Ms Sian McNeill

Profession: Social worker

Registration Number: SW78559

Hearing Type: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing: 10:00 11/03/2019 End: 17:00 14/03/2019

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

Panel: Conduct and Competence Committee
Outcome: No further action

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Allegation

Whilst registered as a Social Worker and employed by East Riding of Yorkshire Council, you:

1. On an unknown date in 2015, you breached confidentiality in that, you:

a. Accessed Person A’s personal information when you did not have permission to do so.

b. Sent a screenshot of this information to Person A.

2. On 2 January 2016, sent Person B a text message stating, “…We have some great carers if you want to let your kids have a better life” and in doing so, you:

a. Abused your position and/or behaved inappropriately towards Person B.

b. Did not distinguish your professional position as a Social Worker and knowledge within your personal relationships.

3. The matters alleged at particulars 1 and 2 constitute misconduct.

4. By reason of that misconduct, your fitness to practise as a Social Worker is impaired.

Finding

Preliminary Matters

Proceeding in private

1. At the outset of the hearing it was appreciated that there would be many occasions when it would be necessary for the Panel to direct that parts of the hearing should be conducted in private. This was because such a direction was required to ensure that individuals affected by the Registrant’s actions would not be identifiable, and also because the Registrant would be referring to acutely personal information. This is the redacted public version of the Panel’s determination.

Admissions

2. When invited to respond to the allegation before Ms Mond-Wedd opened the case, the Registrant stated that she admitted particulars 1 and 2 in their entirety.

Background

3. The Registrant was employed by East Riding of Yorkshire Council (“East Riding”) as an Advanced Social Work Practitioner in the Fostering Service. In that role she had responsibility for the recruitment and assessment of new foster carers. She oversaw and assisted with the duty referral process and placement management. She had a place on the Fostering Panel and would also represent the fostering service at meetings and deputise for her manager in his absence. Additionally, the Registrant was responsible for the supervision of four or five staff members.

Decision on Facts

4. Three witnesses gave evidence before the Panel. At the commencement of its deliberations, the Panel considered its general view of the witnesses. The witnesses, and the general assessments, were as follows:

• Ms AR, a Social Worker who at the relevant time was a Service Manager at East Riding. She did not have any direct line management responsibility for the Registrant, her involvement being as the Investigating Officer appointed by East Riding to investigate the matters that underpin the HCPC’s allegations. The Panel found Ms AR to be a reliable, straightforward witness who demonstrated no malice towards the Registrant. The Panel found her to be a credible witness.

• Mr DG, also a Social Worker, who at the relevant time was the Fostering Manager at East Riding and, in that capacity, the Registrant’s line manager and supervisor. The Panel found Mr DG to be a reliable witness, his evidence being all the more compelling because of the very positive evidence he gave about the Registrant’s professional ability.

• The Registrant. The Panel acknowledged that the Registrant undoubtedly found giving evidence stressful, and she also had the disadvantage that she was unrepresented during the hearing. The Panel found her to be an honest and open witness who did not seek to deflect blame. The Panel concluded that she was believable.

5. It has already been stated that, at the commencement of the hearing, the Registrant admitted the factual particulars alleged against her. When reaching its decisions, the Panel considered whether the Registrant’s admissions accorded with evidence presented by the HCPC. The conclusion of the Panel was that the evidence did support them, and the Panel was therefore content to accept the Registrant’s admissions.

6. Before explaining some of the detail of the factual matters, it is important to explain the Panel’s findings as to the context in which they occurred. In this context it is relevant to record the following:

• [redacted]

Particular 1

7. The Registrant gave evidence that, at some stage in 2015, she had accessed Person A’s personal information on the CCM Electronic Recording System (“CCM”) in order to obtain a telephone number [redacted] and the Registrant took a screenshot from the system which she sent to Person A [redacted].

8. The Panel finds that the Registrant accessed the information concerning Person A and also finds that she did not have permission to do so. The Panel also finds that the Registrant sent the screenshot to Person A. These actions breached confidentiality. It follows that the entirety of particular 1 is proven.

