Mrs Winifred Janet Little

Profession: Social worker

Registration Number: SW54233

Hearing Type: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing: 10:00 20/08/2019 End: 17:00 27/08/2019

Location: The Health and Care Professions Council Tribunal Service 405 Kennington road London SE11 4PT

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: Conditions of Practice

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Allegation

Whilst registered as a social worker, and during the course of your employment at Newcastle City Council:

1) In relation to Child A, between approximately 14 October 2015 – 8 June 2016, you:

  1. a) Prematurely completed an assessment before the child was born
  2. b) Did not complete any statutory visits
  3. c) Did not close the case in a timely manner

2) In relation to Child B, between approximately 13 October 2015 – 8 June 2016, you:

  1. a) Did not complete and / or record all statutory visits
  2. b) Did not record all unannounced visits
  3. c) Did not close the case in a timely manner

3) In relation to Child C, allocated to you on approximately 11 May 2016, you:

  1. a) Did not complete and / or record any visits to the child

4) In relation to Child D, allocated to you on approximately 19 May 2016, you:

  1. a) Did not complete and / or record all statutory visits

5) In relation to Children E, between 27 November 2015 – 8 June 2016, you:

  1. a) Did not complete and / or record any visits to the children
  2. b) Did not close the case in a timely manner

6) Your actions at paragraphs 1- 5 constitute misconduct and/or lack of competence.

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

Finding

Preliminary matters:


Service:


1. Notice of the hearing was served by post on the Registrant’s registered address on 5 June 2019. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant had been given the required notice and that service had been effected in accordance with rules 3 and 6 of The Health and Care Professions Council (Conduct and Competence Committee) (Procedure) Rules 2003 (‘the Rules’).

Proceeding in absence:


2. The Registrant was neither present nor represented. The Panel heard a submission from Ms Luscombe to proceed with the hearing in the Registrant’s absence.


3. The Panel accepted the Legal Assessor’s advice and had regard to the HCPTS Practice Note, ‘Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant’.


4. The Panel noted a number of responses from the Registrant in the early stages of the HCPC investigation. In an email to the HCPC dated 26 July 2017, the Registrant stated that, ’I feel that this matter has already taken up a lot of my time and also a lot of your time. I do not wish to pursue this matter any further and I do not want or need to respond to any further discussions regarding this matter.’ In a further email dated 28 November 2017, the Registrant stated, ‘…I no longer wish to be registered with the HCPC. I have no legal obligation to attend this Tribunal. Attending such a Tribunal would be detrimental to my improving mental health.’ The Registrant had made her position clear. She had not signalled any change in her position from the date of her emails. Ms Luscombe told the Panel that the final hearing bundle which had been sent to the Registrant at her registered address on 2 July 2019 had been returned by the Post Office as ‘not called for’. The Panel had no reason to suppose that the Registrant would attend or be represented at a later date if the hearing was adjourned. The Panel was satisfied that she had deliberately and voluntarily absented herself from the hearing, and that she was unlikely to attend if the hearing was adjourned to a future date.


5. The allegations dated back to 2015. There had already been significant delay in the proceedings and the Panel noted that the HCPC intended to call three witnesses. It was important, in the Panel’s view, for the case to proceed when the memories of the witnesses were still relatively fresh.


6. The allegations were serious. They involved wide-ranging performance failings on the Registrant’s part in respect of proper record keeping and the completion of statutory visits to children under child protection arrangements. The Panel decided that the public interest was strongly engaged.


7. For these reasons, the Panel decided that it was fair and appropriate to proceed in the Registrant’s absence.


Application for part of the hearing to be held in private:


8. The Panel heard a submission by Ms Luscombe for those parts of the proceedings that concerned the Registrant’s health to be conducted in private. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and had regard to the HCPTS Practice Note, ‘Conducting Hearings in Private’. The Panel considered that it would convene in private when matters connected to the Registrant’s health were raised, in order to protect her right to privacy. 


Amendment to the Allegation:


9. Ms Luscombe made an application to amend the Allegation. With regard to Particular 1 Child A, Ms Luscombe offered no evidence in respect of 1(a), to remove the words ‘Prematurely completed an assessment before the child was born’. Ms Luscombe stated that the evidence did not support that particular. Ms Luscombe applied to amend Particular 1(b), the proposed new Particular 1(a), to add the words at the end, ‘after child A was born’ as this better reflected the evidence.


10. In respect of Particular 2, Ms Luscombe applied to amend the date from 8 June 2016 to 23 June 2016.


11. In respect of Particular 5(a), Ms Luscombe applied to remove the words ‘the children’, and to add sub-particulars ‘(i) Child E1; (ii) Child E2; and/or (iii) Child E3.’ Ms Luscombe also applied to add the word ‘of’ to the end of Particular 5(b) and to add sub-particulars ‘(i) Child E1; (ii) Child E2; and/or (iii) Child E3.’ This was for clarification on who ‘the children’ were.


12. The Registrant was put on notice of the HCPC’s intention at the outset of the hearing to apply to amend the Allegation. She had been sent a letter dated 27 March 2019 in which the proposed amendments were set out. The Registrant had not responded.


13. The Panel was satisfied that the application to offer no evidence in respect of Particular 1(a) was properly made. The Panel independently considered the available evidence carefully. There was no evidence on which to sustain an allegation that the Registrant prematurely completed an assessment before Child A’s birth. The other amendments proposed by the HCPC were minor, caused no injustice or prejudice to the Registrant and were designed to better reflect the evidence to be considered. They clarified the case against the Registrant and narrowed the issues. The Panel granted the HCPC’s application.


