Ms Diane Cooke
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The following allegation was considered by a panel of the Conduct and Competence Committee at the substantive hearing on 19-23 & 26 February 2018, 9-10 May 2018, and 9-11 July 2018.
During the course of your employment as a Social Worker for Lincolnshire County Council:
1. Between 2011 and 2015 you stored confidential service user documents at your home.
2. On an unknown date in 2015 you attempted to dispose of confidential service user documents by giving them to an unauthorised person (Person A) to destroy.
3. On an unknown date between April 2014 and November 2014 you left confidential service user documents with an unauthorised person (Person B) and/or allowed an unauthorised person (Person B) access to confidential service user documents.
4. In relation to Service User A, between January 2015 and May 2015, you:
(a) [NOT PROVED]
(b) [DISCONTINUED FOLLOWING HALF TIME SUBMISSION]
(c) [DISCONTINUED FOLLOWING HALF TIME SUBMISSION]
(d) [DISCONTINUED FOLLOWING HALF TIME SUBMISSION]
(e) Did not record the discussions with Person C about contact between Service User A and his father (Person D)
(f) [DISCONTINUED FOLLOWING HALF TIME SUBMISSION]
(g) Informed Service User A’s teacher that Person C and Service User A shared the same bed without obtaining Person C’s consent to disclose this.
(h) Informed the head of Service User A’s nursery that Person C had been abused by her father without obtaining Person C’s consent to disclose this.
(i) Did not refer Person C to Family Support.
(j) [NOT PROVED]
(k) [DISCONTINUED FOLLOWING HALF TIME SUBMISSION]
(l) Did not fully record the minutes for the Child in Need meetings held on 9 February 2015 and/or 19 March 2015.
5. In relation to Service User B, between March 2015 and April 2015, you did not:
(a) Complete and/or record completing agency checks with the police, fire brigade and/or Service User B’s nursery.
(b) [DISCONTINUED FOLLOWING HALF TIME SUBMISSION]
6. In relation to Service User C, between May 2015 and August 2015, you did not:
(a) [NOT PROVED]
(b) [DISCONTINUED FOLLOWING HALF TIME SUBMISSION]
7. In relation to Service User D, between August 2015 and October 2015, you did not:
a) Complete and/or upload to ICS a Child in Need plan.
b) Record minutes for the Child in Need meeting held on 21 September 2015.
c) Record the views of Service User D.
d) Record the outcome and/or a risk analysis of the section 47 investigation.
8. In relation to Service Users E, F and G, between July 2015 and October 2015, you:
a) Completed the Children’s Social Care Assessment outside of the 45 working days time limit.
b) Did not complete child specific assessments in respect of Service user F and/or Service User G.
c) Did not speak with and/or record speaking with Service user F and/or Service User G.
d) Did not follow a management instruction to complete direct work with Service User E around risk taking behaviour.
e) Did not fully record the minutes for the Child in Need meeting held on 20 July 2015.
f) Did not record minutes for the Child in Need meeting held on 28 August 2015.
g) [NOT PROVED]
9. In relation to Service Users H and I, between May 2015 and October 2015, you did not:
a) Adequately complete and/or upload to ICS Child in Need plans.
b) Record minutes for the Child in Need meeting held on 16 September 2015.
c) Record the outcome and/or a risk analysis of the section 47 investigation.
d) Follow a management instruction to see Service User H alone.
10. The matters described at particulars 1 to 9 constitute misconduct and/or lack of competence.
11. By reason of your misconduct and/or lack of competence your fitness to practise is impaired.
The substantive hearing panel found particulars 1, 2, 3, 4(e), 4(g), 4(h), 4(i), 4(l), 5(a), 7(a), 7(b), 7(c), 7(d), 8(a), 8(b), 8(c), 8(d), 8(e), 8(f), 9(a), 9(b), 9(c), and 9(d) proved, that these particulars amounted to misconduct, and that the Registrant’s fitness to practise was impaired. The Panel imposed a Suspension Order for a period of 9 months.
Proceeding in private
1. The Panel heard that matters relating to the Registrant’s health were to be discussed as part of this hearing. Ms Knight submitted that it was appropriate that parts of the hearing be held in private where the Registrant’s health was to be discussed. The Panel accepted the Legal Assessor’s advice and it noted Rule 10(1)(a) of the Health and Care Professions Council (Conduct and Competence Committee) Procedure Rules 2003 (“Procedural Rules”) whereby matters pertaining to the health and private life of the Registrant should be heard in private. The Panel agreed the parts of the hearing where reference was to be made to the Registrant’s health should be heard in private.
