1. The Panel was satisfied that proper notification of this hearing had been given as a notice setting out the date, time and venue of this hearing had been sent to the Registrant’s registered address on 11 November 2013.
2. The Council made an application to proceed in the Registrant’s absence and the Panel took advice from the Legal Assessor.
3. The Panel is aware that Rule 11 of the Conduct and Competence Procedure Rules 2003 confers discretion to proceed in a Registrant’s absence. The Panel applied the principles derived from case law such as R v Jones and Tate v Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons confirming that the discretion is not absolute; it is severely constrained and must be exercised with utmost care and caution. The Panel had regard to the Practice Note on proceeding in absence of Registrants.
4. The Panel exercised the discretion with utmost care and caution and decided to proceed in the Registrant’s absence as all reasonable steps had been taken to notify him of this hearing. As well as the Hearing Notice being properly sent, the Registrant had been sent a copy of the Bundle which contained a further copy of the Hearing Notice. In the Registrant’s extensive response he stated that he will not have formal representation, that he would not be attending having been formally signed off (without supportive medical evidence) and he also referred to financial considerations. Messages were left on the Registrant’s mobile and landline numbers. In addition an email was sent to the Registrant which was responded to by his wife making it plain that the Registrant was not going to attend and asking for him to be left alone due to health issues. In these circumstances the Panel concluded that the Registrant had voluntarily absented himself and that it was unlikely that he would attend in the future if the case were to be adjourned. The case involves serious allegations of dishonesty, the HCPC witnesses had attended to give live evidence and it was both in the public and Registrant’s own interest for the case to be dealt with expeditiously by proceeding.
5. The Panel then considered an amendment application and took advice from the Legal Assessor. The Council’s application was to amend the Particulars by adding Particular 3 which alleged that the Registrant falsified 3 file notes. In the Panel’s view the amendments did not amount to an enlargement of the case. It was inescapably the case that any communications with Child A’s extended family, here the alleged telephone calls, fell to be considered in any event. It was fair to ensure that an allegation of falsification was properly alleged. In the Panel’s view there is no disadvantage to the Registrant by allowing the forgoing amendment as he would have been better placed to respond to precise matters rather than a generalized allegation subsumed within another Particular. The Registrant had been notified on 21 August 2013 and had prepared his response with the amended Particulars in mind. Furthermore, better particularization assisted in the expeditious management of the case.
6. The Panel noted that the Registrant’s submission was incomplete and that a few pages were missing. The Registrant submitted these by promptly responding to an email which showed that he was engaged with the process.
7. The Panel proceeded on the basis that all the Particulars were denied.
8. The Registrant was employed as a Social Worker in Children’s Services by Lincolnshire County Council (Local Authority) in January 2010. The Registrant’s role included the identification, assessment, care planning, implementation, monitoring and review of the care needs of children. Child A was a young child who had been referred to Children’s Services as a result of neglect. Child A became Looked After by the Local Authority on 1 February 2012. The Local Authority had contact details for Child A’s extended family who should have been contacted by the Registrant before presenting a plan for adoption to the Court. It is alleged that the Registrant did not contact Child A’s extended family and that he falsified records on 20 June 2012 stating that he had contacted the extended family by telephone on three occasions in March and April 2012; further that a letter had been sent to Child A’s extended family on 17 April 2012. The Registrant resigned from this position on 27 June 2012.
9. Miss Thompson opened and summarised the Council’s case and referred to the evidence in support of the Particulars.
10. The Panel heard and accepted the compelling, balanced and persuasive evidence of the Local Authority investigator, Sam Clayton ("SC"), who carried out a thorough investigation, obtained evidence from various sources, pursued different lines of enquiry resulting in the provision of a wealth of material including computer records, telephone records, relevant supervision notes and entries in the Integrated Children System (ICS) where the Registrant had entered case-notes.
11. The Panel found SC to be credible as she carried out an objective investigation by enquiring into aspects that may assist the Registrant’s case such as:
(a) Checking telephone records for both his work landline and mobile in case the Registrant had used one or the other telephone.
(b) Considering the Registrant’s workload compared to other social Workers in case he was overburdened,
(c) Examining the Registrant’s Supervision notes in order to uncover any explanations for the alleged behaviour.
(d) Checking with the Business Support Service in case the Registrant had, as he suggested, asked for the letter dated 17 April 2013 to be typed by them on 16 April 2013.
12. The Panel also heard from the Registrant’s Line Manager, Michelle Maxfield (MM), who gave persuasive evidence about her supervision of the Registrant with regard to this matter, her review of the case-notes and the documentation.
