Mrs Ranjana Varia
1. The Panel is satisfied that good service of the notice of hearing has been effected.
Proceeding in Absence
2. Having heard submissions from Ms Brzezina on behalf of the HCPC, the Panel exercised its discretion to proceed in the absence of the Registrant. The Panel is satisfied, by email correspondence between the Registrant and the HCPC, that the Registrant has voluntarily absented herself and waived her right to be present or represented at this review hearing. On 31 October 2016 the Registrant advised the HCPC, by way of an email, that she would not be attending the hearing as she would be going travelling and did not intend to return until January 2017. Her email suggests, although it did not explicitly state it, that the Registrant was travelling outside the UK.
3. Before reaching its decision, the Panel considered the HCPC Practice Note on ‘Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant’ and listened to and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. It is satisfied that it will be able to deal fairly with this review in the absence of the Registrant. The Panel has reminded itself that it should not draw any adverse inference against the Registrant by reason of her non-attendance.
Hearing in Private
4. The HCPC applied for the hearing to be held in private. Ms Brzezina submitted that details of the Registrant’s health condition and its impact on her ability to practise safely and effectively as a social worker were inextricably linked. She contended that it was impractical to move the hearing from public to private session and back in the particular circumstances of this case. The Panel received advice from the Legal Assessor and was reminded of the HCPC Practice Note on ‘Holding Hearings in Private.’ The Panel is satisfied that it is necessary and proportionate to depart from the presumption that hearings concerning a Registrant’s fitness to practise should be heard in public. The Panel is further satisfied that it is appropriate to conduct the whole of this review hearing in private.
5. The Registrant was employed by Leicestershire County Council (“the Council”) as a Social Worker from 31 May 2000 to 7 March 2014. She worked as a Level 3 Social Worker in the Adult and Communities Department in the Council’s Community Mental Health Team. Her main responsibilities were undertaking assessments under the Community Care Act and carrying out eligibility assessments in order to determine access to services for adults with mental health problems in the Department’s care. In addition, the Registrant was required to complete comprehensive risk assessments, identify safeguarding concerns and undertake safeguarding investigations. The Registrant was also required to ensure that accurate records were kept of the work which she carried out.
6. The Registrant was diagnosed with a health condition in 1998 when she was a university student. Throughout her employment with the Council, the Registrant had the benefit of reasonable adjustments which had been put in place by the Council to mitigate the effects of her health condition on the work that she was required to undertake. These adjustments included the provision of administrative and technological support.
7. The Council had concerns about the Registrant’s capability. In February 2013 a new Team Senior was appointed. Those ongoing concerns were set out and informal performance management of the Registrant, under the Council’s Capability Procedure, began in around April 2013. The first hearing at the formal stage of the Capability Procedure took place on 23 May 2013. Shortly after this hearing the Registrant was absent from work until the end of October 2013.
8. On her return to work the Registrant was placed on a formal performance improvement plan. This was reviewed in November 2013; however, the concerns around the Registrant’s practice remained. The Registrant resigned from her employment with the Council in March 2014 and she was referred to the HCPC for consideration of her fitness to practise as a Social Worker.
9. In March 2016 a final hearing of a Health Committee of the HCPC determined that the Registrant’s fitness to practise was impaired by reason of a health condition. The Registrant attended the hearing by telephone. At a resumed hearing on 10 June 2016 that Health Committee panel found that there were a number of key areas of social work practice where the Registrant was not performing to the standard which could properly be expected of her, even taking into account the need for reasonable adjustments in respect of her health condition. The panel identified these key areas as including: written communication; recalling and processing information, including knowledge about safeguarding and other core skills; concentration; exercising consistently sound professional judgments and the effective and timely completion of assessments.
10. The panel had found that the Registrant had developed limited insight into the effect of her health condition on her practice as a Social Worker. It also found that the Registrant had taken only limited steps to develop effective strategies to manage her health condition in the workplace. For these reasons, the panel considered that the Registrant presented a risk to service users and the panel was concerned that there was a risk of reoccurrence of the deficiencies identified in her professional practice.
11. The panel identified this case as one involving serious lapses over a period of time and one where vulnerable service users were affected. It concluded that a Suspension Order was a proportionate response in all the circumstances of this case. Having carefully considered the matter the panel suspended the Registrant’s registration for a period of five months.
