Name:

Deborah Elaine Smith

Registration number:
W/2002979
Date:
06/03/2017 - 07/03/2017
Time:
9.30am
Residential Childcare Worker
Removal Order
Care Council for Wales, Southgate House, Wood Street, Cardiff, CF10 1EW
Formerly Cardiff Council
Fitness to Practise

Charges

The Registrant allegedly formed an inappropriate relationship with a former resident of the Home where she worked. 

Outcome

Removal Order

Decision on facts

The Committee has found the facts alleged in the Charge proved.

Reasons

The Registrant is a Registered Child Care Worker. She worked at a South Wales Children’s Home (which we will refer to as “the Home”) from April 2002 until her suspension from employment on or around 22 November 2014. The Home provided accommodation and support to highly vulnerable children with complex emotional needs. The individual now identified as Person A had been resident at the Home from July 2007 to September 2008. She was thought to have been very vulnerable at the time of her stay at the Home.

The Registrant’s suspension followed her employer’s receipt of a police report about an incident at the flat occupied by Person A on 15 November 2014. The Registrant was present when the police attended late at night in response to a call from a concerned neighbour who had heard shouting. Person A is recorded by the police to have said that she and the Registrant had been out drinking alcohol that day and that she and the Registrant were girlfriends. The police noted that no offences had been committed but they were concerned to report the Registrant’s presence in light of her professional registration.

The Registrant’s employers began a disciplinary investigation to ascertain whether the Registrant has formed an inappropriate relationship with Person A. This led ultimately to her dismissal. The Registrant accepted that she had formed a supportive friendship with Person A but she denied that there was anything inappropriate in that.

The Committee heard evidence from the Registered Manager of the Home (“the RM”) and from a Workforce Development Manager who was the person tasked with undertaking the employer’s disciplinary investigation (“the WDM”).

The Charge advanced by the Care Council reads as follows:

That the Registrant, between 1 January 2014 and 7 July 2015, while registered as a Residential Child Care Worker and employed at the Children’s Home:

  1. Formed an inappropriate relationship with Person A, a former resident of the Home.

The Committee noted that the only element of the Charge which was disputed was the allegation that the Registrant’s relationship with Person A was inappropriate. It determined that the relationship was inappropriate for the following reasons:

  • It was against the practice at the Home and the advice of the RM.
  • There was no reason for the Registrant to contact or befriend a former resident of the Home
  • Person A was a vulnerable individual and the Registrant allowed inappropriate dependency to develop

The Committee accepted the evidence of the RM that she was immediately concerned when she read the police report because the Registrant was at Person A’s flat, there appeared to be a dependent relationship and Person A referred to the Registrant as her girlfriend. The Registrant said that, on the night in question, she received a telephone call from Person A who was in distress. The RM noted that, if Person A was in crisis, she would have been able to telephone the Emergency Duty Team (EDT) and the Registrant would have known that. There was no reason for the Registrant, as a registered child care professional, to be in Person A’s flat at night. There were also the added factors of the use of alcohol and raised voices which led to the police being called. The Committee was satisfied that all of these factors contributed to the inappropriateness of the relationship.

The Committee also accepted the evidence of the RM that Person A had a very traumatic childhood and had been involved in very risky behaviour. There was no dispute that Person A believed herself to be suffering from a personality disorder and that she was accessing counselling services at the time. The Committee was satisfied that Person A remained vulnerable at the relevant time. The Registrant said in her disciplinary interview that she was a “friend and advocate” of Person A. The RM said that she was concerned about the Registrant referring to herself as an “advocate” for Person A because this implied a professional role for which she was not qualified. The Registrant said that she had accompanied Person A to medical appointments and to counselling. The Registrant asserted that Person A called her in an agitated state on the night of the police attendance at Person A’s flat. The Committee was satisfied that Person A, as a result of her vulnerability, had formed a clear dependency on the Registrant, which was in itself inappropriate.

The Committee was told that, at the time in question, the employer’s written policy did not expressly prohibit contact between staff and former residents. The Care Council’s Code of Practice for Social Care Workers provided that social care workers must uphold public trust and confidence in social care services and must not form inappropriate personal relationships with service users. Neither the policy nor the Code referred to those, such as Person A, with a history of being resident in a Children’s Home as opposed to individuals currently using services. The Committee accepted however the evidence of the RM that all of the staff within the Home had a clear understanding of the need to ensure that they behaved appropriately in respect of former residents.

The RM gave examples of situations in which a staff member might encounter a former resident accidentally and how they would politely leave and then report the encounter. The WDM spoke with the other members of the Home’s staff who all expressed a clear understanding that the maintenance of boundaries applied both to current and former residents.