13. The Panel heard very compelling evidence from Mr and Mrs Weatherall, Child A’s aunt and uncle. In the Panel’s view Mr Weatherall was entirely honest about the first communication from the Registrant being on 20 June 2013, when it came "out of the blue" whilst he was working away from home. This was corroborated by Mrs Weatherall who confirmed that her husband discussed the issue with her that day as they were being pressed for a decision about the future of Child A. Both were clear that if they had received a communication from the Local Authority, regardless of their intention to assist, they would have responded, as it affected a child’s life.
14. In light of the Registrant’s non-attendance and his very full documentation the Panel ensured that the relevant aspects of his case were put to the witnesses so that their evidence was available. SC was clear that the Registrant was not overloaded with work but that there was a considerable transition taking place within the department at the time. MM appeared to suggest that everything was well but this did not fit with the more compelling evidence that there were considerable pressures within the department. Both Local Authority witnesses commented on the relevant exhibits submitted by the Registrant dealing with diary entries, requests for typing and error messages on screens.
15. The Panel took account of the Registrant’s submissions regarding overwork, lack of support and his suggestion that the Management had retrospectively found concerns with his practice once he had communicated his intention to bring legal proceedings; however, it was the Registrant’s position that he had nonetheless contacted the extended family by telephoning on three occasions and writing on one occasion.
16. The Panel then heard closing submissions on behalf of the Council and received advice from the Legal Assessor.
Decision on Facts
17. The Panel is aware that the burden of proving the facts is on the Council, that the Registrant does not have to prove anything and that the case is only to be found to be proven if the Panel are satisfied on a balance of probabilities.
18. Additionally, the absence of the Registrant did not constitute an admission by him or strengthen the Council’s case.
19. The Panel took account of the inherent limitation arising from hearsay evidence from the IT Department as such evidence had been presented without those witnesses giving live evidence. However, the Panel felt able to attach sufficient weight to the hearsay evidence as it resulted in the production of documentation that was available for the Panel to consider and the evidence was underpinned by the evidence from live witnesses.
20. In the Panel’s view the HCPC witnesses were credible on all the material issues for reasons already given.
21. In the Panel’s view the Registrant’s explanations lacked credibility and he sought to blame everyone and everything without focusing on the allegations.
22. Particular 1 is proven on the strength of the HCPC evidence.
23. The Panel finds that Care proceedings were underway from 1 January 2012 to beyond 28 June 2012. During that time the Registrant was the Allocated Social Worker and it was his responsibility to ensure that contact was made with identified extended family members before recommending a plan of Closed Adoption. In the Panel’s view this was clear to the Registrant as:
(a) It is a basic and fundamental part of his training that alternatives must be explored before recommending an Order of last resort such as Closed Adoption.
(b) It was directed by the Court on 22 December 2011 that a proposed timetable for assessment of family members should be provided by 20 January 2012. This was clear from a memo arising from the hearing, at which the Registrant was present.
(c) MM raised the need to speak to extended family members specifically during supervision that took place on 4 January 2012 and 5 March 2012.
24. The Panel finds that contact details for the Weatheralls were held by the Local Authority as Child A’s half sibling had been placed with them in the previous year. Specifically, the address and Mr Weatherall’s mobile number were known and they had not changed for around 8 years.
25. The Panel finds that the Registrant failed to contact the Weatheralls until 20 June 2012 when Mr Weatherall received a call on his mobile "out of the blue". The Panel is satisfied, in line with the evidence from the Weatheralls that this was the first time that there was contact about Child A.
26. Particular 2 is proven on the strength of the HCPC evidence.
27. The Panel saw the letter of 17 April 2012 which is in fact addressed to members of Child A’s extended family, namely Mr and Mrs Weatherall, who are his aunt and uncle.
28. The analysis of the computer material shows to the required standard that the letter was created on 20 June 2012 as:
(a) The letter was found on the Registrant’s personal hard drive and was created at 16:01 on 20 June 2012.
(b) The letter was uploaded onto the Integrated Child System (ICS) on 20 June 2012.
(c) The ICS date cannot be modified without Management permission, which had not been sought.
(d) The letter was not in existence on 17 April 2012 and was not sent to the Weatheralls.
29. The Panel rejected the Registrant’s assertion that he had sent a request for typing to Business Support in respect of this letter as:
(a) SC found no evidence that such a request had been sent to business support which would have generated an audit trail.
(b) The request itself refers to "contact records" which is likely to be a reference to observation notes (there is a reference to 3 records).