12. Before reaching its decision, the Panel read the comprehensive determination of the original panel and carefully considered the additional documents placed before it today. The Panel had regard to the detailed submissions made by Ms Brzezina on behalf of the HCPC and carefully considered the representations made by the Registrant in her email correspondence with the HCPC. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred the Panel to the HCPC Practice Note on ‘Article 30 Reviews.’
13. Ms Brzezina submitted that there was very little evidence of remediation before the Panel. She noted that none of the suggestions made by the previous panel as to how the Registrant could demonstrate current fitness to practise had been acted upon. Accordingly, she submitted that the current Suspension Order ought to be extended for a further period of twelve months. This would allow the Registrant to demonstrate that she had addressed the deficiencies in her practice and learnt how to manage her health condition so that she was capable of safe and effective practice as a Social Worker.
14. In an email to the HCPC, dated 17 October 2016, the Registrant stated that her circumstances had not changed since the final hearing on sanction in June 2016. She advised the HCPC that she had not worked as a Social Worker since her employment with the Council came to an end. She said “there’s nothing to report or nothing to review.” The Registrant also informed the HCPC that she intended to go travelling and would not return until January 2017; therefore she would be unable to attend this review hearing.
15. An email from the Registrant to the HCPC, dated 31 October 2016, contained some further information. The Registrant informed the HCPC that although she had registered with a number of agencies she had not been successful in obtaining work. She asked the Panel to extend her suspension so that when she returned from her travels she could seek work at a lower grade and begin to implement the measures suggested by the original panel.
16. This Panel gives credit to the Registrant for her recognition, in the email correspondence with the HCPC, that she requires further time to undertake the work towards demonstrating her fitness to practise. It considers that this demonstrates some limited further insight by the Registrant. However, in the light of the candid admission by the Registrant that she has not undertaken any of the work suggested to manage her health condition and address the deficiencies in her practice, the Panel has concluded that the risks to service users identified by the previous panel remain and that the Registrant’s fitness to practise remains impaired by reason of her health.
17. The Panel shares the view of the previous panel that the Registrant’s case is a serious one in that the deficiencies in her practice placed vulnerable service users at risk of harm over a prolonged period of time. The Panel has determined that an order remains necessary in this case. A Caution Order would not adequately protect against the risks identified in this case and does not properly reflect the seriousness of the deficiencies in the Registrant’s practice.
18. The Registrant has not worked as a Social Worker since she left her employment with the Council in March 2014. She is not currently employed and apparently intends to travel outside the UK until January 2017. The Panel does not consider that a Conditions of Practice Order would provide the necessary degree of protection to members of the public or to the wider public interest, even if this Panel were able to formulate workable, realistic or measureable conditions. In these circumstances, the Panel does not consider that a Conditions of Practice order is an appropriate sanction.
19. The Panel has therefore determined that a Suspension Order is the appropriate and proportionate order in this case. Such an order reflects the seriousness of the concerns raised in this case, provides the necessary degree of protection to services users and will serve to maintain public confidence in the regulatory process. Importantly, it is the Panel’s view that such a suspension order will also provide a degree of protection to the Registrant as she seeks to return to safe and effective practice.
20. The Panel considers that a Suspension Order for a period of twelve months will give the Registrant the time that she has requested to find work, undertake training and professional development in order to demonstrate that her fitness to practise is no longer impaired.
21. The Panel reiterates that a reviewing panel may be assisted by the following:
(a) The Registrant’s personal attendance;
(b) Evidence that the Registrant is able to use technology and other methods to assist with the management of her health condition;
(c) Evidence that the Registrant is able to apply, in a paid or voluntary work setting, her developing skills in managing her health condition;
(d) Evidence that the Registrant has updated her knowledge of social work legislation and practice particularly in the areas of safeguarding, mental capacity and community care with particular emphasis on the area in which she would like to practise. The Panel reminds the Registrant that formal training courses would provide one method of demonstrating her activity in this regard but it may be the case that she may undertake private study by reading relevant legislation, journal articles etc., she could identify online resources, seek guidance from BASW and produce a reflective piece or learning journal to demonstrate the learning from her study;
(e) Evidence from paid or voluntary work of the Registrant’s ability to operate effectively in the workplace and manage any associated stress and anxiety.
22. The Registrant might wish to consider seeking employment as a Social Work Assistant which does not require registration as a Social Worker but might provide her with a useful opportunity to demonstrate her ability to manage the stresses associated with a return to work, to develop strategies to manage her workload and to show her ability to manage her health condition in the working environment.