Possible conflict of interest
2. At the start of the hearing, the Panel Chair indicated that he was related to the Lay panel member who had sat at the substantive hearing. He indicated that they do not discuss the cases on which they sit for the HCPC, and confirmed that they had not discussed this case. He further indicated he was able to deal with this case objectively and fairly, and did not feel that his independence was compromised.
3. There was no objection from either Ms Knight or the Registrant to the Panel Chair continuing to hear the case.
4. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. He advised the Panel that in these matters, the test is a two-fold test.
5. The Legal Assessor advised that the first question to be answered was whether the Panel Chair felt that his independence was compromised. If so, then he must recuse himself.
6. If the Chair felt that his independence was not compromised, the Panel must nevertheless consider whether the fair-minded observer, having considered the facts and circumstances of the case, would conclude that there was a real possibility that the tribunal was biased.
7. The Legal Assessor advised the Panel that, when considering this matter, the Panel could assume that the fair-minded observer was reasonable, reasonably intelligent, and in possession of all the information before the Panel today and that members of public would also be aware that it was not the role of this Panel to go behind the determination of the previous panel.
8. The Panel considered that the fair-minded observer, having considered the facts and circumstances of this case, would not conclude that there was a real possibility that this Panel was biased.
9. The Registrant is a registered Social Worker. She was employed by Lincolnshire County Council (the “Council”) as a Social Worker in the Family Assessment and Support Team between 11 November 2011 and 18 March 2016. The Registrant was responsible for children under the age of 18 that were categorised as Children in Need (CIN), children requiring safeguarding from harm (Child Protection), and Looked After Children (LAC)
10. It was alleged that between 2011 and 2015, the Registrant stored confidential service user records at her home, and that she attempted to dispose of some of these by giving them to her partner, Person A, to destroy at his workplace. It was also alleged that the Registrant left confidential service user records with an unauthorised person, Person B, or allowed him access to such records.
11. Additional concerns had been raised in respect of the quality and standard of the Registrant’s work and her record-keeping.
12. The matters were referred to the HCPC, and the allegation set out above was found proved at a substantive hearing. On 11 July 2018, the Registrant’s registration was suspended for a period of nine months.
Evidence and submissions
13. The Panel heard submissions and oral evidence from the Registrant. It also heard submissions from Ms Knight on behalf of the HCPC.
14. Ms Knight outlined the background to the case and the decision of the previous panel. She drew the Panel’s attention to its decision and the reasons it gave for finding the Registrant’s fitness to practise to be impaired, and the reasons for the Suspension Order being imposed.
15. Ms Knight submitted that the Registrant demonstrated that there was no change in her circumstances and, therefore, the Registrant’s fitness to practise remained impaired today.
16. The Registrant told the Panel that she had not worked as a Social Worker since 2016, and that she is unable to return to the Social Work profession due to her health.
17. The Registrant told the Panel that, at the substantive hearing, she had fully admitted her mistakes and accepted full responsibility for her actions. She re-stated this in her evidence to this Panel. She also said that she is unable to work or undertake training to address the shortcomings in her practice as a Social Worker because of her health. The Panel did note that, in an email dated 2 April 2019, the Registrant stated that she had paid to undertake and complete several training courses.
18. The Registrant told the Panel that she wanted her name removed from the HCPC Register by way of Voluntary Removal agreement. She said that it would be unfair to remove her name from the Register by way of a Striking Off Order, particularly in the light of her previously unblemished career and the good work that she did in helping children over many years.
19. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Legal Assessor reminded the Panel that its purpose today was to conduct a comprehensive appraisal of the Registrant to determine if she is fit to return to unrestricted practice. Its role was not to conduct a rehearing of the allegations, nor was it to go behind the previous findings. He advised that, in carrying out this assessment, the Panel must exercise its own independent judgment.
20. The Legal Assessor advised the Panel that it could exercise all options under Article 30 of the 2001 Order if it determined that the Registrant’s fitness to practise remained impaired.
21. The Legal Assessor advised the Panel that it should bear in mind the principles of fairness and proportionality and have regard to the Indicative Sanctions Policy document issued by the HCPC. He reminded the Panel that any Order that it made under Article 30 should not be punitive in purpose, and that it should be the least restrictive Order that would suffice to protect the public and/or be otherwise in the public interest.
