Natalie S Doran

: Social worker

: SW99283

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 30/05/2017 End: 17:00 01/06/2017

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

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Impaired - no further action

Allegation

During the course of your employment as a Social Worker at Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council:


1. Between approximately 13 October 2015 and 29 March 2016, you accessed records on the Integrated Children’s Services (ICS) system in relation to:


a) Service User A
b) Service User B
c) Service User C


2. The access referred to at paragraphs 1(a) and/or 1(b) and/or 1(c) breached confidentiality in that you did not have a work-related reason to access the records.


3. You did not report the safeguarding concerns that you had in relation to Service Users B and C.


4. The matters described at paragraphs 1 and 2 amount to misconduct.


5. The matters described in paragraph 3 amount to misconduct and/ or lack of competence.


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

Finding

Preliminary matters

Application to amend the Allegation

1. The HCPC made an application to amend the particulars of the allegation as notified to the Registrant on 10 November 2016. The HCPC submitted that the proposed amendments clarified the HCPC’s case in accordance with the evidence and that there would be no prejudice or unfairness to the Registrant in making the amendments. The Registrant raised no objection to the amendments.

2. The Panel decided that no prejudice or unfairness would arise and granted the amendment application.

3. Two typographical errors were corrected at the Panel’s suggestion.

Hearing matters in private

4. The Panel considered whether to hold the hearing partly in private because the case raised issues concerning the Registrant’s health and private life. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel decided that it was necessary to hold the hearing partly in private, so as to protect the Registrant’s private life.

Background


5. The Registrant was employed as a Social Worker by Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council (TMBC) from 12 October 2015.


6. On 15 April 2016, Service User A made a verbal complaint to the TMBC stating that the Registrant had accessed her information through TMBC’s case recording system (ICS) in order to find out where Service User A lived. Service User A stated that the Registrant had done this in order to seek payment of money owed. Service User A had been a tenant of a property belonging to the Registrant, from October 2014 until evicted on 23 February 2016.


7. In response, the TMBC ICT department was contacted and there was evidence that the Registrant had accessed the files of Service User A and her two children, Service Users B and C, despite the fact that their cases were not open to the Registrant or her team. This evidence was provided to the Investigating Officer.


8. When this was raised with the Registrant, she said that she had accessed the records because she was considering whether to make a safeguarding referral. However, no safeguarding referral was made by the Registrant in respect of Service Users B and C.


9. The Panel heard oral evidence from the HCPC witness JT (Safeguarding Service Manager employed by TMBC) who acted as the Investigating Officer. The Panel found JT to be balanced, reliable and credible, after testing her evidence at the hearing.


10. The Panel heard oral evidence from the Registrant and considered her to be honest and credible. Her evidence, both written and oral, was consistent throughout, including under robust questioning both in cross examination and by the Panel. Furthermore, the Registrant did not seek to excuse her actions and omissions and accepted throughout her evidence that they were wrong.

11. The Panel also considered all the written material before it.


12. The HCPC submitted that there was no work related reason for the Registrant to access the records of Service Users A, B and C. The HCPC submitted that the Registrant accessed the ICS system because she wished to obtain up to date information concerning the whereabouts of Service User A and that this was supported by the fact that the Registrant had contacted other agencies to obtain up to date contact details. The Registrant’s explanation during the TMBC investigation was that she had only accessed the records because she had safeguarding concerns in respect of Service Users B and C. The HCPC submitted that if that were the case, then she had a responsibility to report the safeguarding concerns to the appropriate service.


13. The Registrant stated that she had not accessed the ICS system in order to obtain the address of Service User A. The Registrant stated that she already had two addresses from court documents dated June 2015. She sent a letter, relating to post eviction matters, to each of these addresses, and to ‘Housing’, to be forwarded to Service User A. She stated that she would not have needed to obtain a current address from ICS.


14. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor that the burden of proof is upon the HCPC on the civil ‘balance of probabilities’, in relation to findings of fact. Whether any proved facts in this case amount to the statutory grounds of misconduct or lack of competence and the issue of current impairment, are not matters which need to be ‘proved’. They are matters of judgement for the Panel.


15. The Panel considered sequentially, whether;
i. the factual particulars are proved;
ii. the proved facts amount to misconduct and/or lack of competence; and if so,
iii. the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired.

Decision on Facts

Particular 1

16. The Registrant admits particulars 1a, 1b and 1c. The Panel finds these particulars proved based upon the TMBC audit of the ICS system, the evidence of JT and the Registrant’s admissions. The ICS audit shows that the Registrant accessed the system: in respect of Service User A, on 13 October 2015, 23 February 2016, and seven occasions in March 2016; in respect of Service User B, on 13 October 2015, 23 February 2016, and three occasions in March 2016; in respect of Service User C, on 13 October 2015 and four occasions in March 2016.

17. The Panel finds particular 1 proved in its entirety.

Particular 2

18. The Registrant admits particular 2. On 01 December 2015, the Registrant had signed the TMBC Security Policy which states at paragraph 8.2: You must not misuse the Council’s Systems by accessing information which you are not authorised to view or use…

19.  The Panel noted that when the Registrant first accessed the ICS system in October 2015, she already knew that Service User A was living in her property so evidently would not have needed to obtain her address through ICS.

20. The Panel accepted the Registrant’s evidence that in February and March 2016 she did not use ICS to obtain the address of Service User A because she had used other means of sending a letter to her.

21. The Panel accepted the Registrant’s explanation that she did not access ICS between October 2015 and February 2016 because she had been reassured by the records that the initial safeguarding concerns in October 2015 had been investigated appropriately.

22. The Panel is satisfied that the Registrant had initial concerns about the children in October 2015 and again after the eviction of Service User A from her flat on 23 February 2016; and that she was not looking for the address of Service User A when she accessed the system.

23. In the Panel’s view, the Registrant’s motive related to safeguarding issues, not the property dispute with Service User A. However, the Panel concluded that the Registrant had no work related reason to access the information relating to Service Users A, B and C as she worked in a different team with no professional responsibility for Service Users A, B and C on these occasions. The accessing of these records breached confidentiality.

24. The Panel finds particular 2 proved in its entirety.

Particular 3

25. The Registrant admits particular 3. The Registrant did not report her safeguarding concerns in respect of Service Users B and C, although she was well aware of the reporting procedures.

26. The Panel accepts the Registrant’s evidence that, on 13 October 2015, when she first accessed the ICS system, she identified that a social worker had visited the home and that this social worker was satisfied as to the well-being of the children (Service Users B and C). There was no further access of the ICS system by the Registrant until February 2016.

27. The Panel further accepts that, following the eviction of Service User A from the tenancy of the Registrant’s flat on 23 February 2016, when the Registrant had renewed concerns about the children, she did not report these as she identified that a social work assessment was underway. She continued to monitor the ICS system until 29 March 2016 when she identified that the matter had been escalated following that assessment.

28. The Panel finds particular 3 proved in its entirety.

Decision on Grounds


29. The Panel noted the submissions of the HCPC and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor.
30. Misconduct is a word of general effect, involving some serious act or omission which falls short of what would be proper in the circumstances. The standard of propriety may often be found by reference to the rules and standards ordinarily required to be followed by a practitioner in the particular circumstances. The period of the allegation in this case spanned two editions of the HCPC Standards of conduct, performance, and ethics.


31. Under the HCPC Standards of conduct, performance and ethics (2012 edition), Registrants are required to comply with the following standards:
1 - You must act in the best interests of service users.
2 - You must respect the confidentiality of service users.
13 - You must behave with honesty and integrity and make sure that your behaviour does not damage the public’s confidence in you or your profession.
32. Under the HCPC Standards of conduct, performance and ethics (2016 edition), Registrants are required to comply with the following standards:
5.1 - You must treat information about service users as confidential.
7.1 - You must report any concerns about the safety or well-being of service users promptly and appropriately.
7.3 - You must take appropriate action if you have concerns about the safety or well-being of children or vulnerable adults.

7.4 - You must make sure that the safety and well-being of service users always comes before any professional or other loyalties.

33. In respect of particulars 1 and 2, the Panel finds that the allegation of misconduct arising from those proved factual particulars is well founded, because the Registrant’s behaviour was sufficiently serious to amount to misconduct. The Panel is satisfied that there was a serious falling short of the standards to be expected of a Social Worker. Maintaining the confidentiality of sensitive records is a fundamental responsibility of a Social Worker and the following HCPC standards of conduct, performance and ethics were breached by the Registrant: (2012) Standards 2 and 13, (2016) Standard 5.1.

34. In respect of particular 3, the Panel finds that the allegation of misconduct arising from this proved factual particular is well founded. The Registrant had a responsibility to report her safeguarding concerns and did not do so. Service Users B and C were potentially put at risk of harm by the Registrant’s failure to report her concerns. This represents a serious falling short of the standards to be expected of a Social Worker. The following HCPC Standards of conduct, performance and ethics were breached by her: (2012) Standards 1 and 13 and (2016) Standards 6.1, 7.1, 7.3 and 7.4.

35. A lack of competence connotes a standard of professional performance which is unacceptably low and which (save in exceptional circumstances) has been demonstrated by reference to a fair sample of work. The Panel is satisfied that the Registrant had the appropriate knowledge and competence in respect of safeguarding, based upon her experience working in social care. As regards particular 3 this is not a fair sample of her work. Her conduct, giving rise to particular 3, does not arise from a lack of competence.

Decision on Impairment


36. The Panel considered the Practice Note on “Finding that Fitness to Practise is Impaired”. In determining whether fitness to practise is impaired, panels must take account of a range of issues which, in essence, comprise two components:

i. the ‘personal’ component: the current competence, behaviour etc. of the individual registrant; and
ii. the ‘public’ component: the need to protect service users, declare and uphold proper standards of behaviour and maintain public confidence in the profession.

37. The HCPC submitted that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired on both the public and the personal components.

38. The Panel first considered the personal component. It took into account the submissions of the HCPC and the Registrant and the particular circumstances surrounding the Registrant’s behaviour during that period.

39. The Registrant has engaged with the HCPC proceedings and has attended the hearing. She made full admissions during the initial investigation by TMBC and at this hearing. The Panel was impressed by her honesty when giving her evidence. The Registrant clearly expressed her understanding that her acts and omissions were wrong and did not seek to excuse them; she apologised to both TMBC and the Panel in her oral evidence. In the Panel’s view, the Registrant has demonstrated significant insight into her behaviour and the implications of it.

40. The Panel, in considering whether her fitness to practise is currently impaired, took into account the very difficult circumstances which the Registrant was experiencing during the relevant period. The Panel heard about the difficulties in the landlord/tenant relationship between the Registrant and Service User A which had resulted in numerous court proceedings and a number of serious and false allegations made to the police by Service User A against the Registrant.

41. The Panel heard in private about the significant impact of these matters on the Registrant’s own health and that of her family, which included her father who was himself seriously ill at the time.

42. The Panel accepted the Registrant’s explanation that the consequence of all of these circumstances was that her judgement was impaired. The Panel also accepted that she was fearful of further repercussions from Service User A if she reported her safeguarding concerns.

43. Taking all the above into account, the Panel has concluded that the Registrant is not impaired on the personal component. These were exceptional and particular circumstances in an otherwise unblemished career in social care. The Registrant has insight into her misconduct, is unlikely to repeat it and, in the Panel’s view, does not present a risk to service users in the future.

44. The Panel then considered the public component and took into account the critically important public policy issues. In respect of the public interest the following guidance was provided in the case of CHRE v NMC and Grant [2011] EWHC 927. In determining whether a practitioner’s fitness to practise is impaired by reason of misconduct, the relevant panel should generally consider…whether the need to uphold proper professional standards and public confidence in the profession would be undermined if a finding of impairment was not made.

45. The Registrant repeatedly accessed ICS records without a work related reason for doing so and did not report safeguarding concerns in respect of two children. These acts and omissions represent breaches of fundamental tenets of the social work profession. In order to declare and uphold proper professional standards and to maintain public confidence in the profession and the regulator, in the Panel’s judgement, a finding of current impairment is required on the public component.

46. The Panel finds that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired.

Decision on Sanction


47. The Panel heard submissions from Miss Sheridan on behalf of the HCPC. She submitted that paragraph 6 of the HCPC Indicative Sanctions Policy 2017 (ISP) was relevant. She identified that the mitigating factors were the Registrant’s significant insight and remorse. She submitted that an aggravating factor was the potential risk of harm to Service Users B and C which the Panel may think was sufficient to warrant a sanction.

48. The Panel also heard submissions from the Registrant. The Panel has had the advantage of hearing the Registrant’s evidence and assessing her demeanour when giving that evidence. It took account of that evidence in relation to mitigation, which it accepted.

49. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and considered the guidance provided in the ISP.

50. In deciding what, if any, sanction to impose under Article 29 of the Health and Social Work Professions Order 2001, the Panel had regard to the principle of proportionality and the need to balance the interests of the public with those of the Registrant.

51. The Panel considered in ascending order, what, if any, sanction to impose.

52. The Panel has identified in its decision on impairment that there is no risk of recurrence of the misconduct and that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired on the public component only. The Panel identified the aggravating factors in this case to be the serious nature of the misconduct found, and the potential risk of harm to Service Users B and C by the Registrant’s inaction in not reporting her concerns.

