Mrs Laura F Gray

Profession: Social worker

Registration Number: SW52163

Hearing Type: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing: 09:00 24/09/2018 End: 16:00 26/09/2018

Location: Health and Care Professions Council, 405 Kennington Road, London, SE11 4PT

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: Struck off

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Allegation

1. On an unknown date in or around October or November 2016, you messaged Person A and stated that if he agreed to the proposed contact arrangements for Child C:

a) “[Person B] […] will destroy all the evidence from social networking sites she has to discredit you and your older kids”; and/o

b) “I will agree to write you a very positive character reference”;

2. Your conduct as described in paragraph 1 was dishonest.

3. Your actions described at particulars 1 to and/or 2 constitute misconduct;

4. By reason of your misconduct your fitness to practise is impaired.

Finding

Preliminary Matters


Introduction


1. Mrs Laura Gray (“the Registrant”) is registered with the HCPC as a Social Worker. The Allegation above relates to her work as an agency Social Worker during her placement with Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council (“the Council”).

2. In support of the HCPC case, the Panel heard from the following witnesses (and giving their job title as at the time of the relevant events):


i) SH – Family Court Adviser – Children’s Guardian employed by CAFCASS.
ii) SS – Head of Service for Safeguarding employed by the Council.


Background


3. The HCPC’s case is that whilst working for the Council, the Registrant involved herself in a court case concerning the daughter (Child C, aged 18 months) of a friend (Person B) of the Registrant. The Registrant had no professional responsibility in the case. The father of Child C (Person A) was a party to the court case and, at the relevant time, had physical care of Child C. The HCPC maintains that on the evening before the court hearing of the case, the Registrant sent a lengthy message to Person A by social media. In that message the Registrant referred to not only the impending court hearing concerning Child C, but to other care proceedings concerning another child of Person A (Child D, aged 3 years old). The Registrant referred to allegations relating to Person A including alcohol and drugs misuse, and social media material showing other children of Person A engaging in substance misuse. The Registrant stated that if Person A agreed at the hearing to return Child C to the care of Person B in return for Person A being allowed reasonable contact with Child C, certain steps would be taken.


4. Those steps were that:


i) relevant adverse evidence concerning Person A engaging in substance misuse would be destroyed by Person B and not provided to Social Services, and


ii) the Registrant would provide Person A with a “very positive character reference that you can use to support you caring for your other daughter”. That other daughter was Child D.


5. The message also contained the following sentences;
“As you know I am a Social Worker and I am very experienced in care proceedings. I am going to be honest it is going to be hard for you to convince ssd (Social Services Department) to give you fill [sic] time care of your daughter.”



“My professional view based on my experience as working as a child’s guardian in care proceedings is that you have a better chance of getting your daughter out of foster care into your full time care if you have no other small children in your care all the time.”


6. In relation to the offer of a positive character reference, the Registrant stated in her message “this will look good as I am a professional person who can comment on your parenting capacity in the court”.


7. The Registrant did not attend the HCPC hearing in person. However, she engaged with the hearing by telephone link at the commencement of proceedings and at certain later stages within the proceedings. She said that she had child care responsibilities which meant that she could not attend the hearing in person and she felt that she could not remain participating by telephone link throughout what was expected to be a three day hearing.


8. The Panel confirmed with the Registrant the extent to which she wished to engage in the proceedings by telephone link. The Registrant was content for the Panel to hear the evidence of the two HCPC witnesses in her absence. The Registrant wanted the opportunity to make a statement by telephone link to the Panel before it made (i) findings of fact and (ii) a determination on the question of whether or not there was current impairment to the Registrant’s fitness to practise. The hearing progressed on that basis.


9. On behalf of the HCPC, Miss Shameli accepted that the burden of proving the factual particulars was on the HCPC on the basis of the balance of probabilities test. She asked the Panel to accept the evidence of the two witnesses, SH and SS, as reliable and to take into account the admission made by the Registrant. She submitted that, on that basis, Particular 1 should be found proved.


