Mrs Joanne Forrester

: Social worker

: SW94769

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 14/08/2017 End: 17:00 16/08/2017

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

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Struck off

Allegation

Allegation (as amended at the final hearing):

Whilst registered as a Social Worker and employed by City of Stoke on Trent Council, you:

1. Between 15 May 2014 and 8 May 2015, did not conduct statutory visits within statutory timescales and/or did not record statutory visits in a timely manner, in respect of the following service users:
a) Service User A;
b) Service User B;
c) Service User C;
d) Service User D;
e) Service User E;
f) Service User F;
g) Service User G;
h) Service User H;
i) Service User I;
j) Service User J;
k) Service User K;
l) Service User L;
m) Service User M;
n) Service User O;
o) Service User P;
p) Service User Q;
q) Service User R;
r) Service User S; and
s) Service User T.

2. Did not facilitate a sibling placement for Service User U by the end of March 2014.

3. Did not take appropriate action to ensure that the risks in respect of Service User H were considered by her new placement.

4. In respect of Family M, did not:
a. File with the court and serve a sibling assessment by 19 December 2014 as ordered by the court;
b. File with the court and serve the final evidence and care plans by 14 January 2015 as ordered by the court;
c. Progress assessment discussions with wider family members.

5. The matters described above constitute 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

1. The Registrant, Ms Joanne Forrester, has neither attended this hearing nor been represented at it.

2. The Panel first considered whether the Registrant had been sent a valid notice of hearing.  The conclusion of the Panel was that the letter dated 19 April 2017, addressed to the Registrant at her address as it appears on the HCPC Register, informing her of the date, time and location of the hearing, constituted good notice of the hearing.

3. The Panel then considered the HCPC’s application that the hearing should proceed in the absence of the Registrant.  The Panel heeded the advice it received that a decision to proceed with the hearing in the Registrant’s absence should not be taken lightly.  It also had regard to the factors identified in the HCPTS Practice Note on the topic as being the relevant factors to be considered.  The conclusion of the Panel was that the hearing should proceed in the absence of the Registrant.  The reasons for this decision were as follows:


• The Registrant knew that the hearing was taking place.  Not only was she sent the notice of hearing to which reference has already been made, but the same information was sent on the same date by email.  Furthermore, the hearing bundles (which had the hearing dates both on the cover sheet of the first bundle, and also contained the notice of hearing letter and email) were sent to the Registrant on 26 June 2017.  The letter enclosing the bundles also identified the dates of the hearing.


• As early as 28 March 2017, the Registrant indicated by a completed “Pre Hearing Information Form” that she returned to the HCPC on that date, stating that she was not planning to attend the hearing, and that she did not have a representative.  In the context of this application the Panel asked that the HCPC’s system should be checked to see if there had been any further communication by the Registrant to the HCPC since 28 March 2017.  The Panel was informed that there was no such record.


• It followed from the above that the Panel was satisfied that the Registrant had made a conscious decision not to attend the hearing on the scheduled dates.  Furthermore, there was no suggestion that the Registrant’s decision not to attend was the result of the presently scheduled dates being inconvenient, and there was no application by the Registrant for an adjournment.


• Accordingly, the Panel found that there were no grounds for believing that there would be any greater involvement on the part of the Registrant on a future occasion if the hearing did not proceed.


• The clear public interest was served by the allegations being determined expeditiously.  The witness the HCPC intended to call to give evidence before the Panel was in attendance. The Panel also considered that the Registrant’s own interests would be served by the matter being concluded, and in this respect it noted that by the email to which the form she completed was attached on 28 March 2017, she stated, “I would hope that this matter can be dealt with as a matter of urgency.”


• The factors requiring the hearing to proceed outweighed the absence of the Registrant, necessitating a direction that the hearing should proceed in her absence.

4. The Presenting Officer made an application to amend various aspects of the factual particulars of the allegations made by the HCPC against the Registrant.  The HCPC wrote to the Registrant on 31 January 2017, and again on 12 May 2017, informing her of its intention to make such an application.  In the event, the Presenting Officer made an application that, in some respects, extended beyond the terms of those proposed changes communicated to the Registrant.  In relation to the proposed amendments that had been communicated to the Registrant, the Panel concluded that she had been given proper notice of them and that she had been sent a document that enabled her to identify the service users in respect of whom it was sought to effect changes.  Accordingly, the Registrant had been provided with sufficient information to make a reasoned objection to the proposed amendments had she wished to do so.  However, she did not.  In relation to these elements of the HCPC’s application, the Panel found that the proposed amendments were appropriate in the sense that they accorded with the evidence the HCPC proposed to adduce, that they accorded with the general thrust of the Investigating Committee “case to answer” decision, and that there was no risk of the Registrant being prejudiced by them.  Accordingly, the Panel acceded to the application to amend these elements.