53. The Panel considered the mitigating factors in this case to be considerable:

• the Registrant made early and full admissions;
• the Registrant has engaged with the regulatory process;
• the Registrant has a previously unblemished career and no previous concerns have been raised with the HCPC;
• the Registrant has shown remorse;
• the Registrant has shown significant insight into her behaviour;
• this was a discrete episode involving one family;
• there were significant and difficult personal circumstances experienced by the Registrant during this time;
• the particular circumstances made the Registrant fearful of making a safeguarding report;
• all the circumstances above impacted adversely on the Registrant’s judgement.

54. The Panel first considered taking no action. It noted paragraph 8 of the ISP which states:
Even if a Panel has determined that fitness to practise is impaired, it is not obliged to impose a sanction. This is likely to be an exceptional outcome but, for example, may be appropriate in cases where a finding of impairment has been reached on the wider public interest grounds identified above but where the registrant has insight, has already taken remedial action and there is no risk of repetition.

55. In the Panel’s view this is an exceptional case for the following reasons:

i. the Registrant entered a landlord/tenant relationship with Service User A in October 2014. Within a short time difficulties arose, and by February 2015 the relationship had deteriorated to such an extent that the Registrant initiated legal proceedings to recover money owed from Service User A;
ii. during 2015, Service User A made numerous false allegations to the police against the Registrant. For example, Service User A alleged that the Registrant had verbally assaulted one of Service User A’s young children in the street, when in fact the Registrant was in a meeting with her supervisor at the relevant time;
iii. the Registrant was fearful of repercussions from Service User A in the form of further false allegations should she make a safeguarding referral in respect of Service User A’s children;
iv. the Registrant’s motivation in breaching confidentiality by accessing the records of Service Users A, B and C was to check that steps were being taken by TMBC to safeguard the children;
v. all the circumstances had a significant impact on the Registrant’s ability to make proper judgements.

56. The Panel reminded itself of paragraph 8 of the ISP guidance. The Panel has already found that the Registrant’s impairment relates only to the public component. The Panel has identified that the Registrant has significant insight, accepted responsibility for her behaviour, demonstrated remorse and that there is no risk of repetition. 

57. In relation to remediation, the Panel is confident that the Registrant has fully reflected on her actions and omissions, accepted that those actions and omissions were wrong and has taken full responsibility for them. She explained to the Panel what she would do differently if she found herself in a similar set of circumstances. This included taking time off work if appropriate to deal with health related or personal matters, talking to her employer and making safeguarding referrals at the first opportunity.

58. The Panel is satisfied that imposing no sanction is the appropriate and proportionate outcome. However, it is mindful that it is good practice to consider the next available sanction. In this case, the Panel considered whether a Caution Order would be appropriate. In this regard, the Panel took account of paragraph 28 of the ISP, which states:

A caution order is an appropriate sanction for cases, where the lapse is isolated, limited or relatively minor in nature, there is a low risk of recurrence, the registrant has shown insight and taken appropriate remedial action.

It also took account of paragraph 9, in respect of proportionality which states:

In deciding what, if any, sanction to impose, Panels should apply the principle of proportionality, considering whether the chosen sanction:

• is an appropriate exercise of the Panel’s powers;
• is a suitable means of attaining the degree of public protection identified by the Panel;
• takes account of the wider public interest, such as maintaining public confidence in the profession;
• is the least restrictive means of attaining that degree of public protection;
• is proportionate in the strict sense and strikes a proper balance between the protection of the public and the rights of the registrant.

59. In exercising its judgement as to whether no sanction or a Caution Order was the appropriate decision, the Panel considered that a finding of impairment is a serious finding in itself. A member of the public in full possession of the facts would, in this case, continue to have trust and confidence in the profession and the regulatory process. In addition, a finding of impairment in this case is sufficient to declare and uphold proper standards of conduct and behaviour.  As the Panel has found that there is no significant future risk of harm to service users or the public, the imposition of a Caution Order on the Registrant, where she has shown insight, remediation and remorse (as described in paragraph 8 of the ISP) would be too punitive in its effect.

60. In the Panel’s view, a Caution Order would be disproportionate in the circumstances. The Panel considers that imposing no sanction is the appropriate and proportionate outcome in the particular circumstances of this case.

Order

No information currently available

Notes

 

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Natalie S Doran

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
30/05/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Impaired - no further action