10. In respect of Particular 2, Miss Shameli asked the Panel to take into account the test for dishonesty as that was confirmed in the Supreme Court judgment in the case of Ivey v Genting Casinos, in particular, at paragraph 74 of that judgment. She submitted that there was a proper basis within the evidence for a finding of dishonesty. The evidence showed that the Registrant had only limited knowledge of Person A and the knowledge that she did have indicated a number of negative features regarding Person A’s suitability to care for children. Nevertheless, the Registrant had offered to provide a very positive character reference in the face of the negative features that had been reported to her. The actions that the Registrant had suggested to
Person A involved misleading a court and giving information to a court that she knew was not correct.


11. The Registrant had said in her representations that she had felt mortified very soon after having sent the message. Miss Shameli asked the Panel to accept that that was unlikely given the account the Registrant had provided within the workplace investigation where she had made no mention of being mortified or upset. The Registrant had claimed in her representations that when sending the message she was under the influence of alcohol. That factor had not previously been mentioned within the workplace investigation or in previous emails sent to the HCPC by the Registrant. The Registrant had also claimed that at the time of sending the message she was not thinking clearly. However, Miss Shameli invited the Panel to consider whether that was likely given the nature of the well-constructed message sent by the Registrant which contained nothing ambiguous and was clearly thought-out.


12. In respect of the meaning of misconduct, Miss Shameli asked the Panel to take into account the definition established in the case of GMC v Roylance to the effect that misconduct meant some act or omission which fell short of what would be proper in the circumstances.


13. Miss Shameli submitted that the actions of the Registrant amounted to a breach of the following HCPC standards:


• Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics 1,2,6,7 & 9; and
• Standards of Proficiency 2 & 3.


14. The Council submitted that the HCPTS Practice Note “Finding that Fitness to Practise is Impaired” should be taken into account. In particular, the factors of the personal component and the public component relevant within any assessment of impairment. A panel would be bound to take into account the extent to which a registrant had made admissions and had taken genuine steps to show remorse, insight and remediation. Guidance from the Shipman Inquiry on the question of impairment had been confirmed as relevant in the case of Grant.


15. In summary, the Panel was asked to accept that the evidence demonstrated that the actions of the Registrant had placed young children at risk of harm and she had placed her friend’s wishes above the well-being of the relevant children. There was little reliable insight or
remediation and it was submitted that the fitness to practise of the Registrant was currently impaired.


16. The Panel took into account the advice of the Legal Assessor.


Decision on Facts


17. During the Registrant’s participation by telephone link at the start of the proceedings, the Registrant admitted the factual basis of the Allegation. In other words, that she had sent the message in question to Person A.


18. Admissions by a Registrant carry significant weight but the ultimate responsibility for determining the particulars remains with the Panel.


19. It is for the HCPC to prove its case on the balance of probabilities.


20. The Panel has made findings of fact as set out below in respect of each of the particulars.


Particular 1 – Found Proved


Whilst registered as a Social Worker:


1. On an unknown date in or around October or November 2016, you messaged Person A and stated that if he agreed to the proposed contact arrangements for Child C:
a) “[Person B] […] will destroy all the evidence from social networking sites she has to discredit you and your older kids”; and/or;
b) “I will agree to write you a very positive character reference”;


21. The Registrant has accepted that she sent the message. The evidence that she did so is clear from the evidence presented by the HCPC and the Panel has concluded that the Registrant did in fact send the message in question. The Panel therefore finds Particular 1 proved.


Particular 2 – Found Proved


22. In considering the question of dishonesty, the Panel took into account the Case of Ivey v Genting Casinos (UK) Ltd t/a Crockfords [2017] UKSC 67 and, in particular, what was said at paragraph 74:


“When dishonesty is in question the fact-finding tribunal must first ascertain (subjectively) the actual state of the individual’s knowledge or belief as to the facts. The reasonableness or otherwise of his belief is a matter of evidence (often in practice determinative) going to whether he held the belief, but it is not an additional requirement that his belief must be reasonable; the question is whether it is genuinely held. When once his actual state of mind as to knowledge or belief as to facts is established, the question whether his conduct was honest or dishonest is to be determined by the fact-finder by applying the (objective) standards of ordinary decent people. There is no requirement that the defendant must appreciate that what he has done is, by those standards, dishonest”.


