Ms Caroline Chirimuuta

Profession:

Registration Number: SW101015

Hearing Type: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing: 10:00 18/03/2019 End: 17:00 20/03/2019

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

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: Suspended

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Allegation

Whilst registered as a Social Worker, and during the course of your employment at Norfolk County Council:

1. You made a record suggesting you had completed the following visits, which you did not complete:

a. 10 November 2016 in relation to Child A

b. 3 August 2016 in relation to Child B

c. 19 October 2016 in relation to Child B

d. 31 October 2016 in relation to Child C

2. You did not maintain accurate records in that you:

a. recorded a visit as having taken place on 9 March 2016 in relation to Child C but this took place on 2 March 2016

b. recorded a visit as having taken place on 25 August 2016 in relation to Child D butthis took place on 25 July 2016

3. The matters described in paragraph 1 were dishonest;

4. The matters set out at paragraphs 1-3 constitute misconduct and/ or lack ofcompetence;

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

Finding

Preliminary matters

1. The hearing of the allegations against the Registrant, Ms Caroline Chirimuuta, commenced on 22 October 2018, when three days were allocated. In the event it was not possible for the case to be concluded in the three days allocated, but the entirety of the HCPC’s case was presented during that time. The hearing was then adjourned to be completed at a resumed hearing commencing on 18 March 2019.  The Registrant was represented at the hearing in October 2018, but conducted her case in person when the hearing resumed in March 2019.

Admissions

2. At the commencement of the hearing, the Registrant was given the opportunity to respond to the allegation. On her behalf it was stated that particulars 1(a) to (d) and 3 were denied, but particular 2 was admitted.

Background

3. The Registrant qualified as a Social Worker in 2014. She commenced her employment with Norfolk County Council (“NCC”) on 28 September 2015, initially working in NCC’s Institute for Practice Excellence Team. In April 2016, she was assigned to the Looked After Children (“LAC”) Team at Great Yarmouth. A key element of her role when working in the LAC Team was to undertake statutory visits.

4. As the term “statutory visit” suggests, it is an activity the Local Authority is under a legal duty to undertake. As the term also suggests, a visit should, unless impracticable, be undertaken by the Social Worker in the foster placement, the child should be spoken to when alone, and seen in their bedroom to ensure it is suitable and age appropriate. The Social Worker should also speak to the foster carer and undertake an assessment to ensure that the placement is still suitable and meets the needs of the child. The Social Worker should also ask the child questions relating to how they are doing and if they are happy.

5. In November 2016, Mrs DF was appointed as an Assistant Team Manager in the LAC Team and became the Registrant’s line manager. At the end of November 2016, Mrs DF contacted the Team Manager, Mr DSJ, expressing concerns about the level of detail in a record of a statutory visit, stating that she had not felt able to authorise it. Mrs DF then reviewed further records of statutory visits and contacted foster carers. The contentions underpinning the factual particulars being considered by the Panel then emerged.

6. The Registrant was suspended from her employment on 7 December 2016. Ms JD was appointed as an Investigating Officer and commenced her investigation on 9 January 2017. Subsequently, a disciplinary hearing took place on 28 April 2017.
Decision on Facts

7. The HCPC relied upon the evidence of three witnesses, two of whom gave evidence before the Panel. The witnesses who gave evidence before the Panel were:

• Ms JD, a Social Worker employed by NCC as a Team Manager in an Assessment Team. She did not know the Registrant and had no personal knowledge of the matters being considered by the Panel. Her involvement was as the person tasked by NCC to undertake an investigation;

• Mrs DF, a Social Worker employed by NCC, now working as a Team Manger. She was previously employed as an Assistant Team Manager in the LAC team in which the Registrant was working, taking up that role in mid-November 2016. From the time she commenced her employment as an Assistant Team Manager she line-managed the Registrant, and it was in that capacity that she acted when the concerns about the Registrant’s case recordings were first identified.

8. In addition to the two witnesses who gave oral evidence, the HCPC relied upon the witness statement of Mr DSJ and a bundle of documentary exhibits extending to 138 pages. The documents included the records of visits and purported visits to the children concerned, records of what foster carers said when asked about visits recorded by the Registrant, as well as records of interviews undertaken for the purposes of Ms JD’s investigation.

9. The Registrant gave evidence in her own defence and provided a reflective written account and three written references relating to work she had undertaken, with two of the references relating to her employment after the events with which the Panel has been concerned.