5. So far as the stem of the proposed amended particular 1 was concerned, the Panel agreed that it would be preferable for the ordering of the words to be modified so that it should not be thought that it was being suggested that there was a statutory requirement relating to the recording of visits made, as opposed to the making of the visits.

6. As to the application to amend the particulars in respects that had not been communicated to the Registrant, the proposed changes would be to what became, as a result of the permitted amendments, particular 4.  They would have involved substituting for the contention that the Registrant had failed to file documents, the allegation that she had failed to complete or prepare the documents for others to file.  In the judgement of the Panel it was not possible to conclude that there would be no risk of prejudice to the Registrant if the changes of which she had no advance warning were permitted.  Accordingly, the Panel declined to allow them.


Background

7. The Registrant was first employed by City of Stoke on Trent Council (“the local authority”) in 1996.  Initially she was employed as a care assistant, subsequently working in other roles, including that of social work assistant in 2007.  From late 2012 until the autumn of 2013 she worked in the Children in Care Team 2 as a student social worker.  In October 2013, having very recently qualified, she began work as a social worker during her Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (“ASYE”).

8. Concerns were raised about the Registrant’s work during her ASYE, and as a consequence the period of it was extended.  She failed to pass the ASYE, and subsequently, at her request, she returned to work as a social work assistant.


Decision on Facts

9. Apart from the evidence of a witness who was not called to give oral evidence, and whose evidence was restricted to an explanation that certain records had been requested from the local authority, the HCPC relied upon the evidence of a single witness.  That witness was Ms KB, a Social Worker and Practice Manager in the local authority’s Children in Care Team 2.  Ms KB gave evidence before the Panel.  She had close contact with the Registrant, and along with the Principal Manager of the team, she supervised the Registrant.  In addition to the evidence of Ms KB, the HCPC relied upon an exhibits bundle of some 1,476 pages that included documents such as the case records relating to service users.

10. When the Panel began its determination on the facts it began by making a general assessment of Ms KB as a witness.  The Panel found Ms KB to be a most impressive witness.  She was knowledgeable about social work matters generally, as well as having a real knowledge of the circumstances of the relevant service users.  She was fair in her evidence concerning the Registrant and had clearly tried to support her.  The Panel found her to be an entirely credible witness upon whose evidence it could safely rely.

Particulars 1(a) to (s).

11. As is clear from the wording of the stem of this particular, it is concerned with the making and recording of statutory visits.  In relation to each of the sub-particulars the Panel has considered both the written and oral evidence of Ms KB, and it has also made reference to the case records included in the extensive exhibits bundle.  To record in this written determination the dates and page references for each relevant event would result in a document of excessive length.  Rather, the Panel proposes to summarise its conclusions as concisely as possible, indicating where there is some unusual feature concerning the case of a particular service user.  A feature common to all of the relevant service users was that there was an obligation to make statutory visits.  For many, the statutory requirement was to visit six-weekly, but in some of the relevant instances the requirement was to visit more frequently.

12. With regard to Service Users A to F inclusive (particulars 1(a) to (f)), the Panel finds that there were no recorded outcomes of any statutory visits made.

13. With regard to Service User G (particular 1(g)), visits were made and recorded, but having been made on 2 July 2014 and 28 August 2014, the interval between them exceeded the permitted statutory period of six weeks.

14. With regard to Service User H (particular 1(h)), there is no visit recorded.

15. With regard to Service Users I (particular (1(i)), no visit was recorded between 6 August 2014 and 6 November 2014.

16. With regard to Service User J (particular 1(j)), the case was allocated to the Registrant on 16 July 2014, but the first recorded visit was not made until 12 September 2014, a delay that exceeded the requirement to visit six weekly.

17. With regard to Service User K (particular 1(k)), no visits were recorded between 30 July 2014, and 29 October 2014.

18. With regard to Service User L and Service User M (particulars 1(l) & (m)), there is an absence of recorded visits to these siblings.

19. With regard to Service User O (particular 1(n)), a statutory visit that was required to take place no later than 27 February 2015, was not made until 4 March 2015.

20. Service User P and Service User Q (particulars 1(o) &(p)) were siblings who were both subject to Care Orders.  They were returned to their home on 6 August 2014.  That change of circumstances required a visit to be made within a week, i.e. by 13 August 2014, yet a visit was not made until 8 September 2014.  Thereafter, it was agreed on 12 September 2014 that the Registrant and a Social Work Assistant would visit on alternate weeks, but there is no record of those visits having taken place.  On 30 September 2014 the agreement for weekly meetings was changed, as monthly meetings were then considered to be appropriate, yet none is recorded until 21 November 2014, followed by a visit on 9 January 2015.

21. With regard to Service User R (particular 1(q)), in respect of a number of periods the intervals between recorded visits exceeded the six weekly visiting requirement.

22. With regard to Service User S (particular 1(r)), visits were recorded but on two occasions they were undertaken approximately a week after they should have been.

23. With regard to Service Use T (particular 1(s)), a visit that was made on 5 May 2015 was not recorded until 12 May 2015.  Although there are clear statutory requirements as to the frequency with which statutory visits are required, it is not suggested that there is any statutory requirement as to the period within which a statutory visit must be recorded.  The local authority’s requirements as to the timeliness of making records were put in evidence before the Panel, but Ms KB very fairly said in evidence that these requirements were regarded as guidelines rather than absolute requirements.  Whilst accepting the general proposition that all case records should be made as soon as reasonably practicable, the Panel does not feel able to conclude on the basis of all the information it has, and in the absence of information about other pressures on the Registrant’s caseload at the time, that the delay in this instance was sufficiently not long to be regarded as “untimely”.  Accordingly, particular 1(s) is not proven.

24. The Panel has considered whether, in respect of the service users with regard to whom there is an absence of recorded visits, it would be appropriate to conclude that the visits had not taken place.  The Panel acknowledges that the absence of a record of something as important as a statutory visit could justify the inference being drawn that the reason for the absence was that the visit simply did not take place.  However, the evidence of Ms KB was that with regard to some (but not all) of the relevant service users, she believed that the issue was one of a failure on the part of the Registrant to record rather than a failure to visit.  The Panel accepted her evidence in this regard, finding that she had a good understanding of the extent to, and respects in, which the Registrant was falling short in her practice.  Ms KB also had a good understanding of the extent to which a failure to visit (as opposed to record visits actually made) would go unnoticed.  As already stated, it was not with regard to all of the cases with absent records that Ms KB suspected that visits had taken place.  However, the Panel, having accepted Ms KB’s evidence in this regard in relation to some of the service users, does not find that the HCPC has discharged the burden of proving in relation to the particulars in respect of which that there was an absence of recorded visits, that the visits did not take place.  It is stressed that this is a factor that only applies to those cases where there is an absence of recorded visits.  The reason why it does not apply to those cases where visits are recorded, but where there is an excessively long interval between them, is that if a visit had taken place between those recorded, the consequence would be that the Registrant was visiting more frequently than required, a proposition the Panel finds to be inherently unlikely in the light of the evidence as a whole.

25. The consequence of these findings is that the Panel finds all of the sub-particulars of particular 1 to be proved with the exception of 1(s).  For the reasons explained in the immediately preceding paragraph, the findings represent a mixture of findings that visits were not made and findings that visits were made but not recorded.

Particular 2.

26. Service User U was subject to a care order.  She had originally been in a foster placement with her brother and sister.  On different occasions both her brother and sister were moved out of the placement, and in due course the local authority had concerns about the level of care that was being provided to Service User U.  A care planning meeting was held on 13 March 2014 at which it was decided that an alternative placement would be sought for Service User U, and that there should be further conversations regarding a sibling placement to enable Service User U to be placed with one of her siblings.  The Panel accepts the evidence presented by the HCPC that, the decision having been taken that the sibling placement should be considered, the Registrant should have begun work immediately.  In fact by 27 March 2014 she had done nothing.  The Panel finds particular 2 proven.

Particular 3.

27. This particular concerns Service User H, who is also the subject of particular 1(h).  There were concerns that an older male had sexually exploited Service User H, and she also had a history of absconding.  A decision was made to move her out of the local area as a matter of urgency.  The HCPC’s case against the Registrant is that she had an obligation to ensure that the new placement at a Residential Unit knew of the risks to which the service user was exposed, and, in particular, the risks arising from a return by Service User H to her home area.  The HCPC’s case against the Registrant that she did not inform the new placement of the risks is founded upon the fact that Service User U was permitted to return to the local area and that during this visit she absconded and made contact with the person who was suspected of abusing her.

28. The Panel has not been presented with any direct evidence of what the Registrant did or did not advise the new Residential Unit about Service User H and her circumstances.  However, the Panel considers it to be inconceivable that the Residential Unit would not have known of the fears of sexual exploitation, and there is clearly documented evidence that they did know about her history of absconding.  As to the occasion when she was allowed to return to her local area, the service user’s case records disclose that this was arranged on 13 April 2014 when the Manager of the Residential Unit telephoned the local authority to ask if the service user was to be permitted to attend her aunt’s funeral in the local area the following day.  It is clear from the case record that the Registrant was on annual leave on 13 April 2014, and another Social Worker discussed the matter with a local authority Principal Manager.  This Social Worker consented to the service user attending the funeral provided that two workers accompanied her.  There was specific mention of the fact that this would be the service user’s first return to then local area and that she was a potential flight risk.

29. In these circumstances the Panel does not feel able to conclude that the return of Service User H in order for her to attend the funeral occurred in circumstances where any of the supervising parties were ignorant of the risk factors, the alleged non-appreciation of which by the Residential Unit lie at the heart of the HCPC’s case.  It follows that the Panel does not consider that it is legitimate to draw an inference that the Registrant did not communicate the risk factors to the Residential Unit.  For these reasons particular 3 is not proven.

Particular 4(a), (b) & (c).

30. Family M consisted of four children, all of whom were subject to care proceedings.  A court ordered a sibling assessment to inform the care plan for all the children.  The Registrant was required to complete the assessment so that it could be filed with the court by 19 December 2014.  In the event, the Registrant did not complete the assessment until 5 January 2015.  The court also ordered that other evidence, including care plans for Family M, should be filed by 14 January 2015.  The Registrant did not provide Ms KB with the care plans she had prepared until the day on which they were required to be filed, namely 14 January 2015, and they then required amendment.  In the event they were not filed until 19 January 2015.

31. The clear evidence before the Panel is that, although the Registrant had the obligation to prepare the documents it was necessary to file, the responsibility for the filing with the court was not hers, it being something that would be done by the local authority’s legal department.  On this basis, while accepting the evidence as to the Registrant’s delay in preparing the documents, the Panel finds that neither particular 4(a) nor particular 4(b) to be proven.

32. The court proceedings in which the directions relating to the filing of documents were made commenced in about October 2014, and an additional obligation of the Registrant as part of those proceedings was to ascertain whether anyone in the children’s family would be in a position to care for them.  Despite being chased to do this, the Registrant did not have these discussions until late December 2014.  Accordingly, the Panel finds that particular 4(c), which alleges that she failed to progress assessment discussions with wider family members, is proven.

Decision on Grounds

33. The task for the Panel is to consider whether the established facts, namely 1(a) to 1(r) inclusive, 2 and 4(c) constitute misconduct or demonstrate a lack of competence.

34. Before turning to consider each of the statutory grounds, the Panel should state that these were very serious failings.  All of the service users involved were vulnerable children in need who could be at risk of harm.  The failure to visit them with the required frequency, or visiting them and not recording the visits, exposed them to the risk that harm would not be identified and addressed.  The failings with regard to Service User U in particular 2 jeopardised a speedy appropriate placement for her with a sibling, and particular 4(c) similarly created the risk that appropriate placements would not be found or, at best, delayed.

35. The Panel finds that by her actions the Registrant breached a number of the obligations imposed on her by the HCPC’s Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics, in particular, Standard 1 (“You must act in the best interests of service users”), Standard 7 (“You must communicate properly and effectively with service users and other practitioners”), and Standard 10 (“You must keep accurate records”).  Furthermore, the Registrant failed to perform in a manner that accorded with the requirements of the HCPC’s Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers in England.

36. Mention has already been made of the fact that at the time the Registrant was newly qualified and struggling in her ASYE.  It is possible to imagine circumstances where these facts might lead to a finding of lack of competence.  However, there are other factors that are relevant to the Panel’s consideration of the statutory grounds.  The failures were not related to complicated or unusual social work activities.  Further, the Panel finds that the support and supervision the Registrant received during the relevant period was excellent, and if (contrary to the Panel’s view that the activities required were neither complicated nor unusual) she could have asked for, and would have received, appropriate assistance.  Again, the failings were neither isolated nor confined to a limited period; they were repeated and extended over a lengthy period, and they occurred during a period when the Registrant was being repeatedly reminded that there were outstanding tasks which she was required to complete.  All of these factors have resulted in the Panel concluding that the facts should properly be considered to be misconduct and not resulting from a lack of competence.


Decision on Impairment

37. It is necessary for the Panel to consider whether the misconduct found by the Panel is currently impairing the Registrant’s fitness to practise.

38. It is clear that the Registrant’s fitness to practise was impaired in the period when the identified shortcomings occurred, namely between May 2014 and May 2015.  However, to decide if her fitness to practise is impaired at the present time it is necessary to consider other factors.  The Registrant’s engagement in this fitness to practise process has been minimal, she has made no admissions, expressed no remorse, and therefore shown no insight.  Further, the Panel accepts the evidence of Ms KB that during the period she was supervising and supporting the Registrant, although the latter would acknowledge that she had not undertaken required tasks, there was an apparent lack of appreciation of the potential consequences of her failure to undertake them.  All of these factors lead the Panel to conclude that there is a very significant risk of recurrence.  In the judgment of the Panel a finding that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired upon consideration of the personal component is justified.

39. The Panel is also satisfied that a finding of current impairment of fitness to practise is required in the wider public interest.  It is necessary to declare and uphold proper professional standards and to remind other Social Workers who might otherwise fail to discharge their duties that such matters are taken seriously by their regulator.  Furthermore, the Panel is satisfied that fully informed and fair-minded members of the public would be dismayed by the prospect of the Registrant being permitted to return to unrestricted practise as a Social Worker.

40. The consequence of the findings that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired by reason of misconduct is that the Panel must go on to consider the issue of sanction.


Decision on Sanction

41. After announcing its decision on the allegation the Panel sat in public to receive the submissions of the Presenting Officer on the issue of sanction.

42. The Presenting Officer identified those factors of the Panel’s decision on the allegation that she submitted demonstrated the seriousness of the case.  The Presenting Officer also urged the Panel to have regard to the HCPC’s Indicative Sanctions Policy in reaching its decision.  She did not, however, submit that the Panel should impose any particular sanction.

43. The Panel has accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor as to the proper approach to the decision on sanction.  A sanction must not be imposed to punish a registrant against whom a finding has been made.  Rather, a sanction is only to be imposed to the extent that it is required to protect the public (including potential service users) and to maintain a proper degree of confidence in the regulated profession and the regulatory process.  A Panel must first consider whether its finding that the registrant’s fitness to practise is impaired by reason of misconduct necessitates the imposition of any sanction.  If a sanction is required, then the available sanctions must be considered in an ascending order of seriousness until one that offers sufficient protection and ensures proper confidence is reached.

44. The Panel does not consider that it is necessary to repeat what has already been said about the seriousness of the findings it has made.  Vulnerable children in need were exposed to the risk of harm by the Registrant’s shortcomings.  The reputational damage to herself, her profession and that of the local authority is also a factor to be remembered.  The Panel does, however, consider that fairness to the Registrant requires it to acknowledge that she volunteered to return to a non-qualified role following the period covered by the Panel’s findings.

45. The Panel is of the clear view that the findings against the Registrant require the imposition of a sanction.  The risk of repetition is high, and the potential consequences of repetition are grave.  The public would expect action to be taken.  The same factors result in a Caution Order being an inadequate sanction response.

46. The Panel next considered whether a Conditions of Practice Order would be inappropriate.  In the judgement of the Panel there are three factors why such an order would not be appropriate.  First, the shortcomings proved were too wide-ranging for it to be possible to identify discrete issues that could be addressed by appropriately crafted conditions.  Secondly, for conditions of practice to be appropriate there would need to be confidence that there would be co-operation in their implementation, and the Registrant’s very limited engagement in this process would not permit such co nfidence to be held.  Finally, the fact that shortcomings continued despite the excellent support and supervision offered to the Registrant during her employment as a Social Worker, offers no reassurance that conditions of practice would result in safe and effective performance.

47.It follows that the Panel was required to consider the making of a suspension order.  In the Panel’s judgement the risks presented by the Registrant make it necessary to prohibit her from practising unless and until there could be confidence that the level of risk is reduced.  A Suspension Order would, of course, provide public protection for the duration of the order.  However, without the underlying problems being addressed the risks presented by the Registrant would be just as great at the end of any period of suspension without positive steps being taken by her to address her failings.  There has been no suggestion by the Registrant that she is minded to remedy the shortcomings, and, in the absence of such an indication, it is inappropriate for the Panel to assess the likelihood that she would be successful in doing so.  The result of these findings is that the Panel has concluded that in this particular case the making of a Suspension Order is not appropriate.

48. Having excluded all other possible sanction outcomes, the Panel has arrived at the conclusion that a striking-off order should be made.  This is not a conclusion to which the Panel has been reluctantly led by the exclusion of all other possible outcomes because in the judgement of the Panel it is the appropriate sanction in a case of this seriousness where there is no intention to remedy the identified failings.

 

Order

The Registrar is directed to strike the name of Joanne Forrester from the Register on the date this order comes into effect. 


Notes

The order imposed today will apply from 13 September 2017 (the operative date)  

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Mrs Joanne Forrester

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
14/08/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Struck off