23. The Panel has considered the knowledge and belief of the Registrant at the time she sent the message. By her own evidence, she had met Person A on up to eight occasions in the past, but only during the handover of Child C between Person A and Person B. The Registrant had received information from Person B which alleged that Person A was misusing drugs and alcohol. She had also seen images on social media which she believed showed Person A using drugs. The Registrant was a social worker with specific and significant experience in child safeguarding procedures including the criteria that a court would take into account when making decisions concerning safeguarding children.


24. The Registrant knew that the message she sent made offers to Person A to (i) conceal relevant information from a Local Authority and future court proceedings, and (ii) write a very positive character reference for Person A which was to be used in child care proceedings. This was notwithstanding the fact that the Registrant was aware of very concerning information regarding the suitability of Person A having the care of his children. The Registrant said that she knew that this placed the children at risk of harm.


25. The Panel has applied the standards of ordinary decent people and has concluded that, in particular, the offer to write a very positive character reference for Person A, with the intention that the reference could be used in public law proceedings relating to the care of Person A’s child (Child D), was dishonest. Accordingly, Particular 2 is found proved.


Decision on Grounds

26. Misconduct may be described as some act or omission which falls short of what would be proper in the circumstances. The act or omission must be of sufficient seriousness.


27. The Panel is satisfied that the Registrant made an offer to Person A to the effect that relevant court evidence would be withheld, and in fact destroyed. Furthermore, the Registrant made an offer to provide a very positive character reference in circumstances in which the Registrant knew that such a reference was unjustified and would be a deceit within court proceedings. The Panel has concluded that the behaviour on the part of the Registrant would be regarded by both fellow social workers and members of the public as deplorable, shocking and an abuse of the Registrant’s position as a Social Worker.


28. The representations made by the Registrant to the Panel have included:


i) her claim to have been significantly affected by alcohol at the time of sending the message, and
ii) her expressed desire to do what she thought was the right thing which was for Person A to consent to Child C returning to the care of Person B.


29. The Panel is satisfied that by making the offer of a misleading reference, the Registrant was endangering the safety of Child D and she was misusing her status and knowledge as a child Social Worker and former Family Court Adviser for CAFCASS.


30. The Panel puts little weight on the Registrant’s claim that a substantial factor behind the sending of the message was her inebriation. The Panel’s assessment is that the message was well-constructed, thought-out and coherent. This lengthy message demonstrated a complex and premediated thought process. In previous statements made by the Registrant concerning this matter, the Registrant did not claim that alcohol was a contributory factor.


31. The Panel has concluded there is no mitigation on the basis that the Registrant was trying to do the right thing for the child of her friend when, at the same time and with her knowledge as a Social Worker, she would have been fully aware that she was making an offer which would have the likely effect of creating a risk of harm to Child D.


32. It is clear to the Panel that the actions of the Registrant amounted to misconduct.

Decision on Impairment


33. The Panel has taken into account the HCPTS Practice Note “Finding that Fitness to Practise is Impaired”.


34. In determining whether fitness to practise is impaired, Panels must take account of a range of issues which, in essence, comprise two components:


• the ‘personal’ component: the current competence, behaviour etc. of the individual registrant; and
• the ‘public’ component: the need to protect service users, declare and uphold proper standards of behaviour and maintain public confidence in the profession.


35. In putting her representations to the Panel, the Registrant claimed that she felt “mortified” the next morning after having sent the message to Person A. The view of the Panel is that that position is not made out by the evidence. In a workplace interview with the Registrant, it is recorded that she indicated that she did not see that she had done anything wrong. In an email to the Council dated 22 May 2017, the Registrant said that she could then clearly see that “I became far too emotionally involved with my friend and her problems, this resulted in me acting in a manner which was out of character and has resulted in misconduct”. The Registrant went on in the email to say “I deeply regret my actions and completely understand the reason this investigation is necessary. I do not seek to blame anyone else or minimise the concerns raised”.


36. The Panel is satisfied that in acting as she did, the Registrant;
• created a risk of harm to children;
• created substantial damage to the reputation of social workers;
• breached one of the fundamental tenets of the profession, honesty, in putting the interests of her friend over the safety and welfare of vulnerable children.


