Protecting the whistleblowers. Part 1

A senior social worker whistleblower is left in legal limbo following a public interest disclosure. Is there any real protection?
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Simon Ferrigno with additional reporting by Lauren Bayliss

Barbara Schaefer has spent the last few years living on nothing much. Why? Because she blew the whistle. She reported a failure to safeguard a patient at a major hospital Trust. In doing so, she exposed the inadequacies of whistleblowing protection legislation and the weaknesses of a legal system that has hollowed out support for victims of poor employment practices. Employers can victimise the whistleblower with impunity.

She wants justice, though and is still fighting for it. She wants an acknowledgement of what happened to her, of how she was left without a job for trying to do the right thing by those dependent on the service provided by the Primary Trust she worked for – a Mental Health Trust with a public record of poor practices regarding patient safety: in 2013, the BBC reported on 7 deaths over the years of patients at that Trust.

Most importantly, Barbara wants true and effective inspections and mental health care.

Public Interest Disclosure in context

Barbara is motivated by a belief that ‘public bodies need to be held accountable’. This did not happen in the case she described to us. Barbara Schaefer worked in social care, where real people can be hurt if professionals are not accountable and ignore procedures. This was the dividing line for Barbara.



Barbara tells us she was discredited by the Mental Health Trust (Leicestershire Partnership Trust – LPT) and later their lawyers (unfairly and without foundation), after she raised concerns – not before: whistleblowing protection is not working.

Worse: there has been no legal representation for Barbara. As a result, she has been attempting to navigate the British justice system by herself.  A system that is a pale shadow of its former self, hollowed out by austerity and lack of experienced judges.

Ms Schaefer’s experience with LPT and the Court is staggering. She observes that criticism for poor services by the CQC (Care Quality Commission) after inspections can be slow to lead to change, sometimes only coming through after concerns have been raised publicly. The most recent report by the CQC on LPT showed services that are not satisfactory with a 2019 follow up report showing much still to do in achieving improvements.

Among the areas of concern raised by the CQC and reported in the Leicester Mercury were that acute wards for working age adults and ‘psychiatric intensive care units’ were rated inadequate and ‘Long stay / rehabilitation mental health wards for working age adults – Inadequate”. This is exactly the type of setting where Barbara worked. The inspection report also mentions a bullying culture, issues with ‘trust level governance’ and ‘a failure to address keys issues’.

Barbara made her public interest disclosure (PID) in January 2011, about a question of mental health safeguarding. This should be one of the easiest areas to defend under the 1998 ‘whistleblowers act‘  where someone’s disclosure means they are protected by law against defamation or detriment if they act out of concern ‘that the health or safety of any individual has been, is being or is likely to be endangered’.


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Safeguarding

The safeguarding matter Barbara made her Public Interest Disclosure about (less than a week before her contract was terminated) concerned a female patient who, earlier that January, after the holidays, had told a nurse about sexual abuse by a family member. The nurse told Barbara Schaefer that this had previously been reported to the Consultant, who did not act on it.

Barbara says she raised a safeguarding alert with the matron (who, as it came to light later was likely implicated in the departure of the manager who had hired Barbara).

At the same time, medical concern led to a professionals’ meeting for peer supervision about this very patient: The speciality doctor raised concerns about that  patient’s medication during a period of the Consultant’s absence. Barbara had been invited to attend.  A Senior Consultant from LPT confirmed there had long been a suspicion this patient was being abused: “At one point (the patient) threw herself down a flight of stairs. This was seen by some as due to the father kissing her more in a boyfriend – girlfriend kind of manner.”  Social Services had not followed up on previous concerns as the alleged perpetrator denied them.

The Senior Consultant, now retired, vehemently opposed that his statement should be disclosed at the upcoming safeguarding meeting, threatening Barbara with a ‘management response’.

This is where the victimisation in this case begins, and Barbara’s long nightmare journey to seek justice – an ‘interesting learning curve’ and ‘the most complex case of my career’, she calls it now.

The safeguarding meeting went ahead, Barbara disclosed what she had learned: namely the suspicion that even historic sexual abuse was being ignored. 

The management response followed. Barbara left the Trust, followed by a bad reference, written by someone who had never even supervised Barbara, let alone criticised her work, leading to a professional with decades of experience losing years of income.

Background

Barbara Schaefer is a senior social worker. She has lived in the UK for over 20 years. Since her accreditation as a social worker in the UK in January 2007, she worked very complex cases and with excellent or good references throughout. Her senior level of professional experience enabled her to work as a Locum, through an agency, taking on contracts at various locations, usually for a period of 3 months.

The contract with LPT was open ended due to the possibility it might need to last until the unit would be closed. She was again contracted via an agency to work in an in-patient unit to assess patients, a unit LPT was determined to close, according to the families of patients. LPT had previously failed in an attempt to close the unit due to public protest from patients’ families. As far as Barbara remembers, LPT was keen to sell the land the unit is based on to free assets.

She started working with LPT in November 2010. At the interview, a manager had told her they were going to close the unit whatever her assessments of patients, after she had raised the issue that it would be unprofessional and unethical for her to change assessments according to the Trust’s plans. This statement may have made the manager’s position untenable for LPT. This manager left LPT under a cloud early in 2011.

At the end of January 2011 Barbara was dismissed with a week’s wages in lieu of notice. This might have made sense:  the Public Consultation about closure was being delayed, meaning her role was not needed. However, the aforementioned Safeguarding Meeting that took place immediately before that leaves us asking what really happened and leaves Barbara, ten years later, still trying to find the answer through the courts.

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