An August 18 decision by the Administrative Court of the United Kingdom’s High Court of Justice overturned a lenient sanction issued by a hearing panel of Social Work England to a social worker who was found to have emotionally abused her children and misled her employer during the hiring process, holding that the panel should have treated the licensee’s dishonesty more seriously.
The family of the licensee in the case, whose name was withheld by the Court to protect the identities of her children, had been the subject of child protection actions by authorities, including a “Child in Need” referral that was made in March 2020 but closed later that year. The licensee’s employer referred her to Social Work England and then fired her when it had concerns that she had subjected her children to emotional abuse. A subsequent employer fired her for not being honest during a job interview regarding her discipline and then also referred her to Social Work England.
Accused with those allegations of abuse and misleading her employer, a panel convened by Social Work England found that the licensee had engaged in emotional abuse, such as calling her daughter a “slag” and a “bitch” and telling her that the family’s financial troubles were the child’s fault. The licensee had also taken an overdose when the children were present in the home. Additionally, the panel confirmed that the licensee had been dishonest with her employer, both by hiding her disciplinary history during the hiring process, and with the panel, where she used her daughter to provide untruthful evidence on her behalf.
The panel concluded that the licensee had committed professional misconduct, having breached professional standards of social work in her dealings with her own children and having misled her employer. Although the panel also concluded that the licensee’s behavior would be difficult to remediate, it nonetheless held that her dishonest behavior was an isolated incident and that she was at low risk to repeat it and found that she had taken remedial steps sufficient to find that, while her practice was impaired, the panel would not revoke her license, instead recommending a five-year warning period.
This decision seemed to be contrary to Social Work England’s own guidance, which states that dishonesty, particularly the misrepresentation of qualifications and experience, was serious misconduct for a social worker that could not be mitigated by evidence of professional competence.
The Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care, which had prosecuted the case, appealed the decision, arguing that the panel’s finding that the licensee was unlikely to repeat her dishonest behavior was unreasonable, that the panel had improperly afforded too much weight to the licensee’s remediation efforts, and that the panel should have suspended the licensee instead of just issuing a warning. Social Work England, also unhappy with the panel’s decision, joined the Standards Authority on the first and second grounds.
On appeal, the Administrative Court found it significant that the licensee had been dishonest during her hiring process, holding that the panel’s finding that her dishonesty was an isolated incident with a low risk of repetition was not reasonable, further evidenced by the fact that the licensee had attempted to mislead the panel, itself.
Additionally, the Administrative Court held that the licensee had not shown understanding of her misconduct. The licensee had testified that her dishonesty with her employer was justified given her financial situation. Furthermore, “the decision to call a vulnerable child to give dishonest evidence . . . should have driven the Panel to conclude that [the licensee] had developed no proper insight” into the actions which prompted the disciplinary charges against her,” wrote Justice Judith Farbey.
Additionally, Justice Farbey noted, “The recruitment of social workers has at its centre the objective of keeping safe vulnerable adults and children. By being dishonest in her interview, [the licensee] placed her own interests above the protection of the health, safety, and well-being of the public contrary to the overarching objective. The Panel was wrong and irrational to conclude otherwise. The Panel could not rationally conclude that the risk to public health, safety and well-being had been remediated in circumstances where [the licensee] did not recognise the risk and had shown no insight into her conduct.”
The sanctions decision was also flawed, both because it was based on the panel’s unreasonable finding that the licensee had remediated her conduct, and on the panel’s finding that the licensee’s personal and financial circumstances mitigated her conduct.
The Court remitted the case to the panel for a second sanctions decision.