37. The Panel has noted what the Registrant has said during her engagement by telephone link to the effect that she is sorry for her actions and that she now sees how wrong she was. However, the Panel takes into account what it sees as a previously inconsistent approach taken by the Registrant regarding her culpability in this matter which
has moved from seeing little wrong in what she had done to a claim now that she has undertaken considerable reflection on the events.


38. Given that history of inconsistency on whether the Registrant has genuine insight and has genuinely reflected and identified where she would in future change her practice, the Panel puts little weight on the Registrant’s account that she has properly reflected on the circumstances.


39. The Panel has taken into account that the incident in question was isolated. However, the view of the Panel is that the misconduct of the Registrant was of a serious nature, and amounted to a perverse disregard of one of the fundamental obligations of a social worker which is to prevent or minimise the risk of harm to children. The core role of a social worker is to safeguard against the risk of harm to vulnerable people including children.


40. The Panel is not satisfied that there is sufficient evidence of genuine and meaningful insight, remediation and remorse on the part of the Registrant. There is no documentary evidence on that point, for example a written reflection from the Registrant.


41. As is recorded above, this was a single event of misconduct on the part of the Registrant. However, in the view of the Panel, this was extremely serious misconduct. The Registrant has not provided satisfactory evidence that she has remedied her past behavior and the Panel has concluded that there remains a risk of repetition. Finally, the view of the Panel is that the reputation of social workers and public confidence in the social work profession and its regulator would be damaged if, on the basis of the evidence in this case, there were no finding of impairment.


42. The Panel concludes that the actions of the Registrant amount to breaches of the following HCPC Standards;


Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics


1. Promote and protect the interests of service users and carers
2. Communicate appropriately and effectively
6. Manage risk
7. Report concerns about safety
9. Be honest and trustworthy

Standards of Proficiency


2. be able to practise within the legal and ethical boundaries of their profession
3. be able to maintain fitness to practise


43. The Panel has concluded that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired.


Decision on Sanction


44. Miss Shameli addressed the Panel on the question of sanction. She asked the Panel to take into account the HCPC Indicative Sanctions Policy. The purpose of a sanction is not to punish a registrant, but is to protect the public. She suggested that the Panel had already identified relevant aggravating features at paragraphs 36 to 41 above. By way of mitigating features, the Panel might want to take into account that the Allegation concerned an isolated action on the part of the Registrant, no actual harm to service users had been caused and it appeared that there had been no previous concerns as to the Registrant’s practice as a Social Worker.


45. The Registrant listened by telephone link to the submissions on sanction made by Miss Shameli but decided to make no submissions on her own behalf except that she said she had been practising as a Social Worker since 2005.


46. The Panel considered the appropriate order and took into account the HCPC “Indicative Sanctions Policy”. The purpose of a sanction is not to be punitive. It is to protect members of the public. Relevant other objectives are to:


• create a deterrent for other social workers, and
• maintain the reputation of the social work profession, and public confidence in this regulatory process.


47. In deciding what, if any, sanction to impose, panels should ensure that any sanction is proportionate and strikes a proper balance between the protection of the public and the rights of a registrant.


48. The aggravating features in this case are:


• the actions of the Registrant had potential to cause serious harm to children
• the dishonesty on the part of the Registrant was a sophisticated offer to deceive a court process that was intended to safeguard vulnerable children.
• the Registrant’s actions were pre-meditated and amounted to a perverse disregard of the fundamental tenets of the social work profession, which include safeguarding children and being honest
• the Registrant sent the message to Person A the night before his court hearing. The Registrant used her position of power to try to manipulate Person A for the benefit of her friend, with a total disregard for the welfare of the children.


49. The mitigating features are:


• no actual harm was caused to children
• this was an isolated incident
• there have been no previous fitness to practise concerns
• the Registrant has practised as a Social Worker for 11 years.


50. The Panel has taken into account the references provided by the Registrant which describe the Registrant as demonstrating a good quality of work (in 2009) and as being professional and conscientious (in 2015). These references predated the misconduct.


51. In this case, it is not appropriate to make no order because of the serious nature of the Allegation that is now proved.


52. Mediation is not appropriate because the failings of the Registrant were not minor and involved dishonesty.


53. A Caution Order is not appropriate because the misconduct on the part of the Registrant was of a serious nature, the Registrant has not shown full insight and nor is any remedial action by way of reflection properly evidenced.


