Hertfordshire County Council has been ordered to pay a social worker over £20,000 after it gave her a “poor reference” which saw a job offer withdrawn.

Elaine Williams was working with HCC as a locum social worker in June 2022 when she raised concerns over allegedly neglectful treatment of two foster children.

She handed in her notice on the same day as she visited the family, but three weeks later, HCC said she had escalated her concerns after only one visit “without consulting with management and following procedure” in a critical job reference to a prospective employer.

Ms Williams had received a job offer from a fostering agency which she accepted prior to visiting the foster children, but it was subsequently withdrawn which she alleged was because of her report.

The social worker had 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.

The employment tribunal heard that she reported her concerns about the children’s treatment in email to her manager at HCC and the children’s assigned social worker, as well as two senior officers responsible for the council’s safeguarding of children.

After handing in her notice, she 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”.

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.”

In a majority verdict, the tribunal judge and two members found “the reference was the reason for employment being withdrawn” but had not been motivated by malice.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

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

A spokesperson for the local authority said: “We accept the decision of the tribunal. This was a complex matter involving the temporary member of staff who did not follow our escalation procedures. 

"Having reviewed the matter, it is important to state that the conclusion was that the children were being cared for in a safe way."