Miss Anne Margaret O'Connor
Allegation (as amended):
1) On dates between April 2016 and May 2016, completed Fostering Assessment reports (Form F) in relation to Service User A and did not record accurate information, in that you:
a) On or around 11 April and/or 11 May 2016, recorded that you had spoken to Person A when you had not communicated with him;
b) On or around 11 May 2016, quoted statements made by Person A which had not been made by him;
c) On or around 11 April, 04 May and/or 11 May 2016, recorded that you had spoken to Person B on the telephone when you had not communicated with him;
d) On or around 11 April, 04 May and/or 11 May 2016, recorded Person B’s comments about Service User A’s application, when you had not communicated with him;
e) On or around 11 May 2016, recorded statements made by Person C which were inaccurate and/ or were not obtained directly from a conversation with Person C.
2) On or around 13 May 2016, you provided Service User A with the Fostering Assessment report dated 11 May 2016 referred to at Particular 1, containing inaccurate information.
3) You did not maintain service user confidentiality in that on or around 20 March 2016, you used your personal email address and/or home IT equipment to send and/or receive confidential information from Service User A;
4) Your actions described in paragraph 1 (a) – (e) were dishonest.
5) Your actions described in paragraphs 1 and 4 constitute misconduct.
6) Your actions described in paragraphs 1 - 3 constitute misconduct and/or lack of competence.
7) By reason of your misconduct and/or lack of competence, your fitness to practise is impaired.
Service and Proceeding in Absence
1. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant was properly served with the Notice of Hearing, dated 31 July 2017, according to the HCPC’s procedural Rules.
2. Having heard Mr Ferson’s submission and having accepted the Legal Assessor’s advice and having taken into account the HCPC’s Practice Note on Proceeding in Absence of the Registrant, the Panel determined to proceed in the absence of the Registrant. It was clear that there has been good service of the Notice of Hearing and that the Registrant had knowledge of the hearing. She had not applied for an adjournment and the Panel considered it highly unlikely that she would attend even if the matter was to be adjourned. In the Panel’s opinion, the public interest would be represented proportionately and expeditiously by proceeding in the absence of the Registrant, as the HCPC’s witnesses were in attendance and ready to give their evidence.
Amendment of Allegation
3. The Panel determined that the amendments sought by Mr Ferson in his submission reflected the evidence in the bundles of documentation. Thus, in the Panel’s view, there would be no injustice, prejudice or unfairness to the Registrant by allowing the amendments. The Panel decided that the amendments would be permitted.
4. The allegations in this case arise out of the Registrant’s employment as a social worker at the Somerset County Council (the Council).
5. The Registrant commenced employment as a Social Worker at the Council in 1996. On 5 October 2015, she took up a temporary position as Manager of the Emergency Duty Team at the Council, a position which was made permanent on 1 April 2016. Since early 2012, the Registrant had held a number of sessionally-based agreements with the Council to provide Foster Carer Assessments, which were to be placed before Foster Carer Panels for decisions on applicant foster carers. This work was done in the Registrant’s spare time for a fee. By November 2015, she had completed three of these Assessments.
6. The Allegation relates to the Registrant’s role in preparing a Foster Carer Assessment known as a Form F, regarding prospective foster carers, Service User A (SUA) and Service User B (SUB), in early 2016. Following the Registrant’s completion of her fourth draft of the Form F, SUA and SUB, on 16 May 2016, submitted a complaint to the Council. AD, an independent Social Worker, was appointed as the Investigating Officer and carried out an internal investigation in to the matter. TG, a registered Social Worker, was, at the relevant time, the Registrant’s supervisor in relation to the preparation of the Form F.
7. The Registrant was commissioned to complete a Form F (the Form F) in respect of SUA and SUB on 13 November 2015. The Registrant prepared four drafts of the Form F, dated 6 April 2016, 11 April 2016, 4 May 2016 and 11 May 2016. In TG’s opinion, the first three drafts were sparse, lacked analytical content and did not provide the Council with sufficient information to assess SUA and SUB as suitable foster carers. The fourth draft of the Form F, although improved, was, in TG’s opinion, still not of adequate and sufficient quality to present to the Panel. In addition, the process had become severely delayed. The Foster Carer Panel finally met in July 2016, but, for SUA and SUB, the process had commenced in November 2015. On or about 11 May 2016, TG, in consultation with BH, his line manager, decided to remove the Registrant from SUA’s assessment. The Registrant agreed with this and waived her fee for it, as it was incomplete. Another Social Worker completed the final Form F that was eventually submitted to the Foster Carer Panel in July 2016.
