Mr Stephen P Johnson

Profession: Social worker

Registration Number: SW27652

Hearing Type: Interim Order Review

Date and Time of hearing: 09:00 25/10/2018 End: 11:00 25/10/2018

Location: Health and Care Professions Tribunal Service (HCPTS), 405 Kennington Road, London, SE11 4PT

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: Suspended

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Allegation

Between 1 January 2010 and 30 November 2014, whilst employed as a Social Worker by the London Borough of Barnet:

1. Regarding Service User A, you:
a) made an inappropriate recording on Service User A's case record in relation to a home visit conducted on 28 April 2014, whereby you wrote: "I did not bother asking [Service User A] what she would do if she fell out with her boyfriend and was asked to leave" or words to that effect;
b) did not complete and/or update a risk assessment by 19 June 2014, as requested on 11 June 2014;
c) did not complete the chronology section of Service User A's case record;

2. Regarding Service User B, you did not complete the chronology section of Service User B's case record;

3. Regarding Service User C, between 5 December 2012 and 18 September 2014, you:
a) did not complete the chronology section of Service User C's case record;
b) did not make a complete and/or comprehensive record of the Pathway Plan outcomes meeting with Service User C held on 17 April 2014;
c) did not conduct and/ or record Statutory Visits to Service User C as required;

4. Regarding Service User D, between 12 July 2013 to June 2014, you:
a) did not consistently update and/or complete the chronology section of Service User D's case record;
b) did not update a the risk assessment as instructed on 2 June 2014;

5. Regarding Service User E, from 8 October 2010 to June 2014, you:
a) did not conduct and/or record Statutory Visits as required;
b) did not record the following Statutory Visits within 7 days:
i. 19 November 2012
ii. 2 May 2014
c) did not conduct and/or record a visit to Service User E, as instructed on 2 June 2014;
d) did not record updates regarding Service User E's;
i. dental checks;
ii. health assessments.

6. Regarding Service User F, between 11 January 2010 and August 2014, you:
a) did not conduct a Risk Assessment- found not proved;
b) did not conduct and/or record Statutory Visits as required;
c) did not update Service User F's Pathway Plan, as instructed on 2 June 2014.

7. Regarding Service User G, between 31 January 2013 and August 2014:
a) did not complete the chronology section of Service User G's case record;
b) did not consistently conduct and/or record Statutory Visits as required.

8. Regarding Service User H, between 8 January 2013 and June 2014:
a) did not complete the chronology section of Service User H's case record;
b) did not conduct and/or record Statutory Visits as required;
c)  did not attempt to and/or visit Service User H within the required time period, as requested on 11 June 2014;

9. The matters described in paragraphs 1 - 8 constitute misconduct and/or lack of competence.

10. By reason of your misconduct and/or lack of competence your fitness to practise is impaired.

Finding

Background
1. Ms Dudrah, on behalf of the HCPC, outlined the background to the case.

2. The Registrant was a Senior Social Worker with the London Borough of Barnet (“the Council"). He had worked for the Council from August 2000. As a Senior Social Worker he was responsible for the more complex cases. He was based in the Children Leaving Care Service, which became the Onwards and Upwards Team. His responsibilities included providing advice, guidance and support to young people aged sixteen plus.

3. In January 2014, the Council commissioned an Independent Peer Review to review quality issues within the service. In March 2014 the report was finalised and highlighted a number of matters.

4. Following the review, Witness 2, Service Improvement Manager for the Council at the relevant time, accelerated an improvement process and as part of this there was an audit of every case within the service. The audit revealed a number of concerns in respect of the Registrant’s record keeping including non-completion of Pathway Plans, chronologies, risk assessments and statutory visits. The Registrant was referred to the HCPC by Witness 2.

5. On the 11 June 2014, the Registrant had a meeting with Witness 2 and, his newly appointed line manager, Witness 3. Concerns in respect of a number of service users, which formed part of the Registrant’s caseload, were identified and discussed. Following this, a Personal Improvement Plan was devised dated 16 June 2014. On 3 July 2014, the Registrant attended a three way supervision meeting with Witness 2 and Witness 3. As a result of ongoing concerns, he was invited to attend a formal meeting on 21 July 2014. However, the Registrant was signed off on sick leave on 10 July 2014. On 15 September 2014, the Registrant met with Witness 2 to discuss his return to work and the outcome was that he was suspended.

6. The Final Hearing Panel found all but one of the alleged facts proved. The Registrant had admitted many of them at the outset of the hearing and the rest during his evidence, save for Particular 6(a), which he continued to deny. The Panel found 6(a) not proved. In reaching its decision on misconduct the Panel stated the following:
“The Panel had regard to the ‘Standards of proficiency for Social workers in England’ (2012) and in particular the following standards from the HCPC ‘Standards of, performance and ethics’ (2012):
Standard 1 - you must act in the best interests of service users.
Standard 10 - you must keep accurate records.

