Sussex council dismisses social worker with drug conviction – despite knowing about it when employing her

Lisa Burnett with her four children. Picture: Lisa Burnett
Lisa Burnett with her four children. Picture: Lisa Burnett

A newly-qualified social worker from Bexhill was dismissed from working for the county council after she was told her 18-year-old drug conviction ‘represented a substantial risk to the reputation of the service’.

Lisa Burnett, 39, was jailed in Jamaica in March 2000 for trafficking liquid cocaine – a charge she has denied but always been open about.

After years of getting her life ‘back on track’, the mum of four was employed as a children’s services caseworker by East Sussex County Council (ESCC) – which said it was fully aware of Miss Burnett’s previous drug conviction when she was employed – and started working for it on September 17, 2018.

However, on October 19 she was dismissed.

Miss Burnett said: “I feel that this unjust and unfair treatment is based on a historical conviction and not the context.

“I was a young female, groomed and imprisoned, an experience that I have learnt a lot from. Without the media coverage, I would have died.

“I feel that given my rich lived experiences I am best placed to work with a range of individuals and have the holistic knowledge base to be an effective social worker, thus promoting ESCC credibility.

“I have dedicated the past five years to achieving my goal to become a social worker and to make positive use of my lived experiences.

“I have followed all processes correctly throughout my application to interview. I have been open and honest, disclosing all information to ESCC to support them when making their decision to offer me employment with children services.”

In making its decision, the county council said despite being aware of Miss Burnett’s conviction before employing her, it was ‘not aware that she had grown up in the area [East Sussex] or that details of her conviction were in the public domain’.

A council spokesman said her employment would represent a substantial risk to the reputation of the service and make it ‘extremely difficult’ for Miss Burnett to carry out her work effectively.

Celia Lamden, head of service for health visiting and children’s centres and the chairman of Miss Burnett’s dismissal hearing, told Miss Burnett that, during her recruitment process, ‘more consideration should have been given to the information that was made available to us’.

This referred to a Fitness to Practice report Miss Burnett supplied the council when she applied for the role but had never been requested by the council.

An East Sussex County Council spokesman said: “Our social workers work with some of the county’s most vulnerable families and it is vital that they are able to do their jobs effectively to ensure these families get the appropriate outcomