A social worker has been suspended from the register for twelve months for copying and pasting information between different service users’ Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards (DoLS) forms.
A Social Work England tribunal found the practitioner’s actions failed to respect the privacy and dignity of the eight service users concerned, while potentially unlawfully depriving them of their liberty.
The tribunal heard the practitioner, who was qualified as a best interest assessor (BIA), copied information from a number of DoLS forms, including one completed by another BIA, to those of eight other service users. It was accepted that the council faced a significant backlog of DoLS assessments at the time.
The tribunal decided a 12-month sanction would keep the public safe while allowing the practitioner, who wishes to return to social work, sufficient time to update his skills.
What this case was about
The case relates to the completion of form 3, which contains four of the six assessments that must be completed for any DoLS application (mental capacity, best interests, no refusals and age), and is the responsibility of the BIA. In 2016, the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services issued guidance on completing form 3s, which set out a number of general principles that BIAs should follow, including:
- It should be a professional report based on factual information and professional judgement.
- There should be professional ownership of the report by the BIA and other documents relied on should be clearly identified.
- The assessment should be objective, concise and unambiguous. Where opinions, assumptions or ‘hearsay’ are recorded they should be clearly framed as such.
- Where information is being taken from previous assessments the source should be referenced (particularly relevant for reviews/renewals).
- Most importantly of all, remember that the assessment is about a person and they should be evident throughout the assessment.
‘Style and prose’ recognised
The practitioner’s poor practice came to light in November 2016 when a social worker and fellow BIA, witness A, recognised her prose and style of writing in several DoLS forms he completed. The tribunal heard she met him in January 2017 and explained that copying and pasting of certain information used in other form 3s was not of itself improper, but it needed to accurately reflect the relevant service user’s actual circumstances and personal details.
After further similar concerns were raised, an audit was carried out in April 2017 of other form 3s the practitioner had completed. The audit revealed the forms for eight service users were identical in various parts and were not all relevant to the individual service users.
On page four of the DoLS form for one service user (dealing with the issue of whether the person was unable to understand the information relevant to the decision), in answer to a question about her, the service user responded “I’ve no idea” and in response to a question about where she was responded “with a shrug of her shoulders”.
Identical responses were recorded on several other forms the practitioner completed. The panel said it was “inconceivable that each individual would have answered and responded in exactly the same way”.
The panel noted that whilst witness A said that on occasions it was acceptable to copy and paste certain general phrases into another form, it did not consider that was appropriate in this case.
The tribunal heard that initially BIAs at the council were put on a rota and the practitioner was allocated, on average, one case per month, which was in addition to his main role. He was given one week to complete each assessment.
The social worker, who gave evidence at the hearing, said that this created a lot of additional pressure, as he would still need to take phone calls and attend meetings as part of his core role. However, he was confident that at the time he was able to cope.
During cross-examination he agreed that by doing what he did, he saved himself time and that the information he provided was incorrect.
The interim service manager for the complex learning disability team (witness B) accepted that the council had faced a “significant backlog” of DoLS assessments to carry out and that this created a lot of pressure on the BIAs. She said the social worker had been part of a rota system that was set up to help deal with the workload but after an initial period the rota had been stopped.
Exposed to ‘potential risk of real harm’
The panel said that the practitioner had acted in a dishonest, irresponsible and reckless manner towards “very vulnerable service users” and “exposed them to the potential risk of real harm”. It concluded he had impaired fitness to practice on both public protection and public interest grounds.
The social worker told the tribunal his actions were “unprofessional, stupid, naïve and potentially put service users at risk of being unlawfully deprived of their liberty”, but he had received no financial or personal gain as a result.
He told the tribunal he wanted to return to social work in the future, but he did not intend to work as a BIA again.
The panel decided a twelve-month suspension was appropriate and proportionate.
“This would give adequate time for the social worker to develop his insight and find the necessary training courses to get his CPD up to date,” the judgment said.
His suspension will be reviewed before it expires.
The panel said the social worker would help a future panel reviewing the order by:
• Continuing to engage in this process and with Social Work England.
• Providing up-to-date references and testimonials (paid or unpaid work).
• Producing an up-to-date CPD record and evidence of relevant training and learning.
• Providing a reflective piece that addresses his failings in this case.