22. The Legal Assessor further advised the Panel that, if it considered a Striking Off Order to be appropriate in the circumstances, it must take into account the alternative route of Voluntary Removal by agreement when determining whether such a Striking Off Order would be appropriate and proportionate in these particular circumstances.
23. The Panel first considered whether the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired. The Panel took into consideration all the documentation before it, the evidence of the Registrant, and the submissions of both parties.
24. The Panel found the Registrant’s evidence to be compelling. With respect to the information she provided about her health, the Panel noted that this evidence was given on Affirmation and was not challenged by the HCPC.
25. In coming to its decision, the Panel also took into account the following factors:
• The engagement of the Registrant with the process, which she has done from the very start;
• This is a case of misconduct and there has been no suggestion that the Registrant lacked the requisite competence to carry out the role of a Social Worker;
• The Registrant had an unblemished career prior to the time related to this allegation;
• The evidence of the Registrant that she is unable to demonstrate remediation of the shortcomings in her practice due to her health;
• The Registrant’s submissions that she is no longer able to practise as a Social Worker and has not done so since 2016, and that she should be permitted to seek the removal of her name from the Register by way of voluntary agreement, as opposed to the Panel making an Order to strike her name from the Register.
26. The Panel determined that the Registrant had been able to demonstrate some insight into her misconduct. She acknowledged that she had made mistakes in the past and she accepted full responsibility for her actions. Furthermore, the Panel was aware that she had undertaken some relevant training which she had paid for herself. However, she had not been able to demonstrate full insight through no fault of her own, as her health prevents her from undertaking further appropriate training in order to gain evidence of sufficient insight.
27. Taking all of the above into consideration, the Panel determined that the Registrant’s fitness to practise remains impaired.
28. Having determined that the Registrant’s fitness to practice remained impaired, the Panel went on to consider what action to take today. The Panel took into account the HCPC’s Indicative Sanctions Policy and considered its powers under Article 30(1).
29. The Panel first considered taking no further action and allowing the Order to lapse upon expiry. The Panel determined that this was not appropriate, as the Registrant’s fitness to practise remains impaired today.
30. The Panel went on to consider whether to impose a Caution Order upon the expiry of the current Order. For the reason set out above, the Panel determined that the imposition of a Caution Order upon expiry is not the appropriate action to take today, as this would not restrict the Registrant’s practice and would not be sufficient to protect the public, as the Registrant has not been able to address the shortcomings in her practice.
31. The Panel also determined that a Conditions of Practice Order is not appropriate in this case, as the Registrant is unable to return to work for the foreseeable future because of her health.
32. The Panel then considered imposing a further period of suspension and determined that this was the appropriate action to be taken today in light of the circumstances of the case, and the Registrant’s indication that she wished to apply for Voluntary Removal of her name from the HCPC Register.
33. The Panel noted that the substantive panel which imposed the Suspension Order was of the view that these matters were not so serious as to warrant an immediate Striking Off Order, or suspension for the maximum period of 12 months. Furthermore, these matters occurred in an otherwise unblemished career that spanned several years. In the light of that, and the particular circumstances of the Registrant’s situation, the Panel determined that to impose a Striking Off order now, without affording the Registrant the opportunity to apply for a Voluntary Removal Agreement, would be clearly disproportionate and punitive.
34. The Panel determined that a further Suspension Order for a period of four months be imposed upon the expiry of the current Order. This would facilitate an opportunity for a Voluntary Removal Agreement to be considered and finalised (if appropriate), and for it to be placed before another panel of the Conduct and Competence Committee to approve. The Panel has taken into consideration that Ms Knight had sought a further period of six months’ suspension in this event, but the Panel determined that four months should be sufficient for parties to reach agreement. A further period of suspension of six months would add two months of unnecessary and unwarranted stress to the Registrant, and, in the circumstances, would be disproportionate to the objective of this further period of suspension.
35. If the Registrant does apply for voluntary removal, the Panel expects that the matter will be dealt with urgently, as it recognises that proceedings of this nature can, and are very likely to, adversely affect the Registrant. If the Registrant does not apply for voluntary removal, then this order will be reviewed before it expires. Whilst this Panel cannot bind a future reviewing panel, the Registrant should be in no doubt that a Striking Off Order is a very real possibility at the next review, should her fitness to practise remain impaired.
The Registrar is directed to suspend the registration of Ms Diane Cooke for a further period of 4 months upon the expiry of the existing order.
This order will be reviewed again before its expiry on 8 September 2019.