10. The Panel began its deliberations on the facts by undertaking a general assessment of the witnesses who gave oral evidence before the Panel. The following is the Panel’s general assessment:

• Ms JD. The Panel was satisfied that she had a good understanding of NCC’s procedures and the responsibilities of Social Workers employed by NCC. She was generally a confident and well-informed witness, and the Panel concluded that she conducted a thorough, fair and objective investigation into the Registrant’s actions. The Panel was satisfied that it could safely rely upon her evidence;

• Mrs DF. The Panel was satisfied that Mrs DF had a good understanding of the working of the team in which the Registrant was employed. Furthermore, she had a good understanding of the CareFirst electronic case recording system. When she contacted foster carers, she was non-judgemental and attempted to find positive aspects of the Registrant’s involvement with them. She was also balanced and fair in the way she gave her evidence before the Panel. The Panel was satisfied that Mrs DF was a credible witness whose evidence could be relied upon;

• The Registrant. The Panel recognised the full engagement of the Registrant throughout these proceedings, even when unrepresented. However, some of the Registrant’s evidence was inconsistent and, in certain important respects, was implausible. These reservations resulted in the Panel being unable to accept the totality of her evidence.

11. In reaching its decision on the facts, the Panel has remembered throughout that the burden rests on the HCPC to prove matters against the Registrant. The standard of that burden is the balance of probabilities, but, as the allegations against the Registrant are serious, the Panel accepted the advice it received that it should be satisfied that there is solid and cogent evidence before finding a matter proved by reference to that standard. Furthermore, in relation to the matters admitted by the Registrant at the commencement of the hearing, the Panel has reviewed the HCPC’s evidence so as to be satisfied that the admissions should be accepted.

Particulars 1(a) to (d)

12. In respect of each of the sub-particulars (a) to (d), there are a number of common features, namely:

• there is a record on the CareFirst electronic recording system used by the Local Authority described as “LAC Statutory Visit”, with a date of the purported visit corresponding with that alleged in the sub-particular. Furthermore, each has a purported time of the visit included in the record;

• each record states that the child was seen alone;

• each record has entries added under the heading, “Who was present during the visit?”;

• each record had a narrative entry under the heading, “Record of visit”;

• each record states that the sleeping arrangements were viewed.

13. Accordingly, the Panel is satisfied that each record suggested that the Registrant had made a visit on the day stated in the record.

14. The Registrant does not contend that she made visits on the days stated in the records. Rather, she acknowledges that the statutorily-dictated timetable required a visit, but that she was informed that it was permissible to accumulate information from other sources and record it as a visit, despite the fact that no visit on the date recorded had actually taken place. Notwithstanding the Registrant’s acceptance that the records were made without a visit having been made, the Panel carefully reviewed the evidence presented by the HCPC that confirmed that the visits had not been made. That information was hearsay in nature as it took the form of records of what foster carers had said when asked about visits made by the Registrant. The Panel found that evidence to be compelling. In particular:

• in relation to particular 1(a), the foster carer was clear that the Registrant had not visited on 10 November 2016, having a clear recollection of her own social engagement that evening. Indeed, when asked about matters in late January 2017, the foster carer stated that the Registrant had not visited the placement since August 2016;

• in relation to particular 1(b), the foster carer of Child B was able to confirm the accuracy of other records of visits. However, as to the record relating to 3 August 2016, the foster carer referred to her diary and noted that it was a week before a trip to Spain. Had the visit been made, she would have remembered it.  Furthermore, the content of the entries made by the Registrant struck the foster carer as having similarities to those made by the previously allocated Social Worker;

• in relation to particular 1(c), on 19 October 2016 Child C was staying with a respite foster carer. However, the record of the purported visit was completed on the basis that the visit was made to the home of the regular foster carer. When the respite foster carer was asked if a visit had taken place on 19 October 2016, she stated that the Registrant had been due to visit at 4:45pm (the purported visit is recorded as having taken place at 5:00pm), but that a telephone call had been received from the fostering agency saying that the Registrant had contacted them to apologise saying that she was unable to find the respite foster carer’s address to make the visit;

• in relation to particular 1(d), as the date of the purported visit was Halloween, the foster carer had a clear recollection of the day. Child C was only at home for a short time that day as she attended a party elsewhere. Furthermore, in the “Record of visit” section of the entry made by the Registrant it was stated, “Child C has started at [college] where she is undertaking her Arts and Design Course …”. When the foster carer was spoken to in early February 2017, she stated that Child C changed her course to beauty therapy on 17 October 2016, a fortnight before the purported visit.

