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Social worker who made inappropriate comments about service users on Facebook is struck off

HCPC Panel strikes off social worker who discussed children and families she worked with on her Facebook page

Published on 8th October 2019

A social worker has been struck off the HCPC register after she made inappropriate comments about service users on her Facebook page.

Between November 2017 and August 2018 during which time Ms Joanna Elizabeth Thomas worked for both Nottinghamshire and North East Lincolnshire Councils in employment secured through Caritas Recruitment Agency and made a number of posts on Facebook which related to her work.

These posts included comments about families and children that she had visited and Ms Thomas' Facebook profile was visible to the public and therefore her posts/ comments were visible to anyone who accessed her Facebook profile.

A service user's mother responded to the posts, questioning whether “inviting the public to comment on families’ private concerns” broke rules in relation to professional conduct. Ms thomas responded: "No it does not. I did not name anyone, I did not mention area and who said it was about work? Stop stalking me”. Ms Thomas then ensured that her Facebook account privacy settings were changed to friends only.

On 13 August 2018, a local news website, Grimsby Live, published an article detailing Ms Thomas's Facebook “rants”. It was reported that some service users had recognised themselves or their families by the comments.

Ms Thomas refered herself to the HCPC on 13 August 2018.

Giving evidence to the Health and Care Professions Tribunal Service, Ms Thomas said that she had been a social worker for 24 years and was passionate about her work and had in particular enjoyed helping young people.

She explained that prior to obtaining work through Caritas Recruitment Agency, she had previously worked for 16 years in a managerial capacity. However, Ms Thomas told the Panel that she found the adjustment to providing a frontline service extremely difficult. She stated that she felt unsupported and was provided with inadequate supervision. She explained that she felt under pressure of time and was unhappy with some of the decisions made by her managers concerning some Service Users. She also explained to the Panel that she felt personally isolated at this time and did not feel able to turn to family, friends or professional colleagues for support.

Ms Thomas said she had used Facebook for many years and had always set her privacy settings so that only her “Facebook friends” could read the comments she posted. She told the Panel that she had received an email from Facebook informing her that her account had been hacked. As a result, she had changed her password but had not thought to check her privacy settings. She stated that she now believed that this was when her privacy settings had been changed to public without her consent.

Ms Thomas accepted that she had posted all of the comments, she ultimately accepted that all of the comments were inappropriate and offensive and may have caused service users, who were able to identify themselves from the posts, distress and harm. Ms Thomas apologised for her actions and for the harm caused to service users, colleagues and to the wider profession. She stated that she was devastated by her actions and believed that she had thrown away a 24 career that she loved.

When asked why she had posted the comments at all, Ms Thomas stated that on reflection, she did not know why, and that they had been “rants” used as a coping mechanism to deal with her frustration.

She added that she had self-referred to the HCPC as soon as she realised what had happened and had always fully admitted her actions.

Ms Thomas informed the Panel that she has decided never to return to practise as a social worker. She said that she has four years until she plans to retire and that she has found employment as a carer looking after individuals with autism. She told the Panel that she found this work rewarding and that she was still helping others by providing social care. She stated that she had no desire to return to practise as a social worker as she did not wish to be placed under pressure or to have to abide by the decisions of managers that she disagreed with.

A character witness for Ms Thomas, SW, told the Panel that she had previously worked with Ms Thomas for three years at Action for Children, an Independent Fostering Agency and that she has known Ms Thomas for 5 years. She described Ms Thomas as a “committed, dedicated, approachable and knowledgeable” member of staff and practitioner. She described her as “passionate” and of often being the “voice of the voiceless” who would at times “share her views when it came to defending the indefensible whether that be the foster carers or the young people”.

SW said she did not think it was Ms Thomas' her intention to be malicious or to cause anyone harm or to bring the profession or those she worked for at the time, into any form of retribution.

The Panel found Ms Thomas to be open and candid and genuinely remorseful and distressed about her actions. The Panel noted that the Registrant had difficulty in answering some of the questions put to her by Ms Sharpe and by Panel members and at times presented as both angry and aggressive. Accordingly, the Panel found her evidence to be credible in part.

