts sent in July from the practitioner’s work phone – the content of which was not recorded – did not in themselves constitute inappropriate behaviour. “There could be legitimate reasons why a caseworker may have cause to send texts to a former service user,” the panel said.
The question of misconduct therefore largely hinged on a sequence of more than 20 texts exchanged on 29 August between the service user and the practitioner, who had been at a football match earlier in the day.
The worker told the tribunal he hadn’t realised he was messaging the service user until, after 24 texts – some sexual – had been sent, she told him she wasn’t interested. “At this point, the Registrant replied to apologise for his mistake,” the panel heard. “He then, because of his anger and frustration as to his actions, deleted the messages from his phone and threw the phone across the room causing it to smash.”
But the HCPC found this version of events inconsistent with what he had said during earlier interviews, which had made no mention of mistaken identity. He had been sent interview notes and given opportunities to amend any errors, but had not done so.
Despite the fact that the texts had been exchanged late at night when he had been drinking, the tribunal also found his account “inherently implausible”.
“[This] view was further confirmed by the manner in which the Registrant gave evidence on these issues during the hearing,” the panel said. “In contrast to his clear and detailed testimony on the background and his personal situation, when he came to speak about the text messages he was hesitant, lacked detail and was unconvincing.”
No safeguarding referral
As well as finding that the social worker had acted with deliberate sexual motivation in texting the service user, the panel considered two further allegations against him.
The first, which he admitted, related to accessing the service user’s records during September 2015, when her case had been closed. The second was around whether the social worker had failed to make a safeguarding referral in respect of the service user threatening to harm herself and her child. This was found only partly proved – again in line with the social worker’s admissions – because of insufficient evidence of an explicit threat to the child.
The tribunal concluded that the social worker had breached four HCPC standards, around acting in service users’ best interests, respecting confidentiality, communicating properly and behaving with honesty and integrity. In finding him guilty of misconduct it noted several aggravating features, notably around the sexual motivation of his behaviour, breaches of trust and the ways in which he had put his interests above hers.
“The 12-month [suspension] period properly reflects the seriousness of the misconduct and it provides the Registrant with the opportunity to demonstrate further reflection and insight, and to continue to address his personal issues,” the panel said.