(c) The letter was created on 20 June 2012 and was found in the Registrant’s section of the hard drive.
30. Accordingly, the Panel finds that the Registrant dated the letter 17 April 2012 when it was not in fact created until 20 June 2012 thereby applying a retrospective date.
31. Particular 3 is proven on the strength of the HCPC evidence.
32. The Panel accepted the clear compelling evidence from Mr Weatherall that he did not receive voicemails on any of the 3 occasions as the first he learned about Child A’s case was when he heard from the Registrant "out of the blue" on 20 June 2012.
33. The Panel finds that the Registrant did not telephone Mr Weatherall, as his work landline and mobile records show that no such calls were made on the specified dates.
34. The Panel finds that the file notes were falsified to give the impression that the Registrant had contacted Mr Weatherall, when in fact he had failed to make any contact with the extended family.
35. It is clear from the evidence that the file notes were all created on 20 June 2012.
36. The Panel rejected the Registrant’s case that there were computer errors which resulted in material being lost. SC and MM were both clear that error messages routinely appeared due to, for example a non-existent "P" drive, but this did not result in material being lost. SC had chaired the ICS Panel for 5 years and was thus well placed to give compelling evidence on the issue.
37. The Panel also rejected the Registrant’s assertion that his online diary supported his case of contacting Mr Weatherall on the dates in question as:
(a) The online diary is merely a statement of intent and did not provide reliable evidence that the tasks were in fact carried out.
(b) The information in the online diary does not in fact support the Registrant’s case as there are no entries on the 3 relevant dates to suggest that contact was made with Mr Weatherall.
(c) The diary referred to contact being diarised for 22 and 29 March but there is no evidence to support that this in fact occurred.
(d) SC was clear that it is possible to make retrospective entries on the online calendar/diary, which meant the reliability of such evidence was compromised.
38. This Particular is thus proven.
39. Particular 4 is proven on the strength of the HCPC evidence and the Panel’s conclusions on Particulars 2 and 3.
40. It is clear that the Registrant created false records to try and show that contact had been made with the extended family when in fact no contact had been made. The purpose of such records was clearly to mislead others to believe that contact had been made. Furthermore, the Panel finds that the Registrant acted intentionally as he was seeking to create a history of contact when he had manifestly failed to perform his allocated task and important responsibility. This was in effect the Registrant’s attempt to cover up his inactions in circumstances when he knew that the Guardian had communicated her intention to speak to Mr and Mrs Weatherall about why they did not wish to offer assistance in respect of Child A. The Guardian’s request for Mr Weatherall’s contact details were sent to the Registrant by email on 20 June at 2.55 pm, the letter dated 17 April 2012 was created at 4.01 pm and the three file notes were also created on 20 June 2012. This highlights the Registrant’s deliberate and dishonest actions.
41. It follows that to create false records would be regarded as dishonest by the standards of normal, reasonable people. Further there can be no doubt that it would have been obvious to the Registrant that such outright dishonesty would be regarded as such by right thinking members of society given that they were totally false.
Decision on Grounds
42. The Panel is aware that any finding on the grounds is a matter for the Panel’s professional judgement.
43. In the Panel’s assessment there is no issue of a lack of competence in this case as the task of contacting the extended family was basic and obvious; the Registrant was aware that the task of contacting the family was required due to the Court’ Direction and it being specifically raised during supervision; the Registrant was a qualified Social Worker; the Registrant had received the required training.
44. The Panel is satisfied that all the proven Particulars amount to misconduct as the Registrant’s actions fell far below those that can be expected of a registered professional through departures from fundamental requirements for any professional to be honest, trustworthy and to carry out their work with integrity.
45. The Registrant failed to contact extended family members and nonetheless made a recommendation that Child A should be the subject of a Closed Adoption.
46. The Registrant falsified records to suggest that he had made contact when he had failed to do so. The false records were an attempt to back up his failures and he was aware of the significance of the work that was being undertaken.
47. The Panel finds that the following Standards of Conduct Performance and Ethics are breached:
Standard 1 – A failure to act in the best interests of service users.
Standard 7 – a Failure to communicate properly and effectively with Service Users and other practitioners.
Standard 10 – A failure to keep accurate records.
Standard 13 - A failure to act with honesty and integrity.
Decision on Impairment
48. In considering this aspect the Panel has taken into account that the purpose of these procedures is not to punish the practitioner for past misdoings but to protect the public against the acts and omissions of those who are not fit to practise.
