The complaint against the above individual member was taken to Adjudication in line with the Professional Conduct Procedure.
The complaint was heard under the BACP Professional Conduct Procedure and the Panel considered the alleged breaches of the BACP Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy.
The focus of the complaint, as summarised by the Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel, is as follows: One of Ms Blackledge's clients, referred to in the complaint submission as Mr C, was regarded by the complainant organisation as a vulnerable adult due to his cocaine addiction, and in [ . . . ] Mr C's wife made a complaint to the organisation against Ms Blackledge alleging that she had had an affair with her husband. This complaint led to a formal investigation in the course of which it is alleged that further concerns relating to Ms Blackledge came to light. These further concerns included issues of timekeeping and completion of her hours of work; her whereabouts and accountability; her maintenance of boundaries and "personal overspill"; and issues relating to the accuracy of her paperwork and claim forms.
A wide ranging formal investigation was conducted by the organisation which involved obtaining and scrutinising a large amount of paperwork including Ms Blackledge's diary, her mobile phone records, her supervision records, her worksheets, her timesheets and her Client Contact Hours records. Ms Blackledge herself was interviewed twice, her work colleagues were interviewed, and the client and his wife, Mr and Mrs C, were also interviewed. The investigation concluded that there was strong evidence to support the allegation that Ms Blackledge had a personal relationship with Mr C before counselling ended and that she had a sexual relationship before or shortly after counselling ended, together with evidence which supported a number of other allegations of unprofessional conduct, and the matter was referred to a formal Disciplinary
At the Disciplinary Hearing (which Ms Blackledge declined to attend) the following formal allegations were before the panel arising out of the conclusions of the Formal Investigation:
Allegation 1:That Ms Blackledge began a personal relationship with a service user who was a vulnerable adult prior to counselling ending.
This allegation was evidenced by records of a multiplicity of mobile phone text messages allegedly between Ms Blackledge and Mr C during the currency of the counselling relationship, often of a personal and intimate nature and often late at night. This allegation was also supported by evidence from Mr C himself.
Allegation 2: That Ms Blackledge began an intimate sexual relationship with a vulnerable adult client before or shortly after counselling ended.
This allegation was similarly supported by mobile phone text messaging records and again by Mr C's statement during the Investigation, together with the statement of his wife. Ms Blackledge allegedly denied the existence of any such relationship when interviewed during the Investigation.
Allegation 3: That Ms Blackledge did not seek sufficient and adequate individual casework supervision before the personal relationship began.
This allegation was supported by statements from her colleagues and supervision notes to the effect that, while she allegedly had disclosed that her client Mr C had expressed feelings for her, she had stated that these were not reciprocated by her. Supervision notes indicated that her supervision had never altered from the minimum of 1.5 hours per month and had not increased during this period, contrary, it was alleged, to expectations given the gravity of the situation.
Allegation 4: That Ms Blackledge did not follow the BACP Ethical Framework for Good Practice and did not maintain appropriate, professional and ethical boundaries.
This allegation was evidenced by witness statements, including those of Mr and Mrs C, mobile phone logs and screenshots of phone bills and texts, many provided by Mr and Mrs C. It was alleged that there was clear evidence of both a personal and a sexual relationship between Ms Blackledge and her client around the counselling relationship, and a failure to respect a clear boundary between her work and her personal life in relation to this client.
Allegation 5: That Ms Blackledge continued to text and telephone the client and his wife with intimidating texts/voicemails after her first interview where she was told not to contact anyone involved in the investigation.
This was evidenced through a letter allegedly sent by the organisation to Ms Blackledge containing the instruction, and by way of screenshots and mobile phone records showing contact with Mr and Mrs C allegedly from Ms Blackledge in April 2013 during the Investigation.
Allegation 6: That Ms Blackledge claimed on her time sheet for hours she did not work.
Evidence was presented of early warnings by the organisation to Ms Blackledge in November 2012 of the need to keep accurate records of hours worked in order to be accountable, and of Ms Blackledge agreeing to do so. Despite that it was alleged that a number of her later claims for work done were fraudulent and were contradicted by witness statements from work colleagues concerning, for example, meetings that had been cancelled and time off that Ms Blackledge had taken away from work.
Allegation 7: That Ms Blackledge did not follow [ . . .] policies and procedures
Evidence of alleged breaches of a range of [ . . . ]'s policies and procedures were presented to the hearing, including alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct for Employees, Anti-Fraud, Bribery and Corruption, Data Protection, Information Security, Health and Safety and Social Media.
Allegation 8: That Ms Blackledge breached the Acceptable Use of ICT Policy in terms of using her work mobile for personal use with no arrangement or agreement to repay the costs and allowed her son to use/have access to her mobile (which contained client names, telephone numbers and texts)
This was evidenced by the alleged excessive texting between Ms Blackledge and Mr C and her alleged admission that she allowed her son to use the phone.
Allegation 9: That Ms Blackledge did not comply with the terms and conditions of service in that she did not cooperate with the interview and did not give truthful answers to questions asked.
Evidence supporting this allegation was presented in the form of the contradictions between what Ms Blackledge allegedly told the Investigation through her denials of any unprofessional relationship with Mr C, and the screenshots and phone records presented by Mr C. It was therefore alleged that the evidence of contact she had with Mr C demonstrated that she was lying at her Investigation interviews.
Allegation 10: That Ms Blackledge put other colleagues at risk by not informing them (as requested) of a safety concern which was a reasonable management instruction.
The organisation presented a risk assessment which had been done in relation to Ms Blackledge's own safety from possible retaliation from Mrs C and allegedly then instructed Ms Blackledge to inform all her work colleagues of this safety concern. Witness statements all suggest, it is alleged, that she failed to do so.
Allegation 11: By Ms Blackledge's actions she has damaged the reputation of [ . . . ] and brought the [ . . . ] into disrepute.
Evidence supporting this allegation came in the form of Mr and Mrs C's stated intention to sue the [ . . . ] because of the difficulties suffered and damage done to their marriage and family as a consequence of Ms Blackledge's conduct.
Allegation 12: That Ms Blackledge has breached the trust and confidence placed in her between employee and employer.
Evidence presented in relation to this allegation included Ms Blackledge's alleged inappropriate and unprofessional behaviour; her alleged failure to follow management instructions; her alleged dishonesty relating to her timesheet; her alleged breach of client confidentiality; and her alleged breaches of numerous [. . . ] policies and procedures.
The Disciplinary Hearing took place in Ms Blackledge's absence on 26 September 2013. It found all the allegations proved (allegations 8 and 10 being only partially upheld) and further held that Ms Blackledge's conduct amounted to gross misconduct. Had she not already resigned the panel found that she would have been summarily dismissed.
While drawing a clear distinction between workplace disciplinary proceedings and professional ethical considerations, the complainant organisation (itself an organisational member of BACP) alleged that aspects of Ms Blackledge's alleged conduct while in their employment also amounted to significant and serious breaches of the BACP Ethical Framework.
The Pre-Hearing Assessment Panel, in accepting this complaint, was concerned with the allegations made within the complaint suggesting a contravention of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy, and those in particular are as follows:
1. Ms Blackledge allegedly abused Mr C's trust in entering into a personal relationship with Mr C a vulnerable client and further abused his trust in having a sexual relationship with Mr C and in so doing allegedly failed to provide Mr C with a good quality of care.
2. Ms Blackledge allegedly failed in her responsibility to monitor and maintain her fitness to practise at a level enabling her to provide an effective service as illustrated by her not using supervision effectively once her effectiveness had been impaired through having an inappropriate non-professional relationship with Mr C.
3. Ms Blackledge allegedly failed to clarify and agree with Mr C their respective rights and responsibilities at the point during the counselling relationship when Mr C had started to have emotional feelings for Ms Blackledge.