The Panel found that SW’s evidence related more to Ms Thomas competence which is not at issue. The Panel also noted that when providing character evidence about Ms Thomas, it was apparent that SW was unaware of the full extent and nature of the Allegation. The Panel concluded that SW’s evidence was not of assistance to the Panel at the fact-finding stage.

In all of the circumstances, the Panel was satisfied that Ms Thomas' conduct was egregious and amounted to serious professional misconduct that would rightly be characterised as deplorable by Service Users, fellow practitioners and the wider general public.

The Panel was of the view that Ms Thomas has demonstrated genuine remorse for her actions and has clearly taken positive steps to remediate. She has also taken steps to broaden her personal and professional support network to assist her in dealing with future stressful situations should they occur. In addition, Ms Thomas told the Panel during her evidence that she had not worked as a social worker since she self-referred to the HCPC and that she has no intention of returning to practice.

Notwithstanding these positive steps, the Panel was concerned however, that Ms Thomas did not appear to have full insight into the potential consequences of her behaviour and in particular its effect upon service users, colleagues and the profession. The Panel was satisfied on the evidence that her behaviour had caused harm to service users and that in the absence of full insight there was a risk of repetition should she return to unrestricted practice as a social worker.

The Panel was satisfied that this was a serious case involving a breach of confidentiality and a breach of trust of Service Users. The Panel noted that Ms Thomas had previously practised as a social worker for 24 years and had an unblemished record.

Two emails sent to the Hearings Officer by Ms Thomas were shown to the Panel. The first was timed at 14:42 on 24/09/19 and was sent in response to an email sent by the Hearings Officer containing the Panel’s decision on Facts, Grounds and Impairment. In that email, the Registrant stated “…I request that my name be removed permanently from the Register, as I never wish to be a social worker again. I am fully aware of the impact my actions had on the public, my colleagues and profession…I just want my name removed.”

The second email was timed 14:50 on 24/09/19 and was received in response to the presenting officer’s submissions on sanction. In that email, the Registrant stated: “…please tell Panel I want my name removed from the Register".

The aggravating factors of the case were the breach of service users’ confidentiality amounted to a serious breach of trust, the misconduct occurred over a nine-month period during which the Registrant was employed by two local authorities and Ms Thomas only has limited insight into her failings.

The mitigating factors were Ms Thomas has made full admissions and self-referred to the HCPC, she has demonstrated genuine remorse, during her evidence to the Panel the Registrant apologised for her behaviour, she is of previous good character and has previously worked as a registered social worker for 24 years without any regulatory findings against her, she has taken some steps to remediate her misconduct and the Panel has received positive testimonials and heard from a character witness relating to the Registrant’s practice.

The Sanctions Policy states that a Suspension Order is likely to be appropriate where there are serious concerns but that they do not require the Registrant to be struck off the Register because the Registrant has insight, the issues are unlikely to be repeated and there is evidence to suggest the Registrant is likely to be able to resolve or remedy their failings.

In this case, the Panel has found that the Registrant does not have full insight and that there is a risk of repetition should she return to unrestricted practice. Furthermore, during her evidence, she stated several times in strident terms that she had no intention or desire to return to practice as a social worker. The Panel noted that this intention had been repeated in the two emails sent by the Registrant to the Hearings Officer. Given its findings and the Registrant’s attitude, the Panel concluded that a Suspension Order would not be the appropriate sanction in this case.

A striking off order is usually issued when the registrant lacks insight, continues to repeat the misconduct or, where a registrant has been suspended for two years continuously, fails to address a lack of competence; or is unwilling to resolve matters. The Panel was satisfied that this was a case that met the criteria due to the seriousness of the misconduct, the Registrant’s lack of full insight and the Registrant’s attitude towards returning to practise as a social worker.

The Panel therefore decided to issue Ms Thomas with a striking off order.

 

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