49. The Panel has concluded that the Registrant’s current fitness to practice is impaired for the following reasons:
50. In the Panel’s assessment the established facts and misconduct are very serious involving deliberate, persistent and dishonest conduct to hide mistakes. Such serious dishonesty continues to cast a shadow over his current fitness to practice.
51. The Registrant wrote a report recommending closed adoption and had this recommendation been accepted by the Court the consequences for Child A were extreme. He would have been denied the right to be brought up within the birth family, his contact with the extended family would have been severed and he would have grown up outside his family. Such a step is draconian and regarded as a last resort. The Registrant failed to contact family members and nonetheless made such a recommendation which highlights the seriousness of the case.
52. The Registrant’s response shows that there is a complete denial of the serious issues that have been proven against him and that he has shown no insight whatsoever. Instead he sought to blame others, the Management culture and has avoided dealing with the issues. The Panel took account of the fact that the Registrant may have felt stressed; over worked and unsupported but none of these considerations go anywhere near explaining his deliberate dishonest steps to cover up such a fundamental failure.
53. Accordingly, the misconduct is not easily remediable and certainly has not been remedied.
54. In these circumstances the Panel is of the view that there remains a significant risk of reoccurrence as there can be no confidence that the Registrant will behave with honesty or integrity in the future.
55. The Registrant has damaged public confidence in him as members of the public and colleagues would find it difficult to trust the Registrant as he has chosen to depart from fundamental standards and then to rely on false records to cover up his failings.
56. There is also a need for members of the public to have confidence that those dealing with the most vulnerable in society are trustworthy and honest, however this kind of confidence cannot be vested in this Registrant.
57. The Registrant’s actions have brought his profession into disrepute as all the proven facts are directly connected with the profession rather than matters strictly in the Registrant’s personal life. But for the involvement of the Guardian, there was a risk that Child A would have been made the subject of a Closed Adoption, as recommended by the Registrant, as he had failed to contact the extended family who did in fact take up the care of Child A.
58. The Panel takes this opportunity to declare that this type of serious behaviour is wholly unacceptable and to uphold the proper standards that are to be expected of this and other registered professions.
59. There is a particular need to maintain confidence in this regulatory process as the public look to it for their protection and there is a need to find that fitness to practice is impaired in these circumstances as to do otherwise would undermine confidence in this process.
60. In the Panel’s assessment critically important Public Policy issues are engaged and continue to subsist in this case.
61. Accordingly, the Council’s case is well-founded.
62. In view of the Registrant’s engagement with the process the Panel sent a copy of the decision to him by email on 5 February 2014 inviting him to provide any written mitigation evidence by 10am on 6 February 2014 so that such evidence could be taken into account.
63. In considering what, if any, sanction to impose the Panel had regard to the submissions made by Miss Thompson who highlighted the aggravating features linked to the finding of dishonesty and the potential adverse consequences for Child A.
64. The Panel also took into account the mitigation that it could infer from the papers and took full account of the Registrant’s 5 page statement which was submitted for mitigation purposes.
65. It was clear from the Registrant’s response that he "rejected" and "refuted" the Panel’s decision on dishonesty. He has failed to accept responsibility for any of his failings and subsequent dishonest cover up. The Registrant has instead focused on the conduct, honesty and practices of his Line Manager without taking any responsibility for his own established failures.
66. The Registrant suggested that his fitness to practice was impaired due to being overworked and due to consistent negative support from his Line manager. The Panel accepts that there were health issues at the time which are evidenced by medical certificates, that the Registrant felt overloaded (either due to being over worked or due to his own time management failures) and that he had an issue with the quality of the supervision. At best, these aspects could go a little way to explain why the Registrant failed to make contact with the extended family over a period of 6 months however the Registrant does not accept any failures. Even if these aspects were in play they have little to do with the specifics of this situation.
67. The Panel had regard to the medical information that had been submitted but he did not advance that as being a reason for his failure to make contact with the extended family as his case was that he made 3 telephone calls and wrote a letter. In such circumstances the issues about health provided no mitigation. Even if the Panel inferred that the Registrant’s health and workload were reasons for his failure to make contact with the extended family there is no mitigation that could be found in respect of the dishonest falsification of records to cover up the failure.
68. The Registrant’s response focused on the criticisms of the Local Authority, dedicated significant attention to the registrant’s view of MM and the Employment Tribunal transcript which was concerned with different issues and principles.
69. The Registrant has failed to acknowledge that the case has been established on the strength of the evidence from the Weatherall’s, the telephone data and computer analysis which were sufficient regardless of MM’s evidence to prove the case.