8. When the Registrant provided SUA and SUB with the fourth draft of the Form F, it referred to Persons A, B and C. Person A was SUB’s adult son with Person B, Person B was SUB’s ex-partner and Person C was the child of SUA and SUB. Although some comments said to have been made by Persons A, B and C to the Registrant were favourable to SUA and SUB, SUA and SUB complained that the draft Form F contained a number of alleged factual inaccuracies and misleading information, including a record of fabricated conversations which were purported to have been held between the Registrant and Person A, Person B and Person C. The Form F contained comments and/or quotes from Person A and Person B, to whom it is alleged the Registrant had not spoken; and Person C, which it is alleged were inaccurate, and/or not obtained directly from her. These form the basis of Particulars 1a) to 1e) of the Allegation. In addition, it is alleged by the HCPC that these actions by the Registrant were dishonest.
9. On 16 May 2016, SUA contacted TG complaining that the fourth draft of the Form F, which, on 11 May 2016, the Registrant had been asked by TG to provide SUA and SUB and which she had done on or about 13 May 2016, was a misrepresentation, in that it was full of inaccuracies and, furthermore, that parts of it had been fabricated.
10. These included: that Person A had no contact with the Registrant, despite the Registrant having quoted him, where Person A purportedly stated that he had two fathers and talked about his sexuality and SUA and SUB’s views of that; that Person B was referred to as having been telephoned by the Registrant and that he had been “positive” about SUA and SUB’s parenting abilities; that Person C was also quoted by the Registrant as having made a comment about SUA and SUB’s conversations about becoming foster parents and how they were “quite nervous” but enjoyed the work; that there had been no conversation between SUA and the Registrant concerning aspects of SUA’s childhood and his parents’ approach to disciplining him; that the references to SUA’s apparent conversations with the Registrant about his views on sexual identity and race and ethnic matters were entirely fabricated, as no such conversations had taken place between SUA and the Registrant.
11. SUA stated that SUB had contacted Person A and Person B on 14 May 2016 and both had told SUB that neither had spoken to the Registrant. TG also confirmed with Person A that the Registrant had never spoken to him, Person A. SUA confirmed in his witness statement that although the Registrant spoke to Person C on several occasions, the Registrant never interviewed her alone.
12. There were also other inaccuracies in the Registrant’s fourth draft of the Form F, such as where she stated that SUA had received support from his grandfather and uncles, suggesting they were almost pseudo fathers. In fact, SUA stated those relatives of his were largely absent as they lived in Birmingham and had not played any such role in his life. SUA and SUB also disputed the comments recorded by the Registrant about how they disciplined Person A and Person C. In addition, there was a reference to SUA and SUB agreeing to alter their stair rails for child safety, when they had expressly not agreed to that.
13. It is further alleged that the Registrant sent and/or received confidential information relating to SUA and SUB to and from her personal email address, in breach of the Council’s “Acceptable Use Policy” in relation to data protection and The Data Protection Act 1998. Under paragraph 6.9 of the Council’s said Policy, email use required that an email containing personal or sensitive data should be protected using the Council’s embedded software. It also stated that emails containing personal and sensitive data should not be downloaded onto personal devices, such as home computers or iPads.
14. SUA confirmed in an email to the Council dated 13 June 2016, during its investigation of their complaint, that SUA had sent over 12 emails containing personal details and documents to the Registrant’s personal email address. During the investigation interview on 17 June 2016, the Registrant confirmed that she had used her personal email address in the way described and she also admitted this allegation to the HCPC in the Notice to Admit Facts dated 20 December 2016.
15. The Registrant was questioned about the matters raised by SUA and SUB in an investigatory interview conducted by AD on 17 June 2016. The Registrant confirmed that she had not spoken to Persons A, B or C at any time in this interview by the Council. The Registrant also admitted all the factual particulars in the HCPC’s Notice to Admit facts dated 20 December 2016.
