A senior social worker was unfairly sacked by a town hall after she allowed a troubled teenager in care to be taken for ‘time out’ at a Blackpool caravan, a judge has ruled.
Employment Judge Katherine Ross said that Tameside council had acted ‘outside the band of reasonable responses of a reasonable employer’ when it dismissed one of its long-serving social workers for gross misconduct.
The authority had claimed in allowing an overnight visit to the caravan to take place, the woman, referred to as J Taylor, had committed a serious breach of her contract which could only result in her losing her job.
But following an employment tribunal hearing, the judge ruled that Ms Taylor had in fact acted ‘conscientiously in exercising her professional judgement’, and with the child’s ‘best interests at heart’.
Judge Ross ordered the town hall to pay her compensation, which will be determined at a separate hearing.
Tameside council said it would be inappropriate to comment on an individual case but said they would respect the findings of the court while ‘continuing to safeguard vulnerable children’.
Ms Taylor, who had more than 15 years’ experience in social care in Tameside, and had been the service unit manager since 2013, with an ‘exemplary record’.
In 2016 her role was expanded to cover the borough’s residential care homes, despite her concerns she had no experience of managing them.
The hearing heard that at this time the town hall’s children’s services were under a ‘great deal of strain’ and staff often worked ‘excessive’ hours.
The services were rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted that same year.
In one of the homes was a 16-year-old girl – known in the hearing as ‘Child X’ – whose behaviour was extremely challenging and ‘volatile’.
Reports found she was violent to staff, often went missing from the home, and was at risk of a criminal record, damaging property and had emotional instability.
But after a period of one-to-one care as the home’s only resident, the home manager found she had ‘come a million miles’.
This was partly why Ms Taylor objected when her senior manager informed her that another child, aged 12, was to be moved in as an emergency placement.
The home’s ‘statement of purpose’ was that it did not accept emergency placements.
The-then interim director of children’s services, James Thomas, told the hearing that he had authorised the placement as although it was not ideal, there was nowhere else to place the child who was deemed very vulnerable.
After this, the teenage girl’s behaviour deteriorated again and resulted in her lashing out at a member of staff, shoving and hair-pulling.
Social workers believed she was struggling with having to share care and staff attention with another child.
The manager of the home, who had 30 years’ experience, had said that a short break away would benefit the girl as she ‘needed some time out’ and spoke to Ms Taylor about it.
She offered to take Child X to a caravan she owned in Blackpool for the night during college half-term, where she could stay free of charge meaning there was no financial conflict of interest.
After querying whether they would both be safe, Ms Taylor agreed and the visit took place in October 2017.
The hearing was told it went ‘smoothly’ and the teenager enjoyed the visit.
But a day later an unannounced inspection of the home raised queries as to why no individual risk assessment had been carried out for the trip.
The home manager reported there was generic risk assessment covering activities and lone working, but she had not completed one specifically for the one-night holiday.
Two days later Ms Taylor was suspended from work and following two investigatory meetings, was dismissed for gross misconduct on February 1, 2018 by Mr Thomas.
She lodged an appeal but was unsuccessful.
The council argued that she had failed to undertake ‘appropriate governance’ before allowing the privately-owned caravan to be used for council business.
And they said that through ‘ineffective, negligent and unsafe leadership’
she failed in her duty of care to safeguard an employee and a child, which was a serious breach of safeguarding and health and safety.
Ms Taylor had admitted her decision-making could have been more ‘robust’ and she took ownership of the error.
However, at the tribunal Judge Ross ruled that she had been unfairly dismissed, and that she had been exercising her ‘professional judgement’ with Child X.
“I find the judgement was exercised with the child’s best interests at heart,” she concluded.
“A reasonable employer of this size and undertaking would not dismiss a social worker with lengthy and unblemished service for an error of professional judgement in permitting a young person to be taken away overnight on holiday, where another experienced member of staff had made that suggestion and undertaken to carry out the appropriate assessments in the usual way.”
However, she said that any compensation must be reduced by 10pc for ‘contributory fault’.
A spokesperson for Tameside council said it prides itself on a ‘strong and positive employee relations record’, and had no finding made against it by the tribunal for more than 20 years.
“The council also takes its safeguarding duties very seriously and unfortunately on this occasion the employment tribunal did not agree that our approach to safeguarding children was the overriding objective,” they added.
“We do not intend to make comment on the case itself as that would be inappropriate as the facts speak for themselves including the finding of contributory fault by the employee.
“We intend to respect the finding of the court whilst continuing to safeguard the rights of vulnerable children.”
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