Allegation as amended:


14. Whilst registered as a social worker, and during the course of your employment at Newcastle City Council:


1) In relation to Child A, between approximately 14 October 2015 – 8 June 2016, you:
a) Did not complete any statutory visits after Child A was born
b) Did not close the case in a timely manner
2) In relation to Child B, between approximately 13 October 2015 –  23 June 2016, you:
a) Did not complete and / or record all statutory visits
b) Did not record all unannounced visits
c) Did not close the case in a timely manner
3) In relation to Child C, allocated to you on approximately 11 May 2016, you:
a) Did not complete and / or record any visits to the child
4) In relation to Child D, allocated to you on approximately 19 May 2016, you:
a) Did not complete and / or record all statutory visits
5) In relation to Children E, between 27 November 2015 – 8 June 2016, you:
a) Did not complete and / or record any visits to
i) Child E1
ii) Child E2 and/or
iii) Child E3;
b) Did not close the case in a timely manner of:
i) Child E1
ii) Child E2 and/or
iii) Child E3
6) Your actions at paragraphs 1- 5 constitute misconduct and/or lack of competence.
7) By reason of your misconduct and/or lack of competence, your fitness to practise is impaired.

Background:


14. The Registrant was employed by Newcastle City Council (‘the Council’) from 21 May 1990 until 31 March 2017 when she retired. From 1990 until 2005, the Registrant was employed as a Family Support Worker by the Council. In 2005, the Registrant qualified as a Social Worker. At her retirement, the Registrant was employed as a Band 9 Social Worker in the Initial Response Service (‘IRS’) within the Council’s Children’s Social Care Department.


15. It was alleged that, in June 2016, an audit of a number of the Registrant’s case files revealed that she had not completed visits to various service users and/or had not recorded such visits on the specially designated electronic system used by the IRS. It was also alleged that she had not closed some cases in a timely manner. An investigation was undertaken in respect of the Registrant’s case files by the Council and the matter was referred to the HCPC by the Council in January 2017.

Decision on Facts


Evidence:


16. The Panel heard evidence from three witnesses:


• Ms DC, Service Manager of the IRS from June 2016 to September 2017;
• Ms LJ, Team Manager of the IRS from 2014 to 2016; and
• Mr SM, Team Manager of the IRS since June 2016.


17. The Panel first heard evidence from Ms DC in respect of those matters contained in the Allegation.


18. By way of a general overview, Ms DC set out in detail the process surrounding the holding of a statutory visit. These visits were undertaken in respect of children who were the subject of child protection plans and children with complex needs plans. Visiting guidance was issued by the Council on how statutory visits ought to have been conducted. Ms DC stated that she would have expected all the Social Workers within the IRS team, and particularly the Registrant given her experience, to have been fully conversant with the guidance. All children were required to be seen on a regular basis. For children aged under 5 years, the allocated Social Worker was required to visit every two weeks. For children aged 5 and over the frequency was every four weeks.


19. The Panel was also told by Ms DC about unannounced visits. This sort of visit was not the norm and would only be countenanced if the Social Worker had attempted a planned visit on several occasions without success. 


20. The Council had an electronic recording system, called CareFirst, which allowed all members of the IRS to access the up to date information of children who were being looked after by the IRS team. An important element of the electronic recording system was the requirement for all interventions by the IRS team, including statutory and unannounced visits, to be recorded in a timely manner by Social Workers, and no later than 24 hours after the event.


21. Ms DC also gave evidence on the system operated by the IRS in the closing of files. She stated that this was a relatively straightforward procedure. The case file should be up to date before closing with all necessary matters recorded on the CareFirst system. A closure summary, which is a simple document, was completed by the Social Worker. Ms DC stated that any files identified for closing by the Social Worker at supervision with a Manager ought to be closed in the following month before the next supervision session.


22. Ms DC gave evidence to the Panel about the steps she took after her appointment as Service Manager with the IRS. Ms DC told the Panel that when she assumed the role of Service Manager, she asked Mr SM to conduct an audit of the cases which were being managed by the IRS team. Mr SM had previously worked in the IRS for 12 to 18 months and was considered by Ms DC to be well acquainted with the IRS team, any issues that might arise and the operation of CareFirst.  She said that Mr SM was not asked to follow any particular procedure or to single out any Social Worker in the team for any particular attention. The audit was sought by Ms DC, as the incoming Service Manager, for her to better understand the issues that might need to be addressed by the IRS. In particular, Mr SM was asked to look at such issues as when children were last seen as part of child safeguarding arrangements, whether there was any drift or delay in visits to children and families in need and any cases that needed to be closed.


23. Ms DC told the Panel that, following his audit, Mr SM brought the Registrant’s case files to her for her attention. There were significant areas of concern across the spectrum of the Registrant’s workload. These focussed, in particular, on the Registrant’s failure to conduct statutory visits in accordance with the published guidance as well as the Registrant’s failure to properly record on CareFirst, actions taken and visits made.


24. On 13 June 2016, after she came back from a period of leave, Ms DC said that the Registrant was given a period of two weeks to rectify and bring up to date the deficiencies in record keeping identified in the audit of the files. Mr SM was tasked by Ms DC to sit alongside the Registrant to assist her in that process. They sat in the Managers’ Room, which was apart from the area where the Social Workers in the team worked, in order for the Registrant to have some time and peace to complete the task of rectifying the electronic records.


25. Ms DC stated that on 28 June 2016, following no discernible improvement in the deficiencies identified in the Registrant’s case files, the Council commenced an investigation into the Registrant’s performance. On the same date, Ms DC met with the Registrant in the company of her union representative. Ms DC’s impression from the meeting was that, while the Registrant accepted that she should have been more attentive to her record keeping and statutory visiting responsibilities, she appeared not to accept that what she had been doing was wrong.


