Catherine Ruth Holmes

: Social worker

: SW79665

: Final Hearing

Date and Time of hearing:10:00 18/09/2017 End: 17:00 20/09/2017

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

: Conduct and Competence Committee
: Struck off

Allegation

Between October 2013 and September 2015, whilst registered as a Social

Worker and employed by Coventry University, you:

1. Did not disclose to Warwickshire County Council (WCC) information

about Person A, who was subject to a police investigation, in that:

a. In October 2013, you withheld information about where Person A was

staying;

b. In April 2015, you withheld information about the nature of your

relationship with Mr X;

c. You did not advise WCC that you knew the identity of Person A's new

partner, who had children;

d. You did not advise WCC that Person A could have had contact with his

new partner's children.

2. In or around July 2015, breached Mr X's confidentiality, by disclosing to

your daughter and/or nephew that Mr X had provided the name of Person

A's new partner to WCC.

3. Your actions described in paragraph 1 were dishonest.

4. The matters described in paragraphs 1 - 3 constitute misconduct.

5. By reason of your misconduct, your fitness to practise is impaired.

Finding

1. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor regarding service. The Notice of Hearing dated 13 June 2017 was sent to the Registrant’s registered address by first class on that date. The Panel is satisfied that there has been good service of the Notice of Hearing.
 
Proceeding in Absence

2. The Panel heard submissions from Ms Hastie on behalf of the HCPC that the Panel should proceed in the Registrant’s absence. The Panel heard advice from the Legal Assessor who referred to the cases of R v Jones [2002] UKHL 5 and GMC v Adeogba [2016] EWCA Civ 162. The Panel also took into account the HCPC’s Practice Note entitled “Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant”.

3. The Panel was aware that the discretion to proceed in absence is one which must be exercised with the utmost care and caution. The Panel considered the Pre Hearing Information Form, submitted on 16 May 2017, in which the Registrant has stated:

“Neither I, nor a representative will be attending any planned hearing, so please feel free to continue the proceedings in my absence…”   

4. The Panel concluded that the Registrant has waived her right to attend this hearing and that she wishes it to proceed in her absence. While the Registrant is facing serious allegations of dishonesty, and there is a disadvantage to her in proceeding in her absence, this must be weighed in the balance with her intention not to attend. Another aspect is the public interest that this hearing be concluded expeditiously. These allegations are of some age, there are two live witnesses who are in attendance today, and the effect of delay on their memories is to be considered. Taking all these factors into account, the Panel concluded that it was in the interests of justice to proceed today.

Background:

5. The Registrant is a registered Social Worker. At the time of the events giving rise to the Allegation, she was employed as an hourly paid lecturer by Coventry University and she was also employed by Warwickshire County Council (WCC) as a Social Work Practice Educator. On 27 November 2013 the Registrant and her young son were referred to WCC by police as the Registrant’s former partner, Person A, was being investigated in relation to historical sex offences against a minor and possessing indecent images. At the time the Registrant was referred to WCC, she and her son were living at Person A’s property due to flooding at her own property. A Social Worker, Witness 1, was allocated to the Registrant and her son. Concerns arose regarding the withholding, by the Registrant, of certain information related to Person A, and such concerns led to the Allegation being brought against the Registrant. Person A was eventually found guilty at trial and imprisoned.

Decision on Facts

6. The Panel heard live evidence from Witness 1, at the relevant time a Team Manager and Witness 2, Associate Head of School, Coventry University. The Panel also read their witness statements dated 26 July 2016 and 20 July 2016 respectively. The Panel also considered the Registrant’s representations “Points/ corrections made in relation to the Management Case Evidence Document” as well as her investigatory interviews at local level dated 19 October 2015 and 11 November 2015. The Panel took into account all the documentary evidence before it.

7. The Panel heard the submissions of Ms Hastie and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred to the case of R v Ghosh [1982] 1QB 1053, CA and Fabiyi v NMC [2012] EWHC 1441 (Admin).

8. The Panel was aware that the burden of proof rests solely on the HCPC and that the standard of proof is the civil standard, namely the balance of probabilities.

9. The Panel found both Witness 1 and Witness 2 to be straightforward and credible witnesses. Witness 1 was fair and she made clear that she recognised the Registrant had been in a challenging personal situation and she therefore was able to view events in a balanced way. She was a compelling witness in the sense that she gave direct evidence of her interactions with the Registrant. Witness 2 was also a clear and credible witness, however her evidence was mostly limited to being an investigator and she did not have direct involvement in the events which are subject to the charges. As such, her evidence was of more limited use to the Panel at the facts stage.

10. While the Registrant did not give evidence, the Panel took into account her answers at the investigatory interviews and her written representations. The latter are notably not a response to the HCPC’s Allegation but are a reply to one of her employers’ Management Case Evidence Document, and as such in many instances, without the Management Case Evidence Document itself before the Panel, it is not always clear what the Registrant is referring to. However, on several issues material to the HCPC case, the Panel was able to understand the Registrant’s explanations.

The Stem of the Allegation

11. Having heard the evidence of both Witness 1 and Witness 2, the Panel was satisfied on the balance of probabilities that between approximately November 2013 and September 2015 the Registrant was a registered Social Worker and was employed by Coventry University.

 

Particular 1a

12. Ms 1 stated in para. 7 of her witness statement, and confirmed in her oral evidence, that in or around November 2013, the Registrant informed her that as Person A was unable to return to his address due to the fact that she and her son were residing there, he had been bailed to the address of a ‘family friend.’ It was not until some 7 months later, on 9 June 2014, that the Registrant confirmed when questioned by Witness 1 that the family friend in question was in fact her mother. The matter only came to light in a Child Protection Strategy meeting, which Witness 1 had attended, on 4 June 2014 when a nursery worker had mentioned it. 

13. The Registrant does not dispute this factual allegation. Rather, she gives an explanation as to why she did not give Witness 1 this information in November 2013.  

14. The Panel therefore finds this Particular proved.

Particular 1b

15.  Ms 1 stated in para 14 of her witness statement, and confirmed in her oral evidence, that on 23 April 2015, she visited the Registrant and intentionally did not mention Person A to see if the Registrant would mention him. After 40 minutes the Registrant had not mentioned Person A and Witness 1 stated that this was strange as he was normally discussed freely. When Witness 1 asked the Registrant if she had seen Person A recently the Registrant appeared “noticeably uncomfortable”. The Registrant also stated that Mr X was Person A’s work colleague. On 27 April 2015, Witness 1 called Mr X who informed her that he was Person A’s brother in law. Witness 1 considered that this omission was strange on the basis that the Registrant had had been a part of Person A’s family (and thus Mr X’s family) for a significant time.

16. On the basis of the above, the Registrant did not inform Witness 1 in April 2015 that Mr X was known to her as Person A’s brother in law.

17. The Registrant accepts that she did not inform Witness 1 that Mr X was Person A’s brother in law.

18. The Panel therefore finds it proved that on 23 April 2015 the Registrant withheld information about the nature of her relationship with Mr X.

Particular 1c

19. Witness 1’s written statement, as well as her oral evidence made clear that in a telephone call with Mr X on 22 July 2015 he told her that the Registrant arranged with Mr X that he would tell Witness 1 about Person A’s new partner (Partner A) and that the Registrant had known the identity of Partner A for some time. Witness 1’s case notes dated 22 July 2015, which provide a note of the telephone call, confirm that Witness 1 asked Mr X for confirmation that the Registrant knew and had met Partner A and she was told that she had.

20. The Registrant accepts that she did not advise WCC that she knew the identity of Person A’s new partner.

21. The Panel therefore finds this Particular proved.

Particular 1d

22. Witness 1’s witness statement states that the Registrant did not advise WCC that Person A could have contact with his new partner’s children. Witness 1 states that the Registrant became aware that Person A sometimes spent the night at her house with her children in the house.

23. The Registrant does not dispute that she did not tell Witness 1 about this issue, before she was faced with it by Witness 1 on 8 September 2015.

24. The Panel therefore finds this Particular proved.

Particular 2

25. With regard to the dishonesty charge in respect of 1a - 1d the Panel carefully considered whether there could be said to be explanations for the Registrant’s conduct other than dishonesty. It considered whether the Registrant was reckless, or did not think about what she should do. The Panel took into account that the Registrant is an experienced Social Worker and a Lecturer for post - qualifying Social Workers. The Panel decided on the balance of probabilities that she knew clearly that she had a positive duty to act so as to safeguard vulnerable children known to her, even if she had personal relationships with the parties involved.  This positive duty to act, cannot be abdicated nor delegated in favour of the preservation of personal interests or relationships. In this regard, the Panel took into account the witness statement of Witness 1 who stated in respect of the Registrant’s failure to inform WCC of Partner A’s identity and the risk to her children, that “…those children were placed at risk.  As a social worker, everything you do should be about making sure vulnerable children are protected….: (para. 32 of her witness statement).

26. Regarding Particular 1a, the Panel carefully considered the description by the Registrant of her mother as a “family friend” with whom Person A was staying, and concluded that on the balance of probabilities, the Registrant, as an experienced social worker, knew that she should have disclosed that the “family friend” was in fact her mother. The Panel considered carefully the Registrant’s contention in her written representation that “having to ask specific questions is always necessary in social work”. This suggestion was put to Ms 1 in evidence regarding this Particular, and Ms 1 stated that she had no reason to think that the “family friend” was the Registrant’s mother and therefore she did not ask this question. It is the Panel’s view that to describe her mother as a “family friend” was a choice of words made by the Registrant to deliberately provide a distance between her mother, with whom her young son had regular contact, and Person A who was staying in her mother’s house.  The Panel concluded that the Registrant was trying to distance herself and her mother’s relationship with Person A and that on the balance of probabilities this was done to deliberately conceal such a relationship because of the enmeshed nature of the relationships of the Registrant’s family and close friends with Person A. The Panel decided that on the balance of probabilities, the Registrant’s actions would be regarded as dishonest according to the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people, in particular reasonable and honest social workers. The Panel also concluded that on the balance of probabilities, the Registrant herself must have realised that her actions would be regarded as dishonest by those standards.

27. With regard to Particular 1b, the Panel took into account the Registrant’s written representations regarding Mr X: “whilst they are brother-in-laws, I felt this was a matter for Mr X to disclose should he have chosen to do so…There was no deliberate attempt to withhold information”. This suggests to the Panel that the Registrant did not want to disclose the fact that Mr X was Mr A’s brother in law because to do so would be evidence of the enmeshed ties between her, her family and Person A.  The Panel concluded that on the balance of probabilities the Registrant chose to describe Mr X as a “work colleague” of Person A rather than his brother in law to conceal these ties, and that this was a deliberate concealment. The Panel decided that on the balance of probabilities, the Registrant’s actions would be regarded as dishonest according to the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people, in particular reasonable and honest social workers. The Panel also concluded that on the balance of probabilities the Registrant herself must have realised that her actions would be regarded as dishonest by those standards.

28. With regard to Particular 1c and 1d which can be taken together, the Registrant had a conversation with Mr X about the identity of Person A’s new partner (Partner A). The issue was complicated by the fact that Partner A had two young children, and Person A’s bail condition was that he should have no unsupervised contact with young children. The Registrant’s representations state that Mr X offered to tell WCC about Partner A, and she did not ask him to do so. The Registrant states that when she found out about Partner A she did not pass the details to WCC because Mr X had offered to, although she “regrets” in agreeing to his suggestion as she “fully intended to give the information myself”. The Panel has very carefully considered this explanation. However, it had in mind the very clear evidence of Ms 1, referred to above in this decision, in respect of the need to disclose the details of Partner A and the lack of disclosure putting the children at risk. Ms 1 states in para. 32 of her witness statement as follows:

“Upon learning that Person A had stayed over at his new partner’s house, Catherine Holmes should have made an immediate referral to Children’s Services as the chances of Person A having unsupervised contact with his new partner’s children were very high. As a result those children were placed at risk. As a social worker, everything you do should be about making sure vulnerable children are protected, which Catherine Holmes failed to do”.

29. The Panel has concluded that on the balance of probabilities, the Registrant, as a experienced Social Worker, was fully aware that she should have made the disclosures to WCC of the matters contained in Particulars 1 c and 1d. On the balance of probabilities, she did not do so, and left it to Mr X to do so, because if she did, it would cause tensions within her circle of family and close friends. The Panel has noted that Partner A was the daughter of the Registrant’s close friend.  The Panel is satisfied that the Registrant deliberately withheld the information about Partner A which she should have disclosed, for her own personal reasons and that she did not want to be implicated in the tensions that would follow by making such a disclosure. There was, according to the evidence of Witness 1, having spoken to Mr X, a gap in time between the Registrant’s knowledge of the identity of Person A’s partner, and Mr X’s disclosure, and during this time the Panel finds that the Registrant had a duty to make the disclosure but was silent.  The Panel is satisfied that this was a deliberate and planned position, as evidenced by the conversation with Mr X about what to do about the situation. The Panel is satisfied that on the balance of probabilities, the Registrant’s actions would be regarded as dishonest according to the ordinary standards of reasonable and honest people, in particular reasonable and honest social workers. The Panel also concluded that on the balance of probabilities the Registrant herself must have realised that her actions would be regarded as dishonest by those standards

30. The Panel therefore finds this Particular proved.

Decision on the Statutory Ground

31. The Panel heard from Ms Hastie who submitted that the matters found proved are serious and constitute professional misconduct. Ms Hastie referred to the HCPC’s Standards.

32. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred to the cases of Roylance v GMC (No.2) [2000] 1 AC 311 and Shaw v General Osteopathic Council [2015] EWHC 2721.

33. The Panel was aware that the issue of misconduct is one for its own professional judgment and that there is no burden of proof on either party.

34. The Panel was of the view that the instances of dishonesty were serious matters.

35. The Registrant’s behaviour was totally at odds with what was to be expected of a registered social worker. She failed to be open and honest with WCC as she was obliged to be, and consequently put young children at a real risk of harm because she did not want to jeopardise relationships with family and friends.

36. The Panel has concluded that the she breached the following standards:
Standards of conduct, performance and ethics (2012):
3  You must keep high standards of personal conduct
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.
Standards of proficiency. Social workers in England (2012)
Registered social workers must:
2.3 understand the need to protect, safeguard and promote the wellbeing of children, young people and vulnerable adults
2.5 be able to manage competing or conflicting interests.

37. The Panel recognises that breaching professional standards does not automatically mean that there has been misconduct.  However, in this case the Panel has determined that the Registrant’s actions do amount to misconduct. 

38. As a registered Social Worker, the Registrant should have made the necessary disclosures immediately. Instead, she made a number of choices, over a period of several months, to deliberately withhold information, putting her own interests and those of family and friends above those of vulnerable children. The Panel is of the view that there is a degree of moral blameworthiness attached to the Registrant’s behaviour. The Panel concluded that in this case the Registrant’s behaviour fell far short of what was expected that it was sufficiently serious to constitute misconduct.

Decision on Impairment

39. Ms Hastie submitted that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired.

40. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor who referred to the case of CHRE v (1) NMC (2) Grant [2011] EWHC 927. The Panel was aware that the issue of impairment is one for its own professional judgment and that there is no burden of proof on either party.

41. The Panel considered the questions asked by Dame Janet Smith in the 5th Shipman Report, as set out in the case of Grant and concluded that the Registrant had by way of the matters found proved, put service users (children in this case) at an unwarranted and indeed very real risk of harm, brought the profession into disrepute and breached fundamental tenets of the profession with regard to safeguarding.  She had also acted dishonestly.    
42. The Registrant has not made a direct submission in response to the HCPC’s allegation to provide her account of the circumstances. Other than some correspondence in 2015, her only engagement has been to submit a Pre Hearing Information Form in which she notifies the HCPC that she will not be attending the hearing. There is no indication of insight or remorse, nor any evidence of steps taken by her to address the concerns of her Regulator or to try and reassure the Panel that she will not repeat her failings.  Her position as expressed in her written representations of 2015 and in the investigatory interviews primarily demonstrate, in the Panel’s view, a desire to justify her behaviour and distance herself from criticism. There is also an element of blame cast upon other professionals.

43. The Panel once more took into account the clearly very difficult circumstances which the Registrant found herself in.  It also took into account that prior to the Panel’s findings on fact, she was a person of good character and that these circumstances arose out of a particular situation, namely the proximity of Person A. The misconduct which has been found proved results from this situation alone, and does not relate to any wider dishonesty in her social work practise. 

44. Given the lack of any real indication of insight or remediation, the Panel has concluded that there remains a real risk of repetition, and that the Registrant is indeed liable to put service users at unwarranted risk of harm, to bring the profession into disrepute, to breach fundamental tenets of the profession, and to act dishonestly in the future.

45. The Panel also considered the wider public interest and concluded that the Registrant’s actions struck at the very heart of the social work profession. The Registrant’s actions clearly have the capacity to undermine public trust and confidence in the profession, particularly in the circumstances of this case where she dishonestly did not make disclosures which were required of her as an experienced and knowledgeable Social Worker. Young children were put at real risk of harm in a situation where she was unable to resolve her conflict of interest. The Panel therefore determined that the need to uphold proper professional standards and to maintain public confidence in the profession would be undermined if a finding of impairment were not made in the particular circumstances of this case.

Decision on Sanction

46. The Panel heard submissions from Ms Hastie in respect of sanction, and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel referred to the HCPC’s Indicative Sanctions Policy document.

47. The Panel was aware that sanction is a matter for its own professional judgment, and the purpose of sanction is to uphold the public interest, which includes protection of the public, the upholding of standards, and maintaining public confidence in the profession and the regulator. The Panel took into account that it must act proportionately, weighing in the balance the public interest as well as the Registrant’s interests.

48. The Panel considered that the following were mitigating features of this case:
i. the Registrant’s difficult personal circumstances at the material time;
ii. the Registrant’s previous good character;
iii. at some point the Registrant recognised the need to disclose to WCC information about Partner A, discussed this with Mr X, and arranged for this to be done indirectly through him.

49.  The Panel considered that the following were aggravating features of this case:
i. the Registrant prioritised her own interests and the interests of those close to her, creating a real risk to vulnerable children;
ii.the instances of dishonesty were repeated over a significant period of time;
iii. the Registrant had regular visits from Witness 1 who consistently discussed her ongoing relationship with Person A and this was therefore, a ‘live’ issue throughout the period in question;
iv. because of seeing Witness 1 on a regular basis, the Registrant had ready means of alerting WCC about the situation, with the option of remaining anonymous;

50. The Panel first considered whether to take no further action, but concluded that this would not address the ongoing risk which the Panel has found to exist to the public. Such an outcome would, in addition, not meet the public interest in this case in light of the seriousness of the misconduct, and would undermine confidence in the profession and the regulator.

51. The Panel next considered a Caution Order and concluded that this would not be a proportionate response as the misconduct in this case was far too serious. Further, a Caution Order would not restrict the Registrant’s practice which would be required to address the ongoing risk to the public. A Caution Order would also not be sufficient to address the public interest concerns in this case.

52. The Panel next considered a Conditions of Practice Order and concluded that this would not be appropriate. There are no identifiable concerns with regard to the Registrant’s own practice as a Social Worker which could be the subject of conditions. The Panel was also unable to formulate conditions to address her dishonesty. In any event, the Panel has no indication that she would be willing to comply with conditions.

53. The Panel carefully considered the imposition of a Suspension Order. The Panel was of the view that a suspension would protect the public in as far as it would temporarily prevent the Registrant from practising. However, in the Panel’s view, a Suspension Order would not uphold the public interest in this case, and would indeed undermine it.

54. As well as the serious and repeated dishonesty in this case, which put young children at risk, the Panel is of the view that this is a case of abuse of trust. While the Registrant and her son were in fact Service Users of WCC, and were allocated a Social Worker in the form of Witness 1, the Registrant was also an experienced Social Worker herself. As such, her professional obligations and duties continued and she would have been aware of this. Her duty as a professional Social Worker was to put any conflict of interest aside, and act to safeguard the vulnerable service users. She did not do this and thus she committed an abuse of trust. The Panel has taken into account the very difficult personal circumstances which she found herself in at the time, however, these do not, in the Panel’s view, render her abuse of trust and dishonesty any less serious.

55. Further, the Panel is unable to identity any insight from the Registrant as to why her actions were unacceptable. She has continuously tried to justify her actions. The Panel has noted that in her written representations she does express “regret” that she accepted Mr X’s offer to disclose Partner A’s details to WCC. However, this does not address the significant length of time she knew about Partner A prior to Mr X’s disclosure.

56. The crux of this case is that the Registrant, while herself a Service User, did not cease to have professional duties and responsibilities. She abrogated those duties. The ties of family and friends were the reason. For example, the Registrant in her written representations mentions the strain it would place on her daughter if she disclosed the identity of Partner A.  In the Panel’s view, these ties took precedence at the expense of the Registrant’s professional duties, creating a real risk of harm to vulnerable children. Quite apart from the Registrant’s own knowledge as to what her duties were as an experienced Social Worker, Witness 1 was a constant reminder of her duties, and the risks posed by Person A. The Registrant ignored all of this.

57. The continued absence of insight into her dishonesty and the lack of any attempt to remediate, led the Panel to conclude that there was a risk of repetition of the misconduct.  In any case, the Panel determined that the misconduct in this case is incompatible with remaining on the register. Therefore, a Suspension Order is not proportionate and appropriate in this case.

58. The protection of vulnerable members of society is at the heart of social work practice.  By acting in her own interests and the interests of those she had relationships with, the Registrant breached a fundamental tenet of the profession. 

59. As a result of all of the factors set out above, the Panel concludes that in the particular circumstances of this case, the only sanction which will maintain public confidence in the profession and the regulatory process is that of Striking Off. In making this decision, the Panel took into account the principle of proportionality and concluded that the public interest outweighed the Registrant’s interests.

60. The Panel therefore decided to impose a Striking Off Order.

Order

ORDER: That the Registrar is directed to strike the name of Catherine Ruth Holmes from the Register on the date this order comes into effect.

Notes

The order imposed today will apply from 19 October 2017.

Hearing history

History of Hearings for Catherine Ruth Holmes

Date Panel Hearing type Outcomes / Status
18/09/2017 Conduct and Competence Committee Final Hearing Struck off