Particular 2

9. The HCPC’s exhibits included a screenshot of the text message that is quoted in the stem of particular 2. The Panel is satisfied that the Registrant sent it to Person B. The Panel is also satisfied that by sending it, the Registrant abused her position. Person B knew that the Registrant was a Social Worker and the use of the word “we” in the phrase “we have some great carers” necessarily imported the Registrant’s professional role into the terms of the text message. Further, by suggesting that Person B should consider putting her children in the care of the Local Authority, the Registrant was passing a negative comment on her opinion of Person B’s parenting ability. These factors resulted in the Registrant abusing her position as a Social Worker and behaving inappropriately. That the Registrant did not distinguish between her professional position as a Social Worker and knowledge within her personal relationships is demonstrated by the fact that the Registrant had no social work relationship with Person B, her dispute with her being purely personal. It follows that the entirety of particular 2 is proven.

Decision on Grounds

10. In reaching its decision on whether the proven facts amounted to misconduct, the Panel considered a number of contextual factors that could be urged on behalf of the Registrant. They included:

• [redacted]

• So far as particular 2 was concerned, the Registrant was also receiving abusive messages from Person B.

• [redacted]

• The Registrant’s actions did not involve service users.

11. However, notwithstanding the factors just identified, the Panel has concluded that the Registrant’s actions constituted serious failings. The Registrant was an experienced and senior practitioner who was well aware that it was not appropriate to access confidential information concerning people known to her. Furthermore, she knew that it was unacceptable to use her professional status to further a personal dispute.

12. The Registrant’s actions constituted breaches of the following standards of the HCPC’s Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics as they were formulated at the relevant time, namely:

“You must respect the confidentiality of service users”

“You must keep high standards of personal conduct”

13 “You must behave with … integrity and make sure that your behaviour does not damage the public’s confidence in you or your profession”

By behaving as she did, the Registrant also failed to act as required by the HCPC’s Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers in England.

13. Taking all these factors into account, the Panel is satisfied that the proven facts are sufficiently serious to be categorised as misconduct.

Decision on Impairment

14. The Panel has heeded the advice it has received to consider the issue of current impairment of fitness to practise from the perspective of both the personal component and the public component.

15. So far as the personal component is concerned, the Panel made a number of relevant findings, namely:

• From the outset, the Registrant not only fully admitted her actions, but also acknowledged that what she did was wrong and expressed remorse for her actions. In evidence before the Panel she stated that she was “appalled” by her behaviour.

• When seeking work following her dismissal by East Riding, she has disclosed what happened at that Local Authority to potential employers.

• She had sought appropriate support [redacted].

• These measures have resulted in the Registrant having a clear awareness of the events which led to her actions as set out in the allegation and, in the Panel’s view, she is no longer susceptible to the stressful factors that were impacting on her when she committed the misconduct. In the judgement of the Panel, they also have the consequence that she is unlikely to find herself subject to those stresses in the future.

• Although not currently working as a Social Worker, the Registrant has worked as a Social Worker on an agency basis since being dismissed by East Riding. The Panel was provided with copies of references relating to two periods of this work, namely with Liverpool City Council from October 2016 until April 2017 and with York City Council from May 2017 to August 2017. In all areas of her work, both Local Authorities recorded her work as being either excellent or very good. Both of those organisations reported her reliability and integrity to be excellent. These references accorded with the extremely positive opinions expressed by Mr DG about the “outstanding” quality of the Registrant’s work before her personal circumstances adversely impacted on her behaviour.

16. These factors resulted in the Panel concluding that, looking forward, there is no appreciable risk that the Registrant will repeat behaviour of the sort that has been found against her. As a consequence, when viewed from the perspective of the personal component, her fitness to practise is not currently impaired.

17. Different considerations apply to the public component. Important aspects of the consideration that are required in this regard are whether a finding of impairment of fitness to practise is required to declare and uphold proper standards of behaviour and to maintain a proper degree of public confidence in the social work profession.