26. Ms DC also gave evidence to the Panel in respect of the five families, the children of which formed the basis of the Allegation. Her evidence concentrated on poor and inadequate record keeping on CareFirst, the failure to conduct statutory visits in accordance with the applicable legislative requirements and the failure to close files in a timely fashion.


27. The Panel next heard evidence from Ms LJ. At the time covered by the Allegation, she was a Team Manager in the IRS. Ms LJ set out the obligations placed on all Social Workers in terms of record keeping, visiting families and children who were subject to statutory visits and the importance of closing files properly and within a set timescale. Ms LJ considered that the Registrant had failed to discharge these obligations to an adequate or acceptable degree. She told the Panel that, in June 2016, when the extent of the problem emerged with the Registrant’s performance, Ms LJ visited a number of families who had formed part of the Registrant’s case load.  Some families had said to Ms LJ that they had not received a visit from the Registrant in a significant period and had no idea that their cases remained open with the IRS team. The mother of children E1, E2 and E3 was described by Ms LJ to have been angry and distressed on being told that they remained an open case with the IRS.


28. Ms LJ said that the Registrant was a well-regarded member of the IRS team, was always willing to help and was first to volunteer for additional tasks. In the main, the Registrant’s service users did not have a bad word to say about her and that they responded well to her, given her kind and nurturing personality. Ms LJ stated that, as the Registrant’s line manager, she was surprised that she was not kept informed or involved by Ms DC or any other senior management in respect of the progress of the investigation into the Registrant’s case files. Ms LJ considered that the Registrant had been given no more than one week in which to rectify her case load entries on CareFirst, but that she could not be sure that it was as long as that as she was only in work for two days that week. In those two days, the Registrant was in the Managers’ Room attending to her files.


29. Finally, the Panel heard evidence from Mr SM.


30. Mr SM had worked between the IRS team and another team at the Council since 2006. He told the Panel that he was asked to return to the IRS in or around June 2016 by an assistant director at the Children’s Social Care Department. When he re-joined the IRS team, he was asked by Ms DC to audit the files of the Registrant. He was clear that he was asked to enquire into the Registrant’s case files only and not those of any other member of the IRS team. Mr SM also stated that he was given by Ms DC a specific list of files belonging to the Registrant to audit. The list was contained in an email sent to him by Ms DC. Mr SM could not recall the total number of files requested to be audited. He had no idea whether the files listed were the totality of the files under the Registrant’s control or whether there were more than that.


31. Mr SM stated that the files examined were generally sub-standard and the five files that related to the children named in the Allegation were amongst some of the worst he had seen in all his time as a Team Manager. Mr SM was sure that the Registrant was not given two weeks in order to put right the gaps in recording contained in her files. He stated that the Registrant only sat with him for a few days at most. He said that the Registrant seemed not to give priority to the task set for her and was distracted by attending to other matters as part of her everyday duties. Mr SM said that he handed over the findings of his audit to Ms DC and had assumed that appropriate steps, in the form of an action plan, would be taken thereafter to help bring about an improvement in the Registrant’s performance. He was surprised to learn that, rather than an action plan being implemented, the Registrant was instead suspended from her duties as a Social Worker by the Council.


32. Before retiring to consider its decision on the facts, the Panel accepted the Legal Assessor’s advice. He advised the Panel on the burden of proof and the requirement which rested on the HCPC to prove each element of the Allegation on the balance of probability. The Panel could only be satisfied that a fact was proved if it was satisfied that it was more likely than not to have occurred. 


33. At the outset of its deliberations, the Panel undertook an assessment of the witnesses from whom it had heard evidence. It was plain to the Panel that the evidence given by Ms DC and Mr SM would require careful attention as it was sharply divergent in a number of important respects.


34. First, the Panel noted the differing accounts given by both witnesses concerning the circumstances in respect of which the audit was commissioned. Ms DC told the Panel that she had asked Mr SM to conduct a broad audit of all the files of Social Workers in the IRS team a short time after her appointment. She had no particular agenda for the audit, nor did she seek to target any particular employee. Ms DC asked Mr SM to identify any issues ‘across the piece’ that might require attention or improvement. Second, Ms DC was clear that she had specified that the Registrant was to be given a period of two weeks, working alongside Mr SM in the Managers’ Room, to correct the inadequacies identified in her case files by the audit.


35. Ms DC’s account was flatly contradicted by Mr SM. He told the Panel that he was charged by Ms DC with conducting an audit of specific files from the Registrant’s case load only and no one else’s in the IRS team. She had given him, in an email, a list of the Registrant’s files in order to assist him in his enquiry. Mr SM also contradicted the time given to the Registrant to address the failings on her files. When pressed, he estimated that she was given no more than a couple of days and, even during that time, seemed distracted by having other tasks to do.


36. The Panel was not presented with a situation in which the evidence of Ms DC and Mr SM was somewhat at variance or more nuanced in some places than others. Their evidence was irreconcilable and in stark contrast in a number of fundamental aspects.


37. After careful consideration, the Panel was of the view that Ms DC had been limited and partial in her evidence when explaining the circumstances in which the audit had come about and the steps taken afterwards. The Panel was aware from evidence given by all three witnesses that a concerted drive was being undertaken by the Council to ensure that Ofsted timescales for the completion of statutory visits were scrupulously adhered to. It was also clear to the Panel from the evidence presented that, notwithstanding her many personal qualities and empathy with service users, the Registrant was regarded in the IRS as lacking in basic record keeping skills on the CareFirst system and had a poor history of compliance with statutory visiting guidance. No one else within the team had been identified as a similar cause for concern.