In coming to its decision in relation to misconduct, the Panel took account of the importance of the following duties in supporting young care leavers:

a chronology provides a summary of significant events in a young persons life since the start of their involvement with social services, which can extend to several years. An up to date chronology enables other professionals to gain a quick understanding of relevant events without reading the whole file;

 a Pathway Plan is a care plan developed with the young person looking at their physical and emotional well being, housing, education and work plans for the future. It needs to be reviewed regularly;

 a risk assessment is an assessment of the risks posed to and/or by the service users and those around them. The purpose is to ensure the young person, and the public are kept safe;

 the purpose of statutory visits is to ensure the young person’s needs are being accounted for and met.

 The Panel is satisfied that the facts found proved amount to a serious departure from the above standards. The acts and omissions had the potential to put service users at risk. In some cases, some of the service users presented a high degree of risk to members of the public as well as to other Social Workers and professionals dealing with them. In particular, the acts and omissions with regard to keeping up to date chronologies, risk assessments and undertaking statutory visits posed a significant risk to service users, members of the public, colleagues and the reputation of the Council. These failings took place in some cases over a number of years. In addition, these failings could also have delayed or deprived young people of support and life opportunities. Not withstanding the evidence of Witness 1 that there were systemic failings generally across the Onwards and Upwards Team, the Panel was nevertheless satisfied that the Registrant had a responsibility as a senior Social Worker and an autonomous practitioner to comply with the relevant standards. The Panel is in no doubt that the Registrant’s acts and omissions were a serious falling short of the standards to be expected. The Panel therefore finds that the Registrant’s acts and omissions amounted to misconduct.”

7. In reaching its decision on current impairment, the Final Hearing Panel stated the following:
 “The Panel accepted that the Registrant had engaged with the process throughout which was to his credit and that he had made appropriate admissions at the outset of the hearing and during his evidence. He presented as a caring individual in so far as the young people in his care were concerned. He acknowledged the risks that his acts and omissions had entailed and the Panel was satisfied that he had demonstrated some insight during his oral evidence. The Panel also noted that he had an unblemished career prior to the matters in this case.

 However, in light of the fact that there was no evidence of current good practice and insight was limited in that he continued to highlight institutional failings rather than acknowledge his own individual responsibility, the Panel could not exclude the risk of repetition were
the Registrant to be placed in a similar position again. In fact, he accepted that he would not want to have the same caseload again.

 The Panel therefore finds that the Registrant’s misconduct presented a risk to service users, members of the public and fellow professionals and in the absence of any evidence of remediation such ongoing risk cannot be excluded.

 Turning to the public component, the Panel is in no doubt that public confidence in the profession would be undermined if a finding of impairment were not made. The public, vulnerable service users and fellow colleagues would expect that proper professional standards of conduct and behaviour are upheld.

 The Panel therefore finds the Registrant’s fitness to practise currently impaired.”

8. The Final Hearing Panel stated the following when deciding on the appropriate and proportionate sanction:
 “The Panel considered the following to be aggravating features:
acts and omissions over a period of years;
not taking full responsibility as an autonomous professional;
deflecting responsibility on to others.

 The Panel considered the following to be mitigating factors:
a lengthy, unblemished career prior to these incidents;
engaging openly and honestly with the HCPC and the Panel;
a commitment to the welfare of service users in his care;
positive testimonial evidence;
some developing insight;
 an acknowledgment by Witness 1 of the systemic failings in the Onwards and Upwards Team.

 The Panel first considered whether a sanction was necessary in this case. In the circumstances where the Panel identified an ongoing risk to service users in the absence of any evidence as to remediation, the Panel determined that to conclude the case without any action would be wholly inappropriate.

 The Panel then considered whether a Caution Order would be appropriate. It noted paragraph 28 of the ISP which noted that a  Caution Order may be appropriate where the Registrant has taken appropriate remedial action and where the risk of repetition is low. The Panel noted that the Registrant had taken no remedial action since he left the Council in 2014; the Panel had found that insight was partial; and that there was a risk of repetition. The Panel therefore considered that a Caution Order would not be appropriate.

 The Panel then went on to consider whether a Conditions of Practice Order would be appropriate and proportionate. It is satisfied that in the circumstances of this case where the misconduct relates primarily to record keeping and prioritisation of workload, conditions could be formulated that would adequately protect the public and the wider public interest.

 In the circumstances, the Panel determined that the following conditions would be proportionate and appropriate.

1.  Within the period of 12 months of the conditions coming into effect and prior to any review you must:
A. satisfactorily complete training on record keeping, risk assessments and statutory responsibilities; and
B. forward evidence of training to the HCPC.