16. The Registrant stated in that interview that her gut instinct had been to say no to doing this assessment as it had been about three years since she last done one, and she was aware there had been some changes to the process and she had not been trained about them. Due to staffing issues she was working long hours I her main job and struggling to find time to fit the assessment in. She stated that she always did her best to help colleagues, and the department, sometimes putting the department first. She also stated that she knew the fourth draft was not ready to go to Panel and although she was told by TC to give the draft to the prospective foster carers, SUA and SUB, it was not given to them as a final version.
17. The Panel heard evidence from AD, the Investigating Officer assisting the Council, TG, the Registrant’s supervisor and SUA. In reaching its decisions, the Panel took into account Mr Ferson’s submission and the HCPC’s Standards for conduct, performance and ethics (the Standards), the HCPC’s Proficiency Standards for Social Workers, the HCPTS’ Practice Note on Impairment and the Panel accepted the Legal Assessor’s advice. It also read all the documentation provided to it.
Decisions on the Facts
18. The Panel made the following observations on the witnesses:
AD: In the Panel’s opinion, she was a credible and consistent witness.
TG: In the Panel’s opinion, he was an experienced manager. However, he admitted that he should have had a more detailed oversight of the Registrant’s work on the case and he did not have a clear recall of the detail of the discussions with the Registrant during the two supervisions she had with him on 18 and 29 April 2016.
SUA: In the Panel’s opinion, he was a credible, fair and clear witness, who recollected detail in most respects.
19. The Panel made the following findings of fact:
20. The Registrant was employed by the Council as a Social Worker during the relevant dates, as evidenced by the documentation in the bundle referring to her employment.
21. With respect to Particular 1, the Panel considered that, after the second draft of her Form F dated 11 April 2016, the Registrant included greater and more dense detail of her alleged conversations with Person A and Service Users A and B, with each subsequent draft on 4 May 2016 and 11 May 2016, despite having had two supervisions with TG on 18 and 29 April 2016 and where she would have had the opportunity to clarify with TG any concerns she might have about how to record direct and indirect reporting of facts and information.
1a) and 1b) - considered separately: Both Proved.
22. The Registrant expressly recorded on her second draft of the Form F that she had spoken to Person A and in subsequent drafts she embellished detail of this alleged conversation, stating for example that he had told her that he was happy about SUA and SUB making the foster carer application and that they would be open and welcoming and would accept all that would be thrown at them. She wrote in direct quotation marks: “after all they coped with me.” In the Panel’s view, this could only be interpreted by a reader as a direct quote from Person A to the Registrant. The Panel also noted that the Registrant added in the same section of the fourth draft that she had spoken to Person A about the attitudes of SUA and SUB to his sexuality and she enlarged on the purported and detailed views of SUA and SUB about that with information apparently directly given to her by Person A. In addition, the Registrant referred to Person A as if she had directly spoken to him when she referred to his comments on having two fathers in quotation marks as follows: “I have been lucky I have had 2 dads”. However, TG, directly with Person A, and SUA in his witness statement, stated that SUB had established with Person A that he, Person A, made no such comment and that the Registrant had never spoken to him at any time in the process. The Panel accepted the HCPC’s evidence on this and that the Registrant had never spoken to Person A. Furthermore, the Registrant admitted to AD in her interview and in her admissions to the HCPC that she had never spoken to Person A.
1c) and 1d) - considered separately: Both Proved.
23. The Registrant recorded in her second draft of the Form F that she had spoken with Person B on the telephone, that Person B was aware of SUA and SUB’s application and that he was “positive” about their parenting abilities. In his witness statement SUA stated that SUB had contacted Person B on 14 May 2016 and Person B had made it clear that he had never been contacted by the Registrant. This was confirmed by Person B in his email to the Council dated 9 June 2016. The Panel accepted the HCPC’s evidence on this and that the Registrant had never spoken to Person B. Furthermore, the Registrant admitted to AD in her interview and in her admissions to the HCPC that she had never spoken to Person B.
1e): Not proved.