15. For all these reasons, the Panel is satisfied that the visits were not made by the Registrant. The consequence is that particulars 1(a) to (d) are proven.

Particular 2

16. In relation to particulars 2(a) & (b), the HCPC’s case is that the records were inaccurate because the recorded dates of the visits were not the dates when the visits took place. It is not the HCPC’s case that the visits did not take place or that there were any other inaccuracies concerning these records. The visit to Child C was recorded as having taken place on 9 March 2016, whereas in fact it took place a week earlier, on 2 March 2016. The visit to Child D was recorded as having been on 25 August 2016 but was actually made on 25 July 2016.

17. As has already been noted, at the commencement of the hearing, these particulars were admitted. The Panel finds that the evidence presented by the HCPC accords with the Registrant’s admissions, and, accordingly, particulars 2(a) and (b) are proven.

Particular 3

18. This particular alleges that the making of the records included in particulars 1(a) to (d) was dishonest. The contention of dishonesty is not made in relation to the inaccurate dates alleged by particulars 2(a) & (b).

19. In order to decide the issue of dishonesty, it has been necessary for the Panel to make various contextual findings about the circumstances in which the records of purported visits were made. The Panel acknowledged that separate decisions on the issue of dishonesty were required in relation to each of the four records, although in the event all of the contextual findings apply to each record. These findings were as follows:

• the Panel rejects as inherently implausible the Registrant’s evidence that she was told that it was acceptable, when purportedly recording a statutory visit, not to visit but instead to record accumulated information from a variety of sources;

• the requirement to make, and the importance of, statutory visits is a key element of work with Looked After Children. It is how risk of harm is identified and avoided. The Panel finds that, as a qualified Social Worker, the Registrant was fully aware of what was required of her, and, in particular, that a “statutory visit” required a visit and that the child should be spoken to when alone and an accurate and current record made of that visit;

• that it was the Registrant’s intention to mislead anyone reading the reports of her purported visits into believing that she had in fact visited on the dates recorded is demonstrated by the terms in which she wrote them. She did not document in the records that she had relied on information obtained from other sources. In her evidence the Registrant stated that her recordings of the visits were “copied and pasted” from previous visits, but it was not evident to the Panel exactly what the source of the recorded information was. Rather, the records not only recorded a date, but also a time, and they also recorded invented interactions with other people, including the child in question. Importantly, in each of the relevant records, the Registrant recorded that she had viewed the sleeping arrangements;

• examples of such documentation are, with regard to:

o Particular 1(a): the Registrant recorded in the notes, “… [Child A] had a big smile on his face … and invited me to go upstairs.”

o Particular 1(b): the Registrant recorded in the notes, “… [Child B] was very excited and asked me to come upstairs and have a look at all of her clothes in her wardrobe …”

o Particular 1(c): the Registrant recorded in the notes, “[Child B] had a huge smile on her face and said ‘Oh nice to see you Caroline’ …”

o Particular 1(d): the Registrant recorded in the notes, “I asked [Child C] if we could go upstairs to her room. [Child C] showed me some of her recent art work from college …”

All these accounts would lead the reader to assume that the Registrant had visited the child’s home, seen the child, and conversed with them on the date and at the time recorded on the statutory visit record.

20. Applying these findings to a consideration of whether honest and reasonable people would conclude that the Registrant’s actions were dishonest, the Panel is of the clear view that the only possible answer to that question is that they would. It follows that particular 3 is proven.

Decision on Grounds

21. The Panel first considered particulars 1(a) to (d) and 3. In the judgement of the Panel, the Registrant’s behaviour represented by these findings was of the utmost seriousness for the following reasons:

• safe and effective social work is only possible if the Social Worker practises with honesty and integrity. If those qualities are missing, service users and carers cannot know that their best interests are being maintained, and the employing Local Authority cannot be satisfied that its statutory responsibilities are being discharged;

• the Registrant’s failures exposed three acutely vulnerable children to a risk of harm. By failing to visit and speak to the children when they were alone within the statutory timescale, the Registrant lost the opportunity to discover if there were significant matters that the children might wish to report. Furthermore, there might be incidents that the children might wish to report. For a variety of reasons, a Looked After Child might wish to express dissatisfaction with a placement that could lead to a change of placement that would benefit the child or action taken to avoid a placement breakdown;

• by behaving dishonestly, the Registrant jeopardised the confidence and trust that both the children and foster carers were entitled to have in both her and other members of her profession;

• other professionals with access to the records the Registrant made for these Looked After Children would have a false impression of the children’s present circumstances, which could have a detrimental impact on their safety and the care planning process.