18. The Panel will not repeat the extenuating circumstances that form the backdrop to the misconduct and which have already been identified by the Panel. They have been fully considered by the Panel in reaching this decision. However, this case demonstrates breaches of two absolutely fundamental requirements of safe and effective social work practice, namely the strict adherence to the maintenance of confidentiality, data protection principles, and the importance of drawing a clear line between professional and personal activities. Having given the matter very careful consideration, the Panel has concluded that, notwithstanding the absence of a risk of recurrence, the serious breaches of these fundamental tenets of the profession by a senior practitioner require a finding of current impairment of fitness to practise to satisfy the public component of that consideration. The wrong message would be sent to other members of the profession, and the public would not be sufficiently reassured that these breaches are unacceptable, were no finding of current impairment of fitness to practise made.

19. It follows that the allegation is well founded and the Panel must proceed to consider the issue of sanction.

Decision on Sanction

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

21. On behalf of the HCPC, Ms Mond-Wedd reminded the Panel of the proper purpose of a sanction and of the available sanctions. She reminded the Panel of the HCPC’s Indicative Sanctions Policy. Ms Mond-Wedd identified aggravating and mitigating factors, accepting that the findings against the Registrant did not involve dishonesty, breach of trust, or abuse of service users.

22. The Registrant told the Panel that she wished to return to practise as a Social Worker, and submitted that she thought that her prospects of securing work would be hampered if a sanction were to be imposed.

23. In making a decision about sanction, the Panel has accepted the advice it has received that a sanction is not to be imposed to punish a registrant against whom a finding has been made. Rather, any sanction should be the least restrictive outcome consistent with the need to protect the public, to maintain public confidence in the profession, and to declare and uphold proper professional standards. To ensure that these principles are applied, the first decision that any panel is required to make is whether, in the particular circumstances of the case, any sanction is required. If it is decided that a sanction is required, then the available sanctions should be considered in an ascending order of seriousness.

24. The Panel considered that the fact that two fundamental tenets of the profession were breached was an aggravating factor. Against that there were a number of features in the Registrant’s favour, namely:

• The Registrant made full admissions from the earliest possible stage.

• She has expressed genuine remorse.

• She has demonstrated real insight.

• At the time of her actions, the Registrant was experiencing difficult personal circumstances that affected her judgement.

• Her actions had no impact on service users.

• The evidence of Mr DG was that she was an “outstanding” Social Worker, and since the relevant events she has worked in several social work roles and the references commenting on her social work practice are excellent.

• There have been no previous regulatory findings against the Registrant.

25. After very careful consideration, the Panel has concluded that this is a case in which it is appropriate for no further action to be taken. The Panel acknowledges that it will be an exceptional case in which such an outcome will be appropriate, but has determined that the following factors lead to this conclusion in the present case:

• There is no personal component impairment of fitness to practise, no appreciable risk of recurrence, and, accordingly, no need to impose a sanction to protect the public.

• Full insight has been demonstrated by the Registrant.

• The finding that the misconduct allegation is well founded, involving a finding of impairment of fitness to practise, is in itself a significant factor.

• The Panel is satisfied that the finding that the allegation is well founded is sufficient to declare and uphold proper professional standards.

• The Panel is equally satisfied that a fair-minded and fully informed member of the public would consider that the finding of the Panel is sufficient to maintain confidence in the profession, and that such a person would not require the imposition of a sanction to be reassured.

26. The Panel tested its initial conclusion that no further action should be taken by considering the imposition of a caution order. The Panel recognised that a caution order could have a punitive effect on the Registrant, in that it may impede her ability to find employment as a Social Worker. Given the quality of her social work practice and the fact that no public protection issues are engaged in this case, the Panel concluded that the imposition of a caution order would be unduly punitive and was unnecessary in order to satisfy the public interest.

Order

No Further Action

Notes

No notes available

Hearing History

History of Hearings for Ms Sian McNeill

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
11/03/2019 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing No further action