2.  You must place yourself and remain under the supervision of workplace supervisor registered by the HCPC or other appropriate statutory regulator and supply details of your supervisor to the HCPC within 28 days of commencing work as a Social Worker. You must attend upon that supervisor as required and follow their advice and recommendations.

3.   You must work with supervisor to formulate a Personal Development Plan designed to address the deficiencies in the following areas of your practice:
• Prioritising workload
• Record keeping
• Risk assessments
• Statutory responsibilities

4.   You must forward a copy of your Personal Development Plan to the HCPC within 3 months of commencing employment as a Social Worker.

5.   You must meet with supervisor on a fortnightly basis to consider your progress towards achieving the aims set out in your Personal Development Plan.

6. You must allow your supervisor to provide information to the HCPC about your progress towards achieving the aims set out in your Personal Development Plan.

7. You must provide the HCPC with a reflective piece addressing the failings identified at the substantive hearing 28 days prior to the review hearing.

8. You must promptly inform the HCPC if you cease to be employed by your current employer or take up any other or further employment.

9. You must promptly inform the HCPC of any disciplinary proceedings taken against you by your employer.

10. You must inform the following parties that your registration is subject to these conditions:
A. any organisation or person employing or contracting with you to undertake professional work;
B. any agency you are registered with or apply to be registered with (at the time of application); and
C. any prospective employer (at the time of your application).

The Panel determined that a period of 12 months would be a proportionate and appropriate time to enable the Registrant to develop further insight and remediate his failings.

Submissions
9. Ms Dudrah, on behalf of the HCPC, submitted that the Registrant’s fitness to practise remained impaired. She said that there continued to be a complete absence of remediation and a lack of insight shown by the Registrant. She said that the Registrant had not practised as a Social Worker since 2014 and had indicated that he did not wish to return to practice. Accordingly, he had not complied with the conditions imposed on his practice in October 2017.

10. Ms Dudrah invited the Panel to consider striking the Registrant off the Register and referred the Panel to the case of Unozor v NMC, 25 February 2016 (unreported). She submitted that in circumstances where there is a lack of insight and remediation and where the Registrant has made it clear that he has no intention of ever returning to work as a Social Worker, it would not be in his, the HCPC’s or the public’s interest in taking any other course.

11. The Registrant provided oral evidence to the Panel and said that he accepted the matters that were found proved and that they amounted to misconduct.  He said, “I messed up a lot of things, I admit that.” However, he denied that his fitness to practise was impaired, which he understood to mean “unable to manage my case load and tasks.” He believed that the Final Hearing Panel only found him impaired because of deeply personal lies told by his manager about him at the hearing. He spoke about the difficulties with management at work and their unrealistic expectations. He said he loved social work, he used to “fight hard for his young people” and when he looks back he feels “very proud of a lot of the work that I have done.” He spoke with sadness about how the job had changed and the time allowed for Social Workers to be with service users had diminished significantly with much more time now spent “ticking boxes on a computer."

12. The Registrant told the Panel that he had not worked as a Social Worker since July 2014, when these matters were first raised by his manager and he was signed off work by his doctor. Then in September 2014 he was suspended by his employer and could not get a job, so he had not worked as a Social Worker for over four years. He said that in all that time he had not carried out any continuing professional development because he saw no point to it if he could not get work. He said that in 2017 he reached retirement age and so officially retired, although he had subsequently returned to part-time employment, working in the motor industry. He said he was sad at the way his career had ended and that he had many fond memories and was grateful for the experience.

13. The Registrant was asked by the Panel in several different ways about whether he would even want to return to employment as a Social Worker. In his responses he spoke with absolute clarity about his intention to never return to Social Work, whatever the position might be. He said he had moved on and his quality of life had improved as a result. He added, “I will miss it, but no, I wouldn’t want to return, I have lost faith in the whole system.”

Decision
14. The Panel considered with care the Registrant’s oral evidence and his written representations, together with the documentation provided by the HCPC and the submissions of Ms Dudrah. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and in reaching its decisions referred to the HCPTS Practice Note on ‘Finding That Fitness to Practise is Impaired’. The Panel carried out a comprehensive review of the current order in light of the circumstances as they existed today.

15. The Panel first considered the issue of current impairment. The Panel took account of the principle set out in Abrahaem v GMC [2008] EWHC 183 (Admin) that there is, in practical terms, a persuasive burden at a review hearing for the Registrant to demonstrate that he has “fully acknowledged why past performance was deficient and through insight, application, education, supervision or other achievement sufficiently addressed the past impairments".

16. The original Panel noted that the Registrant was “candid in the admissions  he made in oral evidence. He gave an honest recollection of what he perceived to have happened. He accepted that his conduct was not acceptable for a registered Social Worker.” That Panel gave the Registrant credit for his engagement with the process and the appropriate admissions that he made. It said that he presented as “a caring individual in so far as young people in his care were concerned. He acknowledged the risk that his acts and omissions had entailed and the Panel was satisfied that he had demonstrated some insight during his oral evidence. The Panel also noted that he had an unblemished career prior to the matters in this case.”

17. The original Panel went on, however, to find current impairment because there was “no evidence of current good practice and insight was limited in that he continued to highlight institutional failings rather than acknowledge his own individual responsibility.” Accordingly, the Panel said it could not exclude the possibility of repetition if the Registrant were to be placed in a similar situation again.

18. In his written representations, it was not clear quite what the Registrant accepted from the Final Hearing. In his oral evidence, however, he was clear in that he accepted all the matters that were found proved against him and that his behaviour amounted to misconduct, demonstrating insight into his errors and omissions and the need for remediation. He did not accept that his fitness to practise had been impaired as a result of the misconduct, but the Panel noted his misunderstanding of what impairment in the regulatory context meant. The Registrant thought it meant that he was somehow intellectually unable to manage his caseload and tasks due to attitudinal issues, which he did not believe to be the case. In reality, it was his acts and omissions, as reflected in the facts found proved, together with a lack of remediation and limited insight that had led to the finding of impairment on public protection and public interest grounds.

19. The Panel did, therefore, consider that the Registrant was now demonstrating a good level of insight into his behaviour. However, there continues to be no evidence of remediation and there is unlikely to be any given the Registrant’s clear indication that he has no intention of ever returning to be a Social Worker. Given the complete absence of remediation, the Panel could not be assured that, in the unlikely event that he were to return to practise, he would not repeat his behaviour and thereby put service users at risk of harm. The Panel therefore determined that the Registrant’s fitness to practise remained impaired on public protection grounds.

20. The Panel was also satisfied that a fully informed member of the public would have their confidence in the profession and the regulatory process undermined if a finding of impairment were not made and the Registrant were allowed to return to unrestricted practice having failed to demonstrate that he would not repeat his failings. The Panel therefore also found the Registrant’s fitness to practise to be currently impaired on public interest grounds.

21. The Panel then considered what sanction was both appropriate and proportionate in all the circumstances and in doing so considered the Indicative Sanctions Policy (ISP). The Panel noted that the Registrant had made it quite clear that he had not worked as a Social Worker since 2014 and that he had decided to “no longer work in the field of social work.

22. The Panel did not consider it appropriate to take no action or to impose a Caution Order in this case, since neither would protect the public from the risks identified.

23. The Panel then considered with care whether it should extend the current Conditions of Practice Order or to make a new one with different conditions. The Panel noted that the Registrant had been subject to conditions for almost a year. However, because he had decided not to continue to work as a Social Worker, it had not been possible for him to comply with those conditions. The Panel noted that the ISP states that “conditions will rarely be effective unless the Registrant is genuinely committed to resolving the issues they seek to address and can be trusted to make a determined effort to do so.” Given the Registrant’s emphatic evidence that in no circumstances would he return to social work, the Panel could see no reason why the he would comply if yet another Conditions of Practice Order were to be made or the current one extended. The Panel concluded that a Conditions of Practice Order would not be workable in any form.

24. The Panel then considered whether it would be appropriate to make a Suspension Order. It concluded that a Suspension Order would protect the public and maintain public confidence in the profession. The Panel considered the content of the HCPTS Practice Note entitled ‘Disposal of Cases by Consent’. It determined that a six month Suspension Order with a review would allow sufficient time for the HCPC and the Registrant to explore the possibility of a Voluntary Removal Agreement (“VRA”). The Panel considered that, in light of the insight shown by the Registrant today and his previous long and unblemished career as a Social Worker, the consideration of a VRA may be appropriate to potentially allow the Registrant to withdraw from practice in a dignified way, rather than being subjected to the ultimate sanction.

25. The Panel did consider whether to make a Striking-Off Order, but considered it would not be appropriate or proportionate at this stage. It is a sanction of last resort and the Panel hoped that the alternative mooted above might enable such a sanction to be avoided. However, in the event that a Voluntary Removal Agreement could not be reached between the Registrant and the HCPC, the Panel recognised that such a disposal may well be considered appropriate when this Suspension Order is reviewed.

Order

The Registrar is directed to Suspend the Registrant for a period of six months upon expiry of the current Conditions of Practice Order.

Notes

The Order imposed today will apply from 23 November 2018. This Order will be reviewed again before its expiry on 23 May 2019.

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Mr Stephen P Johnson

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
02/05/2019 Conduct and Competence Committee Voluntary Removal Agreement Voluntary Removal agreed
25/10/2018 Conduct and Competence Committee Interim Order Review Suspended
23/10/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Conditions of Practice