On the basis of this evidence the Committee was satisfied that the Registrant must have clearly understood that befriending a former resident would be considered unprofessional behaviour. Further to this, the Committee noted that the Registrant was trained to a high level, holding an NVQ level three and she was described by the RM as being “boundary driven” in her approach to her work. The RM recalled that the Registrant was present during discussion of boundaries as part of consultation on the draft Care Council for Wales Practice Guidance for Residential Child Care Workers. The RM said that there was significant discussion amongst the staff concerning boundaries and that the Registrant did not mention any ongoing relationship with Person A either at that time or later. The Registrant accepted in her disciplinary interview that she was involved in this discussion.

The Committee was therefore satisfied that the Registrant given her training and experience must have known that the relationship was inappropriate. The Committee found that the Registrant was not open about her relationship with Person A. Further, the Registrant was the professional and she, not Person A, had the responsibility for maintaining unambiguous boundaries between her and a former resident.

The Committee therefore found this charge proved.

The Committee went on to consider whether it could reach a finding about the exact nature of the relationship between the Registrant and Person A at the time relevant to the Charge. It noted the following evidence.

The police evidence was that Person A said that she and the Registrant were girlfriends at the time of the police attendance. The RM said that she had been contacted by another residential child care worker in the summer of 2016 who said that the Registrant had told her that she was now in a relationship with Person A. When questioned, the RM said that she believed this to mean a romantic relationship.

When interviewed by her employer in February 2015, the Registrant said “When this incident happened we were friends”. The Committee also noted that the Registrant asserted within a written statement received by the Care Council on 30 November 2016 “Firstly I would like to make it crystal clear that [Person A] and I were not in any form of sexual relationship at this time, we were simply friends…”.

The Committee was unable to determine on the available evidence the exact nature of the relationship and specifically whether a sexual relationship existed at the time relevant to the Charge. It remained of the view however that the relationship was clearly an inappropriate one for a regulated professional.

Decision on misconduct

The Committee considered again all of the information before it including the Registrant’s written submissions.

The Committee accepted the legal advice provided and had regard to the Code of Practice for Social Care Workers, which was the edition in force at the relevant time.

Decision

The Committee has concluded that the Registrant's fitness to practise is currently impaired on the ground of Misconduct.

Reasons

First the Committee considered the question of whether one of the six grounds of impairment was present. It determined that the only relevant ground in this case was that of Misconduct. In determining whether this ground was made out, the Committee considered the Code of Practice for Social Care Workers. In doing so, it decided that Person A was properly considered to be a “Service User” within the language of the Code. She was a vulnerable individual with a history of being a Children’s Home resident who continued, on the Registrant’s own evidence to access counselling services.

The Committee determined that, by allowing an inappropriate relationship with Person A to develop, the Registrant failed to meet the expectations set out within the following sections of the Code:

1. As a social care worker, you must protect the rights and promote the interests of service users and carers.

This includes:

1.3 supporting service users’ rights to control their lives and make informed choices about the services they receive;

2. As a social care worker, you must strive to establish and maintain the trust and confidence of service users and carers.

This includes:

2.1 being honest and trustworthy;

2.2 communicating in an appropriate, open, accurate and straightforward way;

2.4 being reliable and dependable;

2.6 declaring issues that might create conflicts of interest and making sure that they do not influence your judgement or practice.

3. As a social care worker, you must promote the independence of service users while protecting them as far as possible from danger or harm.

This includes:

3.8 recognising and using responsibly the power that comes from your work with service users and carers.

5. As a social care worker, you must uphold public trust and confidence in social care services.

In particular you must not:

5.4 form inappropriate personal relationships with service users;

5.8 behave in a way, in work or outside work, which would call into question your suitability to work in social care services.

6. As a social care worker, you must be accountable for the quality of your work and take responsibility for maintaining and improving your knowledge and skills.

This includes:

6.1 meeting relevant standards of practice and working in a lawful, safe and effective way;

6.3 informing your employer or the appropriate authority about any personal difficulties that might affect your ability to do your job competently and safely;

6.5 working openly and co-operatively with colleagues and treating them with respect.

The Committee therefore concluded that the Registrant had fallen significantly short of the expectations of numerous aspects of the Code.

The Committee went on to consider whether the Registrant’s actions had posed a risk to individuals using services. It determined that she did put Person A’s welfare at risk and that this was a continuing risk. The Registrant encouraged an inappropriate dependency on her, rather than reliance on professional agencies. During the employer’s disciplinary investigation, the Registrant produced a letter which purported to have been composed by Person A. By involving Person A in the disciplinary proceedings as a support for the Registrant, she created a risk that Person A would be alienated from the employers, who would otherwise have been a source of potential support to her. Also, by purporting to act as an advocate for Person A, the Registrant risked keeping Person A away from the right services because she was not qualified to advise on the correct resources or supports.

The Committee was of the view that the Registrant’s integrity could not be relied on because she knowingly engaged in and continued an inappropriate relationship. She did not inform her manager of the ongoing relationship, her meetings with Person A, the fact that she was accompanying Person A to medical and counselling appointments or her involvement in the police attendance.

