A social worker has been suspended for nine months after she was found to have kept confidential documents at her home over a period of years.
A Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) tribunal heard the practitioner had allowed two other people access to the documents, in one instance with a view to having her partner dispose of them.
The tribunal found evidence of misconduct in three other areas of the social worker’s practice, around breaching consent of families she was working with, failing to follow instructions and poor record-keeping.
In imposing the stiff sanction, the panel decided the social worker, despite having shown remorse and completed a piece of reflective work, had only limited insight into her actions.
The social worker’s poor practice came to light in October 2015 when the police raided her home and arrested her partner, in the course of which confidential documents were recovered.
The day after, her employer, Lincolnshire council, was informed that material had also been retrieved from her partner’s office.
Some months later, after the social worker had already left her job, another two carrier bags of “highly confidential” paperwork were recovered from a third individual’s garage.
The panel found that the dispersed nature of the documents – some of which dated back to 2009 – undermined claims by the social worker that she had only kept papers at home under lock and key.
She acknowledged giving some to her partner so he could shred them, suggesting to the tribunal that she was within her rights to trust him as he was also a registered social worker. But the panel found this was a mistaken assumption, given that he was not authorised to handle the material and had signed no confidentiality agreements in relation to it.
The tribunal also criticised the social worker’s reflective piece – in which she observed that, “fortunately”, the papers had never come into the public domain – as indicating that she had failed to learn from her mistakes.
“The panel concluded that this comment strongly indicated that any learning the registrant had acquired as a result of attending the course was not embedded, as the documents were in the public domain,” the tribunal judgment said. “[She] appeared to believe that because she knew the individuals who had been given access to the documents, they were not members of the public.”
The tribunal found that although the social worker’s actions had caused no direct harm to children and families involved with Lincolnshire council, the breaches were liable to damage trust in the social work profession.
Breaches of consent
Besides her mishandling of confidential documents, the social worker faced a number of other allegations, some of which came about as a result of complaints by a member of a family she was working with.
In two instances, she was found to have made disclosures without consent. These included telling nursery staff that the family member who complained had previously been abused by her father.
The tribunal also judged that the social worker had failed to keep proper records, including completing assessments, on a string of occasions. At other times, it found, she had failed to follow direct instructions from supervisors around progressing cases.
In weighing the social worker’s failings, the panel criticised what it said were attempts “to deflect at least some of the blame onto the council, on the basis that the lapses in her practice would not have happened if she had been properly supported and not allocated an excessive caseload”.
The tribunal found that while she was busy, the social worker’s caseload was appropriate for a social worker of her level of experience.
“The registrant’s focus in this hearing has been to blame her conduct on the pressures of work caused by management,” the judgment said. “She did not focus on her own shortcomings.”
In imposing a nine-month suspension, the tribunal said the period was “the minimum necessary to reflect the nature and gravity of the registrant’s misconduct, and to declare and uphold the standards expected of a registered social worker”.
It suggested the social worker complete a further reflective piece of work, to demonstrate insight into her practice failings, before returning to work.