4. Ms Blackledge allegedly did not respond appropriately to the complaint as illustrated by her alleged inappropriate contact with the Mr C and his wife following an instruction from the complainant organisation to refrain from contact with parties to the investigation.
5. Ms Blackledge allegedly failed to remedy any harm caused to Mr C.
6. Ms Blackledge allegedly failed to discuss with her supervisor, manager or other experienced practitioner the circumstances in which she may have harmed Mr C in order to ensure that the appropriate steps had been taken to mitigate any harm to Mr C and to prevent any repetition.
7. Ms Blackledge was allegedly not honest, straightforward and accountable in that she claimed on her timesheet for hours she had not worked.
8. Ms Blackledge allegedly did not take account of the different policies and ways of working while employed by the complainant organisation in that she allegedly failed to abide by the [ . . . ] Policies and Procedures, the acceptable use of ICT Policy and the terms and conditions of service.
9. Ms Blackledge allegedly failed to communicate with her colleagues about Mr C in a professional and respectful way consistent with the management of confidence in that she discussed her client work with Mr C with a colleague/s other than her supervisor relating to her feelings for Mr C.
10. Ms Blackledge allegedly failed to conduct her professional relationships in a spirit of mutual respect and attain good working relationships and systems of communication as illustrated by her alleged failure to communicate to colleagues a potential concern for safety following a risk assessment made in relation to herself; by her alleged failure to regard an instruction from her employer not to contact the parties to the investigation; by her alleged deception of her supervisor in supervision in not providing her full facts and keeping her informed with regard to the work with client C and by allegedly not being honest with [ . . . ], the counselling Services Co-ordinator, throughout the course of the investigation.
11. Ms Blackledge allegedly did not honour the trust of clients in that she allowed her son inappropriate access to her work phone containing client details.
12. Ms Blackledge's alleged behaviour, as evidenced by the complainant organisation, suggests a contravention in particular of paragraphs 1, 3, 11, 17, 40, 41, 42, 43, 51, 55, 56 and 62 and the ethical principles of Being Trustworthy, Beneficence and Non-Maleficence of the Ethical
Framework for Good Practice in Counselling & Psychotherapy (2010/2013), and showed a lack of the personal moral qualities of Integrity, Respect, Humility, Competence and Wisdom to which counsellors are strongly encouraged to aspire.
In response to a letter sent by BACP to the Member on 25 June 2014 requesting confirmation of whether or not she would be attending this hearing, the Member responded stating that she would not be in attendance at this hearing and that it could proceed without her or anyone else in attendance on her behalf. The matter was therefore referred for consideration under paragraph 4.9 of the Professional Conduct Procedure which states:
Where a Complainant or Member/Registrant Complained Against fails or refuses to attend a Professional Conduct Hearing, the Registrar has the power to decide to either:
a) proceed with the Hearing in the absence of one or both of the parties; or
b) adjourn the Hearing to a date not less than 28 days in advance; or
c) terminate the proceedings; or
d) refer the matter for consideration under Article 12.6 of the Memorandum & Articles of Association
The options were carefully considered and a decision was made by the Registrar to proceed with the hearing in the absence of the Member Complained Against and the member was notified of this in writing on 1 July 2014.
On balance, having fully considered the above, the Panel made the following findings:
1. There was evidence introduced by the complainant in the form of text messages and screenshots of messages between Ms Blackledge and Mr C which the panel found demonstrated that the nature of their relationship was both personal and sexual. Further, the Panel had sight of the interview record for Mr & Mrs C which corroborated the existence of a personal and sexual relationship between Ms Blackledge and Mr C. The Panel accepted that Mr C fell within the definition of a vulnerable client because he was a client seeking counselling and the reason for his referral which was set out in his referral form fit the criterion of a vulnerable client as depicted within the organisations' policies. The Panel therefore found that by entering into a personal and sexual relationship with a vulnerable client, Ms Blackledge abused Mr C's trust and failed to provide him with a good quality of care. This allegation is therefore upheld.
2. The Panel reviewed the notes of Ms Blackledge's clinical supervisor, which had been submitted by the complainant and noted that whilst these notes referred to Mr C's attraction to Ms Blackledge it made no mention of Ms Blackledge's own attraction to Mr C nor of the extent of her personal and sexual relationship with Mr C. In view of this, the Panel agreed that Ms Blackledge failed in her responsibility to monitor and maintain her fitness to practise at a level that enabled her to provide an effective service given that she failed to use supervision appropriately when her effectiveness had been impaired. This allegation is therefore upheld.
3. There was evidence that Ms Blackledge did make some attempt to clarify the rights and responsibilities with Mr C at the point during their counselling relationship when he disclosed that he had feelings for her. However, the panel found that the clarification given by Ms Blackledge was not sufficient and was inappropriate given that the panel accepted Mr C's written evidence that Ms Blackledge had given him the option of terminating therapy and embarking on a personal relationship. There was no evidence provided either in the record of the interview conducted by Ms Blackledge's employer at the time nor in the notes of her clinical supervisor that Ms Blackledge had clarified her responsibilities as a counsellor and made it explicitly clear to Mr C that she could not engage in a personal relationship with him. This allegation is therefore upheld.
4. The Panel saw evidence that Ms Blackledge was given explicit instructions both in the letter notifying her of the date of the investigatory interview and during the interview, not to contact any colleagues or witnesses involved in the investigation. The Panel saw evidence that despite this instruction, Ms Blackledge continued to enter into text message exchanges with Mr C and his wife, after the complaint had been made and found that in doing so Ms Blackledge did not respond appropriately to the complaint. This allegation is therefore upheld.
5. There was no evidence presented to the Panel that Ms Blackledge made any attempt to remedy the harm that she had caused to Mr C. The Panel found that Ms Blackledge's actions in continuing to contact Mr C when she had been explicitly told not to and issuing threats to him, she exacerbated the harm that she had caused to Mr C. This allegation is therefore upheld.
6. There was no evidence from the notes of Ms Blackledge's clinical supervisor nor in the notes of her line manager that Ms Blackledge had ever discussed with them or another experienced practitioner the circumstances in which she may have harmed Mr C to enable her to take the appropriate steps to mitigate any harm to him and to prevent any repetition. This was further evidenced by the text messages Ms Blackledge continued to send to Mr C after she was specifically directed not to have any contact with him. This allegation is therefore upheld.
7. The Panel heard evidence from the complainant that when Ms Blackledge's timesheets were reviewed, there was evidence that Ms Blackledge had claimed for time that she had not worked. Further the panel heard evidence that the hours that Ms Blackledge stated that she worked on the whiteboard used for that purpose by staff in the office did not add up to the number of hours that Ms Blackledge was required to work on a weekly basis. In view of both the oral and written evidence presented by the complainant the panel found that Ms Blackledge failed to be honest, straightforward and accountable in claiming on her timesheet for hours she had not worked. This allegation is therefore upheld.
8. The Panel heard oral evidence from the complainant and had the opportunity to review the written evidence provided and noted that Ms Blackledge was provided with a mobile phone for work purposes and a policy which set out the limitations of use for a work mobile was in force and not complied with by Ms Blackledge. In particular the panel saw evidence that Ms Blackledge had allowed her son to use her mobile phone, which contained client information and had engaged in extensive phone contact with Mr C without authorisation, both of which was against stated policy. The panel therefore found that in failing to comply with the policies her former employer had in place, Ms Blackledge failed to take account of the different policies and ways of working. This allegation is therefore upheld.
9. In the written evidence provided by the complainant there was evidence to suggest that Ms Blackledge had discussed Mr C with at least three colleagues, none of whom were her supervisor and discussed with one colleague the fact that she felt confused about how she felt for Mr C. Given that there was no evidence that Ms Blackledge had discussed these feelings with either her clinical supervisor or line manager, the Panel found that in discussing Mr C with her colleagues, which was against best practice within the organisation, Ms Blackledge failed to communicate with her colleagues in a professional and respectful way consistent with the management of confidence. This allegation is therefore upheld.
10. The Panel heard evidence that Ms Blackledge had discussed concerns she had in management supervision regarding Mrs C. As a result of these concerns, a risk assessment had been carried out and Ms Blackledge was given instructions to communicate the contents of this risk assessment with her colleagues. There was clear evidence presented by the complainant that Ms Blackledge did not comply with this request either by verbally notifying her colleagues or by emailing them which would have been the preferred method. In failing to do this, the Panel found that Ms Blackledge failed to conduct her professional relationships in a spirit of mutual respect and attain good working relationships and systems of communication. This part of the allegation is therefore upheld.
Further the Panel heard evidence that Ms Blackledge had been issued with clear written instructions not to contact any parties involved in the investigation, but despite this instruction continued to make contact with Mr C, a party in the investigation and issued threats. The Panel therefore found that Ms Blackledge did fail to regard an instruction from her employer not to contact parties to the investigation. This part of the allegation is therefore upheld.
The Panel noted that in the written evidence provided there was nothing to suggest that Ms Blackledge had disclosed to her clinical supervisor or line manager the true extent of her personal relationship with Mr C. Further there was evidence that Ms Blackledge did not discuss with her supervisor the fact that she had changed the length and frequency of her sessions with Mr C. The Panel therefore found that Ms Blackledge
deceived her supervisor in not providing her with the full facts and keeping her informed with her work with Mr C. This part of the allegation is therefore upheld.
It was noted by the Panel that during the course of the investigation, Ms Blackledge failed to acknowledge that she had engaged in a personal and sexual relationship with Mr C, despite the strong evidence indicating she had done so contained within the extensive text messages, some of which the Panel had sight of where Ms Blackledge referred to her personal relationship with Mr C and her feelings for him. The existence of a personal relationship was also confirmed by Mr and Mrs C during their interview. The Panel therefore found that Ms Blackledge had not been honest with the counselling services co-ordinator throughout the course of the investigation. This part of the allegation is therefore upheld.
For the reasons stated above, this allegation is upheld.
11. During her interview Ms Blackledge accepted that she gave her son access to her work mobile but stated that she did this because he needed to check whether his sim card worked. The Panel also saw evidence of numerous calls from Ms Blackledge's work phone to her personal phone, some of which were denoted in the call log as "mum". The Panel therefore found that in allowing her son access to her work mobile, which it found to be inappropriate, Ms Blackledge failed to honour the trust of her clients. This allegation is therefore upheld.
12. In light of the above findings, the Panel was satisfied that paragraphs 1, 3, 11, 17, 40, 41, 42, 43, 51, 55, 56 and 62 and the ethical principles of Being Trustworthy, Beneficence and Non-Maleficence of the Ethical Framework for Good Practice in Counselling and Psychotherapy 2010/2013 had been breached. It also found that Ms Blackledge lacked the personal moral qualities of Integrity, Respect, Humility, Competence and Wisdom to which all practitioners are strongly encouraged to aspire.
Accordingly, the Panel was unanimous in its decision that these findings amounted to Bringing the Profession into disrepute in that Ms Blackledge had behaved in such an infamous and disgraceful way that the public's trust in the profession might reasonably be undermined if they were accurately informed about all the circumstances of this case.
As Ms Blackledge did not respond to the allegations and did not attend the hearing, there was no mitigation offered.
In considering the most appropriate sanction to impose, the Panel noted that Ms Blackledge had made no acknowledgement of any wrongdoing on her part and showed no evidence of insight or learning. The Panel noted the strict requirement in the Ethical Framework that sexual relationships with clients are prohibited. It was also concerned that despite being given clear instructions on multiple occasions not to contact Mr C, Ms Blackledge did contact Mr C and issued threats to him. Having regard to the serious nature of the Panel's finding and BACP's remit of public protection, the panel was unanimous that Ms Blackledge's membership should be withdrawn.
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