38. The Panel therefore considered that Ms DC would have had a reason, immediately following her appointment as Service Manager and being accountable for the performance of the IRS team, to ensure that the Registrant’s work was specifically addressed in the audit conducted by Mr SM. It was also clear to the Panel that, when pressed, Ms DC was not in a position to confirm that the Registrant had, in fact, been given two weeks within which to act and correct the gaps in recording identified on her files. Mr SM, who sat alongside the Registrant, was firm that the time given to the Registrant was no more than a couple of days. Accordingly, while the Panel did not discount Ms DC’s evidence completely on these matters, it considered that it could not accord it any significant weight. Where there was a disagreement in the evidence between the evidence of Ms DC and Mr SM the Panel preferred his evidence over that of Ms DC, mainly because he had actually conducted the audit and had a better recollection of specific details.  He admitted where he could not recollect things and the Panel found him to be more credible.


39. The evidence of Ms LJ was more straightforward. She accepted some shortcomings in her supervision of the Registrant. The Panel considered Ms LJ to be a credible and truthful witness who was well motivated and balanced in her evidence.


40. The Panel then turned to consider the Allegation.


Particular 1(a) - proved:
41. Child A was the subject of a Child Social Care Assessment on 15 December 2015, prior to birth, which was recorded on the CareFirst system. Both Ms DC and Mr SM confirmed in their witness statements that Child A was born on 14 April 2016. According to the guidance, Child A would have required a statutory visit every two weeks. The records confirmed that the case was closed on CareFirst on 8 June 2016. Three statutory visits would have been required to have been carried out by the Registrant as the allocated Social Worker between the date of the child’s birth and the date on which the case was closed. The records disclosed that no such visits were undertaken by the Registrant during that time. In an email sent by the Registrant to the HCPC on 12 July 2017, in respect of Child A, the Registrant stated: ‘I admit that I did not do any further visits to the family.’


42.  The Panel therefore found Particular 1(a) proved, on the documents and on the Registrant’s admission.


Particular 1(b) - proved:


43. In a supervision session with an interim Team Manager and the Registrant on 27 April 2016, CareFirst recorded that the case of Child A was to be closed down by 12 May 2016. On 23 May 2016, in a supervision session with LJ, the Registrant was again advised ‘Case to close.’ On 8 June 2016 the case was recorded as closed on CareFirst and the record which authorised closure of the file by Ms LJ was also dated 8 June 2016.


44. In her email to the HCPC dated 12 July 2017 the Registrant stated, ‘Case should have been closed. But due to the large case load this did not happen.’


45. Applying the ordinary meaning of the word and considering the nature of the work undertaken by the IRS, the Panel was satisfied that the Registrant had failed to close the file, in spite of advice given to her on several occasions, in a timely manner. The Panel found

Particular 1(b) proved.


Particular 2(a) - proved:


46. CareFirst recorded that Child B was made the subject of a Child Social Care Assessment on 13 October 2015 and, as such, was from that point onwards required to receive statutory visits. The Registrant was recorded as making a statutory visit to Child B on 30 December 2015. With the exception of that visit, the records disclosed no further statutory visits to Child B. In an interview with Ms DC on 12 July 2016, when asked by Ms DC why only one statutory visit had been conducted with Child B, the Registrant’s response was recorded as saying: ‘…we should have been visiting. I should have wrote (sic) it up and closed it.’ An email dated 12 July 2017, sent by the Registrant to the HCPC, under the title ‘Child B’ she stated, ‘…case should have been wrote (sic) up and closed.’. The Panel found Particular 2(a) proved both on the documents and on the Registrant’s admission.


Particular 2(b) - proved:


47. In a supervision record with the Registrant and authored by Ms LJ on 23 March 2016, under the heading ‘Child B’ the Registrant was recorded as stating ‘lots of unannounced visits have been undertaken.’ The Registrant would have been required to have recorded any unannounced visit on CareFirst. No record of any such visit was documented except one visit on 8 December 2015. The Panel therefore found Particular 2(b) to be proved.


Particular 2(c) - proved:


48. CareFirst recorded that, on 23 May 2016, the case had been identified for closure. In the course of an entry entitled ‘Case Transfer/ Closure Summary’ dated 16 June 2016 it was stated ‘Case should have been closed sooner but due to other commitments it had been left to drift.’ On 22 June 2016, an entry on CareFirst recorded that the file had been closed on that date. Closure was confirmed in a Closure Record dated 22 June 2016.


49. In an email sent by the Registrant to the HCPC on 12 July 2017, the Registrant stated, under the heading ‘Child B’: ‘…case should have been wrote (sic) up and closed.’


50. Applying the ordinary meaning of the word and considering the nature of the work undertaken by the IRS, the Panel was satisfied that the Registrant had failed to close the file, in spite of clear indications to do so, in a timely manner. The Panel found Particular 2(c) proved.


Particular 3(a) - proved:


51. CareFirst recorded that Child C was made subject to a Complex Need Plan on 11 May 2016. As such, Child C was required to receive statutory visits. On 18 May 2016, the Registrant was allocated Child C’s case. The records disclosed that Child C received no statutory visits.


52. The Registrant admitted that she had failed to complete any statutory visits to Child C. In her email to the HCPC, under the heading ‘Child C’, dated 12 July 2017, the Registrant stated: ‘I has (sic) attempted to visit yp but had yet to arrange this.’ In an interview with Ms DC on 12 July 2016, in response to questions put, the following was recorded:
DC: I asked you to put them on. [Child C] was allocated on 11th May and there were no visits recorded.
    …
WL: I was trying to contact [Child C] and I was going to do a visit.
DC: You attempted to locate her and attempted to see [Child C] at mams?
WL: Yes the phone number did not work. I was going to write a letter. I spoke to [Ms LJ] and she said to write a letter and she would come out with me for a visit.


53. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant had failed to complete and/or record any visits to Child C.

The Panel found Particular 3(a) proved.


 Particular 4(a) - not proved:


54. The CareFirst record confirmed that, on 19 May 2016, Child D was made the subject of a Child Social Care Assessment and, as such, was required to be visited on a statutory basis. On the same date an entry on the same page confirmed that Child D received a statutory visit by the Registrant. The available records did not confirm the date on which the case was closed on the CareFirst system. Without an ‘end’ date, the Panel could not determine the period during which statutory visits were required to be undertaken and thereafter to determine their frequency under the guidance. In the absence of such evidence the Panel found Particular 4(a) not proved.


 Particulars 5(a)(i), 5(a)(ii) and 5(a)(iii) - proved


55. The Panel decided that it was appropriate to deal with the E children together. The Particular was framed in such a way as to allege that the Registrant had not, since 27 November 2015, completed or recorded any visits to the children. The Panel noted that in Mr SM’s audit it was noted, ‘The last stat visit recorded on the system is dated 27/11/2015.’ It was further confirmed that it was on that visit that all three E children were seen. The Panel was unable to establish details of such a visit on the CareFirst records contained in the hearing bundle. The Panel did, however, locate details of a visit by the Registrant to Child E1 on 6 October 2015 and, on the same date, a statutory visit record by the Registrant to Child E3. All three children were also seen on this date. There were no further visits recorded until the visit by Ms LJ to the E children on 8 June 2016.


56. The Panel considered that the records established that the Registrant had not visited and/or completed records of visiting the E children after 6 October 2015 at the latest. As this date pre-dated 27 November 2015, as framed in the Particular, the Panel found these Particulars proved.


 Particulars 5(b)(i), 5(b)(ii) and 5(b)(iii) proved.


57. The Panel decided that it was appropriate to deal with the E children together. At a Child Social Care Assessment review on 27 April 2016, the Registrant was directed to close the E children file by 16 May 2016. This did not happen and at a further similar review on 23 May 2016, the Registrant was again directed to close the file by 27 May 2016. The case was not, in fact, closed until 8 June 2016 by Ms LJ.


58. Applying the ordinary meaning of the word and considering the nature of the work undertaken by the IRS, the Panel was satisfied that the Registrant had failed to close the file, in spite of clear indications to do so, in a timely manner. The Panel found these Particulars proved.

Decision on Grounds


59. The Panel heard a submission from Ms Luscombe in respect of grounds and impairment. She submitted that the Registrant’s cases which formed the basis of the Allegation represented a fair sample of her work. The evidence of the witnesses, and particularly the evidence of Mr SM, demonstrated that the Registrant had conducted her audited files to an unacceptably poor professional standard.


60. Ms Luscombe submitted that the Registrant had failed to close cases properly and in a timely fashion. She had also failed to record and conduct statutory visits to children and families in need in accordance with the applicable guidance. Ms Luscombe submitted that all of the witnesses called stressed the importance of conducting visits and recording them accurately as an essential ingredient towards managing risk. She submitted that as a result of the Registrant’s actions families had been left in limbo. Some were unaware that their cases remained open with the IRS. When Ms LJ, in June 2016, told some of the families that their cases were still open they were left angry and distressed as a result of the Registrant’s actions. Ms Luscombe submitted that the Registrant had breached the applicable standards of conduct and performance. She further submitted that the Registrant’s actions demonstrated a lack of competence, were serious and amounted to misconduct. 


61. The Panel accepted the Legal Assessor’s advice and had due regard to the HCPTS Practice Note, ‘Finding that Fitness to Practise is “Impaired”’. The Panel exercised its judgement on whether the grounds were made out by the HCPC and, in consequence, whether the Registrant was currently impaired.


62. The Panel considered whether the Registrant had breached the applicable standards of conduct and performance. The Panel reminded itself that while a finding that a professional had breached an applicable standard was a useful tool in addressing the question of grounds and impairment generally, it was not conclusive or determinative of the issue.


63. The Panel first considered ‘Social workers in England: Standards of proficiency’ issued by the HCPC in 2012. This code was applicable during the entire period covered by the Allegation. In the Panel’s judgement, the Registrant had breached the following standards: 1.2, 2.2, 2.3, 3.1, 10.1 and 10.2.


64. The Panel bore in mind that the Registrant’s actions, as framed in the Allegation, straddled two codes of conduct issued by the HCPC. The first, ‘Standards of conduct, performance and ethics’ was issued in August 2012. The second code, by the same name, replaced the first in January 2016. The Panel therefore considered the timeframe of each Particular with this issue in mind.


65. With regard to the HCPC’s ‘Standards of conduct, performance and ethics’ (August 2012) the Panel determined that this applied to Particulars 1, 2 and 5. The Registrant, in respect of those Particulars, had breached standards 1, 7 and 10. The Panel considered that ‘Standards of conduct, performance and ethics’ (January 2016) applied to Particulars 1, 2, 3 and 5. The Registrant, in respect of those Particulars, had breached standards 1.2, 2.6, 6.1, 10.1 and 10.2.


66. The Panel then examined whether the Registrant’s actions amounted to a lack of competence.


67. Ms LJ had stated that generally, with the notable exception of recording, file closures and the undertaking of visits, there were no concerns with the Registrant’s conduct as a Social Worker. Before the results of the audit, the Registrant was well thought of by her work colleagues and clients. There were no issues raised around safeguarding in respect of the Registrant’s work. In her emails to the HCPC in July 2017 and her interview with Ms DC in July 2016, the Registrant candidly accepted that she ought to have closed files allocated to her in a more timely fashion. She also acknowledged that statutory visits, on some of her files, were either not conducted, or conducted and not recorded. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant knew what standards were expected from her. She knew what she should have been doing and had accepted that she had failed to meet those standards but stated it was due to reasons not connected to her competence.  She referred to a heavy caseload and lack of time.


68. The Panel was not satisfied that the cases which formed the basis of the Allegation represented a fair sample of the Registrant’s work. Mr SM stated that he was given a specific list of cases to look at by Ms DC. He confirmed that he was not asked to enquire into all of the Registrant’s case load. The Panel was persuaded that Mr SM was tasked with undertaking a targeted audit of specific and identified cases from the Registrant’s case load. When pressed during questioning, Mr SM was not clear on exactly how many files he had been asked to audit by Ms DC or how many files, out of the total number of files allocated to the Registrant, had been selected by Ms DC for him to audit.


69. The Panel had no basis to question the competence of the Registrant as a registered Social Worker. No evidence had been presented that the Registrant was deficient in her skills base or was lacking in knowledge of the practice and procedure of her profession. The Panel heard a great deal of evidence in respect of the Registrant’s inability to perform effectively in relation to her record keeping and statutory visits. The Panel concluded that she had been specifically selected for an audit. The results of the audit laid bare some deficiencies in the Registrant’s performance in this regard. There was also a significant amount of evidence that the Registrant was not well supported by her employer, in the aftermath of the audit, to give her a proper opportunity to improve the failings identified. 


70. For these reasons, the Panel concluded that the Registrant’s actions did not amount to a lack of competence on her part.


71. The Panel considered whether the Registrant’s actions amounted to misconduct.


72. In her email to the HCPC dated 12 July 2017, the Registrant accepted the shortcomings in her practice. She stated, ‘I admit that I did not keep up to date with recording, many if the visits were done but not recorded on the system. In hindsight I should have been more up to date with recordings and not allowed the amount of cases to be allocated to myself, however this difficult when allocation takes place while you on annual leave (sic).’


73. The primary purpose of statutory visits and their timely and accurate recording, in the Panel’s view, was to ensure the safety of some of the most vulnerable children. The guidance which set the frequency of statutory visits imposed a legal obligation on the Council, through the Social Workers employed by it, to safeguard children who were in need. The Panel was in no doubt that accurate and timely recording of statutory visits was a bedrock of safe and effective social work practice. Mr SM described the Registrant’s record keeping as ‘scatty’, ‘disorganised’ and not ‘as planned as could be.’ The Registrant had failed to adhere to statutory timeframes and to make a proper record of her visits on some of her files. The Registrant had failed in her duty to act protectively in her role as a Social Worker. 


74. The Panel had no evidence that any of the children referred to in the Allegation had come to actual harm as a result of the Registrant’s failings. However, the Panel was in no doubt that the Registrant’s failure to record and conduct statutory visits of the children in her care, had the potential to cause them serious harm. The Panel also heard evidence that, until the file was closed by the Registrant, the case could not proceed, if required, to the next stage of the social work process, if any.


75. In the Panel’s judgement, the Registrant’s failings represented a significant departure from the standards to be expected from a registered Social Worker. The Panel was in no doubt that the Registrant’s actions had crossed the threshold of seriousness and amounted to misconduct.


Decision on Impairment 


76. The Panel considered, in consequence of its finding that the Registrant’s actions amounted to misconduct, whether the Registrant’s Fitness to Practise was currently impaired. The Panel bore in mind that the test was expressed in the present tense. A finding of impairment could only be sustained where the Panel was satisfied that, as of today, the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired. The Panel reminded itself that impairment comprised a personal and a public component.


77. The Panel had no evidence that any children had been caused harm as a result of the Registrant’s failure to undertake statutory visits. However, the potential for harm could not be discounted. The Registrant had demonstrated deficiencies in accurate record keeping and the timely closure of files. While the Registrant was otherwise well regarded, all of these matters constituted serious failings in the Panel’s judgement, as they were basic obligations imposed on social work practice.


78. In respect of the personal component, the Registrant’s current competence could not be assessed. She had engaged to a limited extent in the regulatory proceedings against her through brief email submissions in July 2017 and November 2017. The Registrant, in her email to the HCPC on 12 July 2017, had made it plain that she had retired and no longer intended to practise as a Social Worker. In the same email, the Registrant demonstrated some evidence of insight. She accepted that she had fallen short in relation to record keeping and in the undertaking of statutory visits. The Registrant stated that she had retired from practice. She had not placed before the Panel any evidence of remedial action to address her failings. The Panel was satisfied that, on the personal component, the Registrant’s Fitness to Practise is impaired.


79. The Panel next addressed the public component. In the Panel’s judgement a member of the public would be rightly concerned to learn that a Social Worker had failed to undertake statutory visits to children in need who were in her care. The Registrant was under a legal duty to visit them and her failure to do so had the potential to cause harm. The Panel considered that the public would find it unacceptable for a registered Social Worker to fail to meet those legal requirements and not to keep accurate records, and concerning not to close files allocated to her in a timely fashion. The Panel considered that not to make a finding on the public component, in these circumstances, would undermine public trust and confidence in the social work profession. It would also fail to uphold proper standards of conduct for the Social Work profession. The Panel was satisfied that, on the public component, the Registrant’s Fitness to Practise is impaired.


80. The Panel found the Registrant’s Fitness to Practise was impaired on both the personal and public component.

Decision on Sanction


81. The Panel heard a submission from Ms Luscombe on the question of what, if any, sanction to apply. Ms Luscombe did not address the Panel on what was considered by the HCPC to be the appropriate sanction. Instead, her submissions addressed the aggravating and mitigating factors in the case and the need for the Panel to impose a suitable sanction that would protect the public, and uphold and protect the public interest.


82. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel, he advised, should exercise its judgement to arrive at a proportionate sanction that would adequately protect the public and be in the public interest. The Panel also had regard to the Sanctions Policy issued by the HCPC (last updated March 2019).


83. The Panel observed that, to a very large degree, the Registrant was an able and effective Social Worker of many years’ experience. Evidently, she was personable and was regarded as a valued member of the IRS team. She undertook work in a difficult and challenging area of social work practice and dealt extensively with a very vulnerable client group. From the evidence presented, the nature of the work in which the Registrant was engaged had, at times, had a negative impact on her health.


84. The Panel was disquieted by the response of the Council, after the audit, when the true picture of the Registrant’s deficiencies in record keeping and completing statutory visits became apparent. In her evidence Ms LJ, the Registrant’s line manager said, ‘I didn’t feel I had enough time to address the Registrant’s issues.’ This theme was echoed by Mr SM in his evidence. He stated that he would have expected the appropriate response to have been for the Council to have placed the Registrant on an action plan and to have worked collaboratively with her to address the inadequacies identified in her practice. Mr SM was surprised that that did not occur, with the Registrant being suspended from duty instead. In consequence, the Panel was left with an abiding sense of wondering whether the Registrant would have faced disciplinary and/or fitness to practise proceedings at all if the matter had been addressed differently and more sensitively by the Council, and the Registrant given a proper opportunity to rectify her failings.


85. The Panel considered the aggravating and mitigating factors in this case. The Panel considered the following to be aggravating factors:


• There was a pattern of behaviour which affected four files;
• The Registrant’s failings took place over a prolonged period of time, namely some eight months in total;
• While no actual harm was evidenced, there was potential for harm to be caused to service users;
• There was no evidence of remedial action to address the deficiencies identified.


86.  The Panel considered the following to be mitigating factors:


• In her emails to the HCPC in the early stages of the investigation into her actions, the Registrant made some expressions of remorse. She had shown some limited insight and acknowledged that she did not do what she ought to have done as a registered Social Worker in terms of record keeping and adhering to timescales;
• There was evidence of adverse health on the Registrant’s part;
• She appeared to have had a higher case load than other staff;
• She was inadequately managed before and particularly after the audit;
• The failings were on four files out of at least 20 files;
• The Registrant had a previously long unblemished career.


87. The Panel addressed the risk of repetition. The Panel considered that there was a risk of repetition. There was some evidence of insight, however this was limited. The Registrant recognised that there were issues of concern about her practice. There was no acknowledgement, however, about how those concerns could negatively impact service users and undermine public trust in the profession.


88. There was no evidence that the Registrant had engaged in remedial activity that would prevent the shortfalls in her practice from recurring. Set against this however, the Panel bore in mind that the Registrant had not been afforded an action plan by her employer. She had been suspended from her duties in a precipitate manner. Furthermore, as the evidence of Ms LJ and Mr SM made plain, the Registrant was given a wholly inadequate period of time within which to address her shortcomings and, even during that time, was required to attend to other duties connected to her employment. The Panel was sure, in light of these issues, that the public would have a good deal of sympathy for the Registrant and the difficult circumstances in which she found herself.


89. The Registrant had signalled her desire not to return to work and had taken early retirement from the Council. The Panel was mindful that the Registrant had not worked since March 2017 and would, in all probability, have to complete a return to practice course if she wanted to return to the social work profession.


90. Notwithstanding the issues identified, the Panel considered that it could not lose sight of the critical importance to effective and safe social work practice. The Registrant had failed to have worked in accordance with legislative guidelines, undertaken good record keeping and closing files in a timely and orderly fashion.


91. The Panel considered whether to conclude the matter by taking no further action or by applying a Caution Order. The Panel considered that such a response was inadequate to protect the public. The failings identified were serious and were not limited or isolated. There was no evidence of remedial action and the Registrant’s insight was limited. There was also an identified risk of repetition of the conduct which led to the Allegation.


92. The Registrant, in the Panel’s estimation, had been treated in a wholly unsatisfactory manner by her employer. She had not been allowed to effectively address the gaps in her case files. The Registrant had been suspended and had been deprived of a proper opportunity to make good the shortcomings in her practice in the form of an action plan. Mr SM had told the Panel that she had addressed her case files ‘studiously’ while in the Managers’ Room and had worked attentively, in the limited time available, in getting her files up to date. The Panel considered that, although serious and fundamental to safe and effective practice, the deficiencies related to identifiable areas of the Registrant’s practice. As such, the Panel was of the view that the failings could be addressed, and the public protected, by the imposition of conditions.


93. The Panel was mindful that the Registrant had had limited engagement with the Fitness to Practise proceedings although she had engaged with her employer’s disciplinary process.  The Registrant had stated in her emails in July 2016 to the HCPC that she did not wish to practise and intended to retire.  The Panel noted that although the Registrant’s employers had suspended her, they had subsequently offered her a return to work on a phased return but she had chosen to resign.  The Panel concluded that it would be fair and reasonable to allow the Registrant a period of time to reflect on this and, if she so wished, to be given an opportunity to demonstrate remediation whilst being supervised.  This would protect the public and be an appropriate sanction.


94. The Panel did consider whether a Suspension was an appropriate sanction but concluded that to deprive this Registrant of the ability to practise was not proportionate in this case. The Registrant had demonstrated some insight and a willingness to put things right. She might have been able to demonstrate proficiency in those areas of concern if she had been afforded, by her employer, the time and support needed to enable her to do so. In these circumstances, the Panel considered that suspension would be inappropriate and disproportionate.


95. The Panel determined that a Conditions of Practice Order for a duration of six months was appropriate. This would allow the Registrant sufficient time to reflect on her current position and take steps, if she chose to do so, to continue to work as a valued Social Worker.


96. The Panel determined to make a Conditions of Practice Order. The Panel directed that the Registrant’s registration be made subject to the following conditions:


1. You must place yourself and remain under the supervision of a Manager, who is a Social Worker, registered by the HCPC or other appropriate statutory regulator and supply details of your supervisor to the HCPC within 7 days of the Operative Date. You must attend upon that supervisor as required and follow their advice and recommendations;


2. You must work with your Manager to formulate a Personal Development Plan designed to address the deficiencies in the following areas of your practice:
• Record keeping;
• Time management;
• Statutory visits.


3. Within 3 months of the Operative Date, you must forward a copy of your Personal Development Plan to the HCPC;


4. You must meet with your Manager on a monthly basis to consider your progress towards achieving the aims set out in your Personal Development Plan;


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


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


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


8. 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).


97. The Panel reminded the Registrant that the Conditions of Practice would be reviewed before their expiry. 

Order

Order: The Registrar is directed to annotate the Register to show that, for a period of 6 months from the date that this Order comes into effect (“the Operative Date”), you, Mrs Winifred Janet Little must comply with the following conditions of practice:
 
1) You must place yourself and remain under the supervision of a Manager, who is a Social Worker, registered by the HCPC or other appropriate statutory regulator and supply details of your supervisor to the HCPC within 7 days of the Operative Date. You must attend upon that supervisor as required and follow their advice and recommendations;


2) You must work with your Manager to formulate a Personal Development Plan designed to address the deficiencies in the following areas of your practice:


• Record keeping;
• Time management;
• Statutory visits.


3) Within 3 months of the Operative Date, you must forward a copy of your Personal Development Plan to the HCPC;


4) You must meet with your Manager on a monthly basis to consider your progress towards achieving the aims set out in your Personal Development Plan;


5) You must allow your Manager to provide information to the HCPC about your progress towards achieving the aims set out in your Personal Development Plan;


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


7) You must promptly inform the HCPC of any disciplinary proceedings taken against you by your employer;


8) 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).

Notes

Interim Order


98. The Panel received an application from Ms Luscombe to consider the imposition of an interim order to cover the appeal period. In making this application the HCPC highlighted the fact that the Registrant had been put on notice that this was an issue that may be considered and that the Panel had already directed its mind to the issue of proceeding in the Registrant’s absence at the start of this hearing.


99. Ms Luscombe submitted that it was necessary, in light of the Panel’s findings to impose conditions on an interim basis.  Such a measure was appropriate in order to ensure that service users were protected and the public interest was maintained. The Panel had found that the Registrant had demonstrated limited insight and was at risk of repeating the behaviour contained in the allegation.  Ms Luscombe applied to the Panel for an interim Conditions of Practice Order for the maximum period of 18 months.


100. Before considering the application, the Panel directed its mind to the issue of fairness in considering this matter in the Registrant’s absence and without her therefore having an opportunity to make further representations. In this regard the Panel noted that in the Notice of hearing letter dated 5 June 2019 the Registrant had been put on notice that this Panel may be required to consider the issue of an interim order.


101. The Panel being satisfied that the Registrant was on notice went on to consider afresh whether it would proceed in the Registrant’s absence. In reaching its initial decision to proceed the Panel had gone to some length to ensure that the Registrant’s absence was a fully informed decision. That decision not to attend persisted and there was no evidence that the Registrant had reconsidered or would reconsider that decision. The Panel therefore decided that it would proceed with consideration of the application in the Registrant’s absence.


102. The Panel in considering this application for an interim order took into account the Legal Assessor’s advice, the guidance issued by the HCPTS and Ms Luscombe’s representations as outlined above.


103. The Panel noted that there was no interim order currently in place. The Panel therefore considered carefully what changed circumstances there are that would necessitate the imposition of such an order now. The Panel in its consideration of whether an order was necessary for public protection or required in the wider public interest took account of the fact that the Allegation had now been tested and there had been a finding that the Registrant had failed to conduct statutory visits, inadequately recorded visits and had not closed files allocated to her in a timely basis.  In the absence of evidence of remedial action the likelihood of repetition remained a concern. This being the case, the Panel considered that some form of order for public protection and public interest was required to cover any appeal period. If such an order was not imposed the Registrant would be at liberty to return to practice unrestricted during the time required to complete the appeal.


104. Having concluded that an order was necessary for public protection and in the wider public interest, the Panel considered that for the same reasons given in its substantive determination it was appropriate to impose the same conditions on an interim basis.


105. The Panel has therefore decided that it is appropriate and proportionate to impose an Interim Conditions of Practice Order for the maximum period of 18 months in the same terms as the substantive order.


Interim Order:
The Panel makes an Interim Conditions of Practice Order under Article 31(2) of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, the same being necessary to protect members of the public and being otherwise in the public interest.

 
This order will expire: (if no appeal is made against the Panel’s decision and Order) upon the expiry of the period during which such an appeal could be made; (if an appeal is made against the Panel’s decision and Order) the final determination of that appeal, subject to a maximum period of 18 months.

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Mrs Winifred Janet Little

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
20/08/2019 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Conditions of Practice