The Committee decided that the Registrant’s actions, for the reasons set out above, amounted to a breach of a fundamental tenet of the social care profession.

The Committee concluded that the Registrant’s fitness to practice was impaired on the ground of Misconduct at the time of the Charge.

Next, the Committee considered whether the Registrant’s fitness to practice was currently impaired. The Committee acknowledged that the Registrant had a long previous history of safe practice at the Home but it was nevertheless unable to consider her engagement in a relationship with Person A to be an isolated example of Misconduct. The relationship has continued over a significant period and the Registrant repeatedly failed to be open with her employers about its extent.

The Registrant has not participated in this hearing. There was therefore no indication that she had taken steps to remediate her impairment. The Committee carefully re-considered the Registrant’s written submissions but found these to contain no evidence of any acceptance that her decision to encourage a relationship with Person A was wrong. Rather the Registrant presents as increasingly indignant at criticisms of her decision-making. The Committee determined that the impairment was current.

The Committee therefore finds that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired on the Ground of Misconduct.

Decision on sanction

The Committee has accepted the legal advice provided and has had regard to the Care Council for Wales’s Indicative Sanctions Guidance.

Decision

The Committee imposes a Removal Order.

Reasons

In considering which if any sanction was appropriate the Committee noted the following aggravating and mitigating factors.

In the absence of the Registrant at the hearing, there was limited mitigating information before the Committee but a mitigating factor taken into account was the Registrant’s long previous history of good practice as a residential care worker at the Home. This was fully acknowledged by the RM who said that the existence of the inappropriate relationship with Person A came as a shock, the Registrant having given no previous ground for concern over boundary issues. She has not previously been subject to any action by the Care Council.

The Committee identified a number of serious aggravating issues. The Registrant was not open about the ongoing relationship. The Committee has found that she did not take opportunities to make it transparent. Whilst the start of relationship may not have been premeditated, the Registrant chose to continue it before and during her employer’s disciplinary procedure. The Committee therefore found that elements of the Registrant’s behaviour amounted to pre-meditated wrong-doing and to concealment of wrong-doing.

Her employer would have trusted her to conduct herself outside work in a way that was compatible with her role and registration. The Committee concluded that Person A was entitled to expect the Registrant, as a regulated individual and someone who had previously held a parenting role in respect of Person A, to maintain proper boundaries and to act in a way which best protected Person A’s welfare. The Committee was therefore of the view that Person A’s trust was also breached.

The Registrant’s actions caused harm to Person A, an individual using services. Person A states in her letter of support for the Registrant that she feels “distressed and overwhelmed with guilt since finding out that [the Registrant] has been suspended”. The Registrant’s relationship with Person A has therefore resulted in Person A feeling responsible for the Registrant’s involvement in a disciplinary procedure.

The Registrant’s written submissions contain strong protestations that she has done nothing wrong. The Committee was driven to conclude that she lacks any insight into the impairment of her fitness to practise or the impact or effect on others. She does not accept that she has harmed or posed risk to Person A and therefore expresses no regret or remorse.

Although the Registrant has provided written submissions to the Care Council on two occasions, she has chosen not to attend this hearing or a pre-hearing review and has therefore shown only limited cooperation with the Care Council.

The Committee has already found that the Registrant has failed to meet the expectations set out within numerous sections of the Code of Practice for Social Care Workers. It finds that she has shown serious disregard for the Code.

The Committee first considered whether to close the matter without sanction or whether to impose an Admonishment. It found that the impairment was too serious. Even the longest period of Admonishment would not represent a proportionate sanction. Given her lack of insight and continuing denial that there is a problem to be addressed, a risk to individuals remains and is not adequately addressed by the imposition of an Admonishment which would not prevent the Registrant continuing in practice without any remedial work having been done. The Committee also finds that imposition of an Admonishment would not satisfy the need to protect public confidence in social care providers and their regulators. The public would expect a strong sanction to be imposed.

The Committee has no information about whether the Registrant is in employment currently. In the absence of the involvement of the Registrant and a current employer, the Committee found it impractical to impose a Conditions of Practice Order. In any event, the Committee is likely to have been unable to frame appropriate conditions given the nature of the impairment and its concealment.

The Committee then considered whether to impose a Suspension Order either with or without Conditions. In order for either to be an appropriate sanction, it would be necessary for the Committee to be confident that the impairment of the Registrant’s fitness to practise would have been addressed by the end of any suspension period. The Committee could not have that confidence in this case. The Registrant has not shown any insight and has not expressed any commitment to work with the Care Council to comply with any condition imposed.

The Committee finds that it is necessary to impose a Removal Order. The Registrant’s decision to engage in and continue her relationship with Person A was fundamentally incompatible with her role as a Registered Residential Child Care Worker. She has shown a persistent lack of insight into the inappropriateness of her actions. The Committee decided that, in the absence of participation by the Registrant, there was no other means to protect the public.