22. The findings in respect of particulars 1(a) to (d) represent breaches of the HCPC’s Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics, in particular:

• Standard 1.2: “You must work in partnership with service users and carers, involving them, where appropriate, in decisions about the care, treatment or other services provided.”

• Standard 9.1: “You must make sure that your conduct justifies the public’s trust and confidence in you and your profession.”

• Standard 10.1: “You must keep full, clear, and accurate records for everyone you care for, treat or provide other services to.”

23. The Panel is of the clear view that the seriousness of the findings made in relation to particulars 1(a) to (d) and 3, represent shortcomings that must be categorised as misconduct.

24. The Panel considered whether the findings on particular 2(a) & (b) should be included in the finding of misconduct. The fact that later, rather than earlier, visiting dates were erroneously recorded reassured the Panel that the inaccuracies did not arise from an intention on the part of the Registrant to suggest that the statutory visiting timetable had been met, when in truth it had not. Although regrettable, the Panel concluded that these errors fell short of the degree of seriousness that would be required to include them in the finding of misconduct. Furthermore, being only two errors, it was not possible for the Panel to conclude that they represented a lack of competence on the part of the Registrant. It follows that although factually established, particulars 2(a) & (b) do not contribute to either statutory ground, and will form no part of the Panel’s further consideration.

Decision on Impairment

25. The Panel has considered both the personal component and the public component relevant to this issue.

26. So far as the personal component is concerned, the Panel noted the evidence of the Registrant and her written reflective account. The Panel noted that the Registrant was relatively newly qualified and did not receive the support and supervision expected of a Social Worker newly allocated to a demanding LAC Team. The Panel also noted that, during her submissions, the Registrant stated that she now exercised greater care in her record-keeping practice and she would not repeat what she categorised as her mistakes. However, although the Registrant expressed remorse for her actions, that remorse did not extend to the dishonesty that she denied. Furthermore, the Registrant did not acknowledge the potential consequences of her actions on the well-being of the children concerned or the confidence that foster carers should be able to have in Social Workers. In these circumstances, the Panel is unable to find that there has been full acceptance of responsibility for what happened, and without that acceptance there cannot be satisfactory remediation. In the judgement of the Panel, there remains a risk that the Registrant would be tempted to falsify important documents were she to find herself in pressurised circumstances in the future.

27. It follows that the Panel finds that, upon consideration of the personal component, there is continuing impairment of fitness to practise.

28. The Panel then considered whether a finding of impairment of fitness to practise is required in the wider public interest. The conclusion of the Panel is that such a finding is required. Fair-minded and fully informed members of the public would be dismayed at the prospect of a Social Worker against whom such serious findings have been made being permitted to return to practise without restriction. Such an outcome would diminish the confidence that the public is entitled to place in the social work profession and the regulation of it. Furthermore, a finding of current impairment of fitness to practise is required to declare and uphold proper professional standards, and to send out the clear message to other Social Workers who might feel tempted to falsify documents that such behaviour will not be overlooked.

29. The Panel’s decision that there is misconduct arising from particulars 1(a) to (d) and 3 that is currently impairing the Registrant’s fitness to practise has the result that the misconduct allegation is well founded. Accordingly, the Panel is required to consider the issue of sanction.

Decision on Sanction

30. After the Panel announced the decision that the misconduct allegation was well founded, it received submissions from the parties on the issue of sanction.

31. On behalf of the HCPC, the Presenting Officer reminded the Panel of the proper purpose of a sanction and of the available sanctions. She also identified factors she described as aggravating and mitigating for the consideration of the Panel. Whilst not urging the Panel to apply any particular sanction, the Presenting Officer did submit that the seriousness of the Panel’s findings should result in the Panel deciding that a sanction is required and that it would be inappropriate to direct that no further action should be taken.

32. The Registrant told the Panel that she fully accepted that she had behaved dishonestly, that she understood the gravity of her actions, and that her actions had exposed vulnerable children to the risk of harm. She informed the Panel that she had had two years to reflect on matters, that she wanted to work with people, and very much wished to be able to resume her career as a Social Worker.

