Council must pay £22,500 over 'poor reference'

A council must pay £22,500 to a social worker after they gave her an inaccurate reference that caused a job offer to be withdrawn.

Elaine Williams won the payout from Hertfordshire County Council after she raised concerns over the allegedly neglectful treatment of two foster children.

She had handed in her notice on the same day she raised concerns.

Three weeks later in a critical reference to a prospective employer the council said she had escalated her concerns after only one visit "without consulting with management and following procedure".

'These children cannot speak for themselves'

An employment tribunal ruled that Ms Williams's employment offer was subsequently withdrawn due to the report.

Ms Williams said she had feared a four-month-old baby could have been "mauled by a fox" after being left outside alone and had difficulties breathing.

She also claimed the foster parents gave "mixed messages" about what its two-year-old sibling had eaten for breakfast.

Her concerns were emailed to a manager at the council and the children's assigned social worker in June 2022.

In a follow-up email to the council's independent reviewing officer (IRO), Ms Williams said: "These children cannot speak for themselves, so I am the voice of the child.

"Maybe I have saved this child from being stung by a bee, mauled by a fox, or even being killed."

The judge heard Ms Williams had worked with the council for six weeks as a locum social worker and had received a job offer from a fostering agency which she accepted prior to visiting the foster children - known as Child A and Child I - in June 2022.

She visited the property in the morning as part of an announced visit and again at midday unannounced, worried that the younger child was struggling to breathe because "his nostrils were encrusted" and both were being neglected.

She handed in her notice on the same day as the visit but was concerned the matter would not be followed up after her departure, prompting her email to include the local authority designated officer and IRO as recipients - officials outside of her "normal chain of command".

'Injury to feelings'

In a majority verdict, the tribunal judge and two members found "the reference was the reason for employment being withdrawn" but had not been motivated by malice.

"The tribunal is satisfied that the claimant believed her disclosure to be in the public interest, as she had a genuinely held belief that there were signs that could signify neglect," they said.

They added the reference was inaccurate as it wrongly claimed Ms Williams had only visited the family once when she had actually visited twice - once on the day in question and once before with another social worker.

The reference also implied Ms Williams had only proposed removing the foster children from the household as a next step, when she had also suggested monthly unannounced spot checks, the tribunal ruled.

Hertfordshire County Council was ordered to pay £22,500 to Ms Williams, including £5,000 for injury to feelings.

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