A Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) panel has suspended a senior children’s social worker for 12 months, dismissing her claims that high caseloads and poor supervision mitigated a series of practice failings.
These included failing to keep accurate records, meet deadlines and carry out visits, as well as neglecting to inform a father about plans to adopt his child.
The tribunal acknowledged that the practitioner had not been coping well in the lead-up to being suspended by Bolton council. It found one proven allegation, relating to refusing to take a vulnerable child into care, did not amount to misconduct because her mental health had by then reached a “tipping point”.
But the panel was unconvinced by the social worker’s argument that her caseload was unreasonable for someone of her experience, at least until shortly before she was suspended from work in October 2015, and therefore excused poor practice. It also found she had failed to manage her own health by returning to work after her GP advised her to take time off.
“After receiving evidence from the registrant and having questioned witnesses, it is [still] not clear why the registrant had what has been referred to as a ‘meltdown’ in her professional practice leading to these proceedings,” the tribunal said.
The social worker had been employed by Bolton council since 2006, becoming a senior practitioner in 2007. In April 2015 she commenced a phased return to work, following a period of sick leave. However concerns were raised about her practice in October 2015 when she was found to have not visited a child.
The tribunal found the social worker had on two occasions failed to keep accurate records, noting that “from 25 September 2015 she had, in effect ceased updating [electronic case management system] Liquid Logic”.
It also established that, starting in summer 2015, she had missed a series of legal and departmental deadlines, including not completing personal education plans for two vulnerable children or providing statements to a court.
During the same period the social worker also failed to carry out five statutory visits, and around September 2015 did not inform a father “in a timely way” of the council’s plans for adopting his child.
On 30 September 2015 the social worker’s GP told her she was unfit for work due to emotional and physical exhaustion. But she told the doctor she was “far too busy… and [that] this would only increase her anxiety”.
By early October the social worker’s conduct at work was causing colleagues concern. At a court hearing on 19 October she refused to take a child into care – claiming that the child’s guardian had agreed this – then failed to return to the office in order to discuss this with her manager. The guardian subsequently told the manager that no such discussion with the social worker had taken place.
“The panel concluded that at this stage the registrant’s physical and emotional wellbeing had very significantly deteriorated,” the tribunal report said. “This evidence includes the registrant’s evidence, text messages she sent at that time and the uncontested evidence that she attended her GP soon after the court hearing.”
The tribunal noted that the social worker, who chose to give evidence at the tribunal, appeared “emotionally fragile, vulnerable and at times visibly distressed” and gave rambling and contradictory answers.
“The registrant accepted that on occasion her professional performance had been poor,” the tribunal said. “However, she predominantly chose to blame others, which included asserting that managers, the local authority, lawyers and the judge in the employment tribunal were trying to discredit her.”
The panel found no reason to doubt the social worker’s honesty but said inconsistencies in her evidence meant it was impossible to consider her a reliable witness.
The social worker argued that she had been “increasingly overloaded with work, and subject to inadequate management and supervision” – and her line manager admitted she could have been more proactive in monitoring her.
But while the tribunal acknowledged that the social worker’s caseload built up over time and became more complex, it found that evidence pointed to it being “within the limits expected of the registrant’s grade as a senior social worker”.
The panel also noted a responsibility on practitioners to advise managers when they are not coping with work. “There is evidence that as a senior practitioner she did not wish to appear to be unable to cope, and felt overly committed to her work – for example, by continuing after her own GP had advised her against doing so.”
‘Significant risk of harm’
In assessing the social worker’s behaviour, the tribunal found that all proved particulars, except for the court incident and one other, amounted to serious misconduct.
“No actual harm was caused to service users as a direct consequence of the registrant’s acts or omissions,” it said. “However, in the panel’s view her conduct and behaviour presented a significant risk of harm, which was unnecessary and avoidable.”
The tribunal’s conclusion was postponed by several months after the social worker was assessed by paramedics on the penultimate day, and she did not appear at the reconvened hearing.
In assessing its sanction, the tribunal found that the social worker’s eventual non-engagement meant “there was no evidence before the panel that she fully appreciates the gravity of the failings identified and the impact on her standing as a social worker, the wider profession and the public”.
In addition, it continued, “there was no explanation as to how the registrant would behave differently in the future and no assurance that the deficiencies in her practice, which are capable of being remedied, have been remedied and would not be repeated”.
Despite the lack of insight shown by the social worker, the tribunal decided against striking her off, noting her stated intention not to return to practice in the near future or potentially ever.
“Given the health context [which was unable to be fully assessed], the panel took the view that the registrant should be given an opportunity to consider the panel’s written determination in full and focus on the issues that have been identified,” it said.
But it concluded that a failure to do so could well result in the social worker being struck off by a subsequent review panel.
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