33. The Panel identified a number of factors that make the findings against the Registrant serious.

34. The finding is one of dishonesty, and it is at the more serious end of the spectrum of dishonesty because:

• the records falsified were of purported statutory visits; they were records which are a legal requirement and therefore of the utmost importance;

• the statutory timescale for a visit was not less than every twelve weeks, therefore the effect of recording a visit not made was that there was a risk that a vulnerable child might go for very nearly six months without being seen in their placement, thereby exacerbating the risk of harm;

• the falsification of the records hampered effective monitoring of the Registrant’s activities and her supervision;

• the Registrant’s actions risked damaging the potentially fragile relationships between Social Worker, Looked After Child, and foster carer;

• by behaving as she did, the Registrant put her own interests before those of the Looked After Children, their foster carers, and the Local Authority;

• in her initial evidence to the Panel, the focus of the Registrant’s concerns arising from the consequences of her failings was the effect on herself, rather than on those whose interests she had subordinated to her own.

35. The Panel also identified a number of factors that could properly be urged on behalf of the Registrant. They were:

• the Registrant was relatively inexperienced, was working under some pressure, and would have benefited from more supervision and support;

• in her evidence before the Panel, the Registrant expressed a recognition of the impact of creating inaccurate records;

• there was evidence presented by the HCPC and the Registrant that the Registrant’s interpersonal skills were praised by foster carers and colleagues;

• the Panel received two positive references from recent employers attesting to the Registrant’s honesty and integrity.

36. The Panel approached the issue of sanction on the basis that a sanction is not to be imposed to punish a registrant against whom a finding has been made. Rather, the sanction should be the least restrictive outcome consistent with the need to protect the public and service users, the maintenance of a proper degree of confidence in the registered profession and the regulation of it, and the declaration and upholding of proper professional standards. To ensure that these principles are applied, it is necessary for the Panel first to consider whether any sanction is required. If the Panel decides that a sanction is required, then the available sanctions must be considered in an ascending order of seriousness until one is reached that satisfies the proper sanction aims just identified. As the finding in the present case is one of misconduct, the whole sanction range up to, and including, striking off is available.

37. The seriousness of the Panel’s findings on particulars 1(a) to (d) and 3 are so serious that a sanction is required. Furthermore, a caution order would not protect the public from the risk of further dishonest behaviour, it would not serve to maintain public confidence in the social work profession, and it would not be sufficient to remind other social workers that the dishonest fabrication of records is unacceptable.

38. The Panel then considered whether a conditions of practice order should be imposed. The conclusion of the Panel was that, for a number of reasons, such an order would not be appropriate in the present case. In the first place, the Panel considered that it would not be possible to formulate workable conditions to protect against the risk of future dishonesty while allowing a practitioner to work autonomously. In addition, the imposition of a conditions of practice order would undermine public confidence in the regulation of the social work profession.

39. The rejection of a conditions of practice order resulted in the Panel considering the imposition of a suspension order. It has already been stated that in addressing the Panel on the issue of sanction, the Registrant stated that she fully accepted that she had acted dishonestly. However, the extent to which the Panel can apply this expression of acceptance of dishonesty to the decision it is required to make is limited by the fact that two days earlier, the Registrant gave evidence in which she denied that she had acted dishonestly.

40. The Registrant should understand that the Panel has come very close indeed to concluding that a striking off order should be made at the present time due to the inherent risk of dishonesty being repeated. However, having given the matter very careful consideration, and recognising that there has been positive evidence as to the Registrant’s interpersonal skills, and this misconduct taking place during a time of limited supervision support, the Panel has stepped back from making a striking off order. This will provide the Registrant with an opportunity to satisfy a future reviewing panel that she can be permitted to return to practice.

41. Accordingly, the Panel has decided that, at the present time, the appropriate order to reflect the seriousness of the misconduct is one of suspension. The appropriate length of that order is 12 months.

42. In common with all suspension orders, the order made by the Panel today will be reviewed before it expires. When it is reviewed, the reviewing panel will have all the powers available to the present Panel, including the making of a striking off order. If the Registrant would wish the reviewing panel to permit her to return to work as a Social Worker, the present Panel would urge her to consider providing evidence at the review. That evidence could take the form of:

• a reflective piece, including commenting on the importance of integrity and honesty, as well as the importance of statutory visits;

• testimonials from individuals, organisations and employers who have full knowledge of the Panel’s findings, attesting to the Registrant’s integrity and honesty and her record-keeping practice;

• evidence of recent training in record-keeping standards and practice.

Order

The Registrar is directed to suspend the registration of Caroline Chirimuuta for a period of 12 months from the date this Order comes into effect.

Notes

This Order will be reviewed before its expiry.

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Ms Caroline Chirimuuta

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
18/03/2019 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Suspended
22/10/2018 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Adjourned part heard