24. The Panel accepted the oral evidence of SUA that the Registrant never spoke to Person C without SUA and SUB being in the room. He said that the Registrant never spoke to Person C without SUA and SUB being in the room and that Person C occasionally had direct questions put to her within the conversations. Given the above, without hearing directly from Person C, the Panel concluded that on the balance of probabilities the HCPC has not reached the level of proof required in this Particular of Allegation. Those conversations, of which some content could have been an accurate account of what the Registrant recorded Person C as having said however casually, had taken place and there is nothing before the Panel to gainsay that.
25. Stem of Particular of Allegation 1: Proved. For the reasons set out, the Panel concluded that the information that the Registrant recorded in her second, third and fourth drafts was not accurate.
26. The Panel accepted the evidence of SUA that he and SUB, his wife, had been handed the Registrant’s fourth draft of the Form F on 13 May 2016. He had then reported the inaccuracies they had identified and he also gave the detail of those inaccuracies to the Social Worker appointed by TG to take over from the Registrant.
27. The Panel accepted the documentary evidence in the bundle, which included unredacted copies of emails showing email communications between SUA and the Registrant using the Registrant’s personal home email address. The Panel took into account the evidence of AD that the Council’s “Acceptable Use Policy” in relation to data protection and The Data Protection Act 1998 was to ensure protection from inappropriate and illegal use of data, which included the protection of confidential information about Service Users and all vulnerable individuals. This Policy included under the paragraph 6.9 that email use required that an email containing personal or sensitive data should be protected using the Council’s embedded software (Egress). It also stated that emails containing personal and sensitive data should not be downloaded onto personal devices, such as home computers or iPads. In addition, the Panel accepted SUA’s oral evidence that he could not understand how it was that he and his wife were required to use Egress and yet the Registrant did not seem to use it all the time. He stated that he was so exasperated by the delay in the process that he did not raise his concern at the time. The Panel accepted his evidence on this as entirely reasonable.
4): Proved overall: as to 1a): Proved; as to 1b): Proved; as to 1c): Proved; as to 1d): Proved - all considered separately.
28. The Panel concluded that the Registrant knew at the time and at all times afterwards that what she was recording/had recorded was inaccurate and, on occasions, false, information purportedly from persons to whom she had not actually spoken, but whom she had quoted, using quotation marks. In the Panel’s judgement, this gave the various accounts in her second, third and fourth drafts of Form F a sense of truth and reality, which was highly and obviously misleading. In the Panel’s judgement, the Registrant knew what she was doing at all times and, for whatever reason, chose to continue and perpetuate the false information.
29. In the Panel’s judgement, objectively, a reasonable, and honest individual knowing this and reading the detail of this case, would have no difficulty in concluding that the Registrant’s conduct was dishonest as to Particulars 1a), 1b), 1c) and 1d) of the Allegation. The Registrant knowingly falsified information that she wove into her second, third and fourth draft Form Fs and this undermined all trust that could be put into the reliability of the information that she provided. The Panel has determined that an informed and reasonable member of the public would conclude that this behaviour was misleading, false and, therefore dishonest.
30. The Panel referred to the Standards and the Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers. In reaching its decisions on Grounds, the Panel took into account the submission of Mr Ferson and the Legal Assessor’s advice and it exercised the principle of proportionality.
31. The Panel considered that the facts found proved were serious. In the Panel’s judgement, the Registrant’s second, third and fourth draft Form Fs represented a trend of increasingly inaccurate and false details. In the Panel’s judgement, the effect of her deception was to severely undermine the trust and confidence of the public, the Council and the profession in the reliability of the information that she produced. That information was solely for the purpose of a Foster Carer Panel to determine the suitability or otherwise of SUA and SUB as foster carers.
32. The Registrant’s dishonest actions completely undermined the reliability of the assessment process and might have had the potential to place at risk vulnerable children, had the inaccuracies not come to light. By her actions, the Registrant also brought the reputation of the profession into disrepute, and severely undermined the profession’s reputation in the eyes of the public. The Registrant’s actions also undermined the protection of Service Users from breaches of confidentiality in respect of confidential material.
33. In the Panel’s judgement, the Registrant acted deliberately at all times, knowing that the information, identified by the Allegation, that she provided in her second and subsequent draft Form Fs was inaccurate and false. The Panel concluded that, whatever reason she had for this deception, she had acted dishonestly and recklessly, without regard to the potentially very serious consequences of doing so.