54. The Panel considered a Conditions of Practice Order. Such an order will be appropriate where a Panel is confident a registrant will adhere to the conditions, is genuinely committed to resolving the issues they seek to address and can be trusted to make a determined effort to do so. The
Panel has taken into account the statements of the Registrant dated 15 November 2016, 22 May 2017 and 23 September 2018 and the Registrant’s limited telephone link involvement in these proceedings. The view of the Panel is that there remains a significant lack of insight on the part of the Registrant regarding the matters above, identified as aggravating features. The Panel has no evidence that allows it to be confident that the Registrant is genuinely committed to resolving the issues. The Indicative Sanctions Policy indicates that conditions of practice are unlikely to be suitable in cases of dishonesty. The Panel is satisfied that there are no conditions of practice that would provide sufficient public protection, would maintain confidence in the social work profession and which would be workable and enforceable. The Panel concluded that such an order is not appropriate.


55. A Suspension Order may be appropriate where the allegation is of a serious nature but unlikely to be repeated and, thus, striking off is not merited. In making the finding above on impairment, the Panel concluded that the Registrant had not provided satisfactory evidence that she had remedied her past behaviour. She did not seek to “recall” the message or apologise to Person A at any stage. She knew that Person A was due in court the following day, but she did not disclose her actions to her line manager or anyone involved in the court case. This is despite telling the Panel that she was “mortified” about what she had done.
56. The Panel has taken into account the positions taken by the Registrant at various points in these proceedings:


• that in sending the message, her motivation was for Person A to “do the right thing” in respect of Child C;
• that she had thought about sending a message of the type she constructed but it was the effect of alcohol that triggered the act of sending it;
• that a Caution Order or Conditions of Practice Order may be appropriate;
• that if she were to return to practice, she would be helped by working as a permanent Social Worker (where she would have settled supervision) rather than as an agency worker.


57. The Panel finds that those views on the part of the Registrant fail to recognise the seriousness of her misconduct. To even just consider composing such a message reveals considerable impairment of judgement. The Panel has placed little weight on the claim that alcohol was a significant factor.


58. The view of the Panel (for the reasons recorded above) is that the Registrant has limited insight into the seriousness of her actions and there is little persuasive evidence of proper reflection and remediation.


59. The Panel bore in mind the Indicative Sanctions Policy which states that if the evidence suggests that a registrant will be unable to resolve or remedy his or her failings, then striking off may be the more appropriate option. However, where there are no psychological or other difficulties preventing a registrant from understanding and seeking to remedy failings, then suspension may be appropriate.


60. The Indicative Sanctions Policy states that striking off is a sanction of last resort for serious, deliberate or reckless acts involving abuse of trust such as sexual abuse, dishonesty or persistent failure. Striking off should be used where there is no other way to protect the public, for example, where there is a lack of insight, continuing problems or denial. A registrant’s inability or unwillingness to resolve matters will suggest that a lower sanction may not be appropriate.


61. Almost two years have passed since the misconduct by the Registrant. There has been very little insight and remediation by the Registrant during that period. On the evidence available, the Panel has concluded that if a period of suspension were to be imposed, it is unlikely to lead to satisfactory insight and / or remediation. The Panel has concluded that the Registrant is either unwilling or incapable of developing appropriate insight and undertaking remediation. This was very serious misconduct. On the basis of those considerations, the Panel has concluded that a Suspension Order would not be the correct sanction.


62. This was a deliberate act of dishonesty which, as is recorded above, would be regarded by social workers and members of the public as deplorable, shocking and an abuse of her positions of power and trust.


63. The Panel has concluded that it is unlikely that the Registrant will develop proper insight and recognise the need for reflection and remediation. Accordingly, the Panel judged that the risk of repetition remained to such an extent that a striking off order is necessary, appropriate and amounts to a proportionate balance between the interests of the public and the interests of the Registrant.

Order

ORDER: The Registrar is directed to strike the name of Laura F Gray from the Register on the date this order comes into effect.

Notes

A Hearing was held 24-26 September 2018 in London, at which a striking off order was made.

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Mrs Laura F Gray

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
24/09/2018 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Struck off