70. The Registrant has again referred to being stressed, over worked, his excessive hours and MM’s management being questionable, without addressing the fundamental question of his own failure to contact the extended family.
71. The Registrant referred, in a very limited way, to there being no denial of the seriousness of the issues but demonstrated no understanding of why this was so. The Panel accepted that the Registrant may have done a significant amount of work on Child A’s case and that he worked with honesty and integrity in the past.
72. The Panel reminded itself that this is a serious case involving departures from fundamental duties which involved the failure to contact the extended family over a lengthy period of time; making a recommendation of Closed Adoption without contacting the extended family, preparing a case for the Court on the basis that Adoption was in the best interests of Child A when contact had not been made with the extended family, misleading his employers about making contact and then dishonestly falsifying documents to cover up such a significant failure. The potential consequences for Child A were very serious as there was a risk that he may have been adopted thereby severing his family ties, denying him contact with the extended family and preventing him from having the advantage of being brought up within the extended family. The Registrant’s failure was exposed due to the Guardian’s independent enquiries which caused him to contact the extended family only days before the Final Hearing of the case. The seriousness is such that there is a lasting effect which requires a suitable sanction.
73. The Panel had regard to the HCPC Indicative Sanctions Policy.
74. In view of the seriousness of the case the Panel excluded the outcome of taking no action and also excluded the outcome of imposing a Caution Order of between 1 to 5 years.
75. The Panel was of the view that whilst this was an isolated lapse it persisted over a 6 month period and involved the dishonest falsification of records. There is a significant risk of recurrence as the registrant has shown no insight. He has failed to show any remedial action. Instead his views about the Line Manager and the Local Authority remain entrenched, and he has steadfastly failed to address his own personal failings.
76. Further, the lapse was certainly not of a minor nature as it represented a total disregard for basic and fundamental principles with the potential of very serious and foreseeable harm. Accordingly, the seriousness of this case meant that a Caution Order, even for the maximum duration, was inadequate as such an Order is suitable for slightly more serious cases
77. The Panel then considered and excluded the imposition of a Conditions of Practice Order on the grounds that such an Order is not required as there are no prevailing deficiencies in terms of skills or knowledge. The Registrant was aware that he was required to contact the extended family and failed to do so over a lengthy period of time. There is no need for any remedial, rehabilitative or corrective work that needs to be performed. Such an Order would not address the public reassurance requirements or act as a deterrent for others.
78. The Panel then went on to consider the imposition of a Suspension Order for up to 12 months and concluded that such an order was insufficient from every perspective. It would not reflect the seriousness of the case, it would not be an adequate deterrent, it would not restore confidence in the profession and would undermine confidence in the regulatory process.
79. In addition, there was no merit in imposing an Order that was capable of being reviewed as it is clear that the Registrant is unwilling to develop an insight into his own failings by fixating on the actions of others. In the Panel’s view this is unlikely to change as his views are strong, unwavering and he has stated an intention to pursue a course of referring his Line Manager and the Local Authority to the Police, his MP and to this regulator.
80. In such circumstances the Panel had no alternative but to invoke the Order of last resort and to impose a Striking Off Order.
81. In the Panel’s view this Order reflects the seriousness of a case in which the interests of a child were compromised, the potential of serious harm was significant, the matter persisted for a number of months, the failure was compounded by the totally dishonest response to falsify records.
82. It is only such an Order that can sufficiently reinforce the requirement to uphold and declare proper standards of behaviour when fundamental standards have been breached such as the need to act in the best interest of service users, particularly a vulnerable child, as was the situation here.
83. This Order will act as an adequate deterrent to others who may contemplate departing from fundamental and core duties.
84. This Order will restore confidence in the profession as members of the public will be aware that those who act in such a dishonest way have no place in the profession and that the practising profession are aware of the consequences of such failures.
85. It is only such an Order that will restore confidence in the profession. The public needs to be aware that those who are caring for the vulnerable in society have proper regard to the consequences of breaching the duty to act in their best interests.
86. The Order will maintain confidence in the regulatory process as members of the public will be reassured by the fact that cases such as this are taken seriously and departures from fundamental and core duties are not tolerated.
87. The Panel took account of the fact that that such an Order is punitive in nature and that it will permanently prevent the Registrant from practising in his chosen profession.
88. These individual considerations were balanced against the need for public reassurance in a case as serious as this and the Panel concluded that the public’s rights were dominant.
89. In all the circumstances the Panel believes this to be a necessary and proportionate sanction.