34. The Panel considered that the conduct in this case was serious as it posed a real risk of harm to vulnerable Service Users and put at risk the trust that the public is entitled to place in assessments concerning potential foster carers. As such, the public’s confidence in the process and, consequently, in the profession was seriously undermined.
35. The Panel concluded that the Registrant’s actions breached Paragraphs 1, 2, 10, 13 of the Standards, as follows:
1 - You must act in the best interests of service users.
2 - You must respect the confidentiality of service users.
10 - You must keep accurate records.
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.
36. In addition, the Panel concluded that the Registrant’s actions also breached Paragraphs 2 and 10 of the Standards of Proficiency for Social Workers, as follows:
2- be able to practise within the legal and ethical boundaries of their profession
10 - be able to maintain records appropriately
37. For these reasons, the Panel concluded that the facts found proved amounted to misconduct in all respects. In the Panel’s judgement, there was no lack of competence in this case, as the Registrant had prepared Form Fs before and also had the opportunity to obtain guidance with regard to her approach, should she have wished to do so, in her two supervisions with TG and she failed to do this on those two occasions.
38. The Panel paid regard to the HCPTS’ Practice Note on Impairment and took into consideration the submission from Mr Ferson. In reaching its conclusion, the Panel accepted the Legal Assessor’s advice and exercised the principle of proportionality.
39. The Panel has concluded that the Registrant’s misconduct was serious. The Panel further noted that this was in a context in which the Registrant had previously completed Form F assessments successfully. The Panel considers that the Registrant’s failings as identified in this case, particularly taking into account her previous long blemish-free career are remediable. However, unfortunately, there has been nothing before this Panel to indicate any remediation commenced by the Registrant and there has been no evidence before it of remorse, insight or reflection.
40. By her misconduct, the Registrant has breached several of the fundamental tenets of the profession and had brought the profession into disrepute. In the Panel’s judgement, there is a real risk of repetition unless the Registrant fully remediates her misconduct. She has behaved in such a way that her integrity can no longer be relied upon. Although this was an isolated event, she perpetuated her falsifications throughout the second and subsequent drafts of her Form Fs, with the potential to culminate in inaccurate and false information being placed before a Foster Carer Panel. Additionally, the Registrants actions resulted in a frustrating delay experienced by the potential foster carers in this case.
41. In the Panel’s judgement, if the Registrant’s fitness to practise was found not to be impaired, public confidence in the profession and in the reputation of the profession would be seriously undermined and the public would be put at risk. In the Panel’s opinion, to allow a proven dishonest Social Worker to practice as an unimpaired practitioner in an area involving foster care and the placement of vulnerable children would be both a danger to the public and would attract the public’s profound, and rightful, opprobrium.
42. For these reasons, the Panel has determined that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired.
Decision on Sanction
43. The Panel heard the submission of Mr Ferson on behalf of the HCPC. It read all the relevant documentation. The Panel accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and exercised the principle of proportionality at all times. In reaching its decision on sanction, the Panel took into consideration that sanction should not be primarily punitive, but that it can appear so subjectively to registrants. The Panel has also paid regard to the HCPC’s Indicative Sanctions Policy.
44. The Panel has identified the following mitigating and aggravating factors in the case:
• The Registrant has no known matter against her before these events, or since;
• She had a 20 year blemish-free career;
• She had made early admissions to the Council and in the HCPC case;
• There was an element of work pressure and low staffing levels at the time at the time in the team the Registrant was managing;
• The Registrant was undertaking an assessment task for which she had limited previous experience;
• The period of time during which the Registrant completed the four draft of the Form F covered approximately five weeks.
• That, despite being supervised by TG on 18 and 29 April 2016 specifically about the quality of her Form F drafts at those times, the Registrant continued writing inaccurate and fabricated accounts of her purported conversations with potentially important referees, which would, if not discovered, have been read by the Foster Carer’s Panel when it was to determine SUA and SUB’s suitability as foster carers;
• The inaccuracies and fabrications increased as the Registrant wrote each new Form F draft;
• The Registrant’s actions and comments, said by her to have been made by people with whom she had not had contact, caused distress to SUA and led to a delay in the case being presented to the Foster Carer Panel;
• The Registrant’s actions and comments included deliberate dishonesty.
45. The Panel first considered taking no action or mediation and rejected these outcomes. This is a serious case involving dishonest fabrications by the Registrant of comments from important referees, required for a proper, accurate and fair decision about SUA and SUB’s application to become foster carers. The Registrant’s actions had the potential of placing a foster child, a vulnerable person, into the wrong home, or not being placed in a suitable home. For these reasons, the Panel is of the opinion that public confidence in the profession and in the regulatory process would be seriously undermined with such outcomes.
46. The Panel next considered imposing a Caution Order and rejected this. In the Panel’s judgement, the aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors in this case. As made clear in its determination on Misconduct and Impairment, the Panel has before it, to date, no evidence of the Registrant’s insight and nothing to indicate that she intends to remediate, or has commenced remediation of her serious misconduct. As such, in the Panel’s judgement, the risk of repetition in this case is high.
47. In the Panel’s judgement, the Registrant’s misconduct breached several of the fundamental tenets of the profession and her integrity can no longer be relied upon. The Panel is of the opinion that the Registrant’s misconduct requires a sanction that marks its level of seriousness, which cannot be properly represented by a Caution Order that has no tangible restriction on practice. For these reasons, the Panel has concluded that public confidence in the profession and in the regulatory process would be severely undermined by the imposition of a Caution.
48. The Panel next considered imposing a Conditions of Practice Order and rejected this. The Panel was not confident that there would be any workable and enforceable conditions that could address the fundamental concerns raised by this case at this time, including dishonesty. By not engaging in this process, the Registrant has not been able to demonstrate how she could remediate so as to avoid repetition in the future. Without any information as to the Registrant’s current situation, the Panel considered that a Conditions of Practice Order would not be workable at this time.
49. The Panel next considered imposing a Suspension Order. In the Panel’s opinion, by her deliberately dishonest misconduct, the Registrant brought the reputation of the profession into disrepute. The public is entitled to rely on the skill and knowledge of Social Workers involved in the fostering process and this trust was seriously undermined by the Registrant’s dishonest actions. The Panel concluded that the protection of the public and the public interest in upholding the reputation and integrity of the profession outweigh any interests of the Registrant, despite some mitigating features, and that both the public and private components of her Impairment, as found, need to be marked by an appropriate and proportionate sanction.
50. Thus, for these reasons, in the Panel’s judgement, the matter is sufficiently serious to attract the sanction of a Suspension Order. In the Panel’s opinion, public protection and the wider public interest can be effectively met by this sanction, as it will properly reflect the potential risk to all involved in the foster care process by the Registrant’s actions and it will also reflect that public confidence in the Registrant and in her profession, which has been brought into disrepute by this dishonest misconduct, has been severely undermined.
51. The Panel considered that a period of twelve (12) months’ Suspension Order would be fair and proportionate, as it would meet the level of seriousness of this case, by the restriction of the Registrant being unable to practice as a registered Social Worker for that limited period of time. It would also allow time for the Registrant to respond to this decision, if she wishes to.
52. The Panel considered the higher sanction of Striking Off and rejected this. The Panel considered that going to that level at this stage would be disproportionately punitive as the Registrant had a long period of her career without fault and this matter is remediable. A Suspension Order gives the Registrant the opportunity to remediate, if she wishes to, whereas a Striking Off Order does not fully afford that opportunity.
53. This Order must be reviewed before its expiry.
54. The Panel would advise the Registrant that a future Review Panel may be assisted, for example, by her attendance at the next Review hearing, the production of an effective reflective piece by her, dealing with the issues raised by this case, especially her fabrication of conversations that had never taken place, why she did that and how she would avoid it in the future. The Registrant may also wish to produce relevant references and testimonials from persons who know the full details of this case, including, if relevant and if she wishes, any information on her health.
This order will be reviewed again before its expiry.
History of Hearings for Miss Anne Margaret O'Connor
|Date||Panel||Hearing type||Outcomes / Status|
|14/11/2017||Conduct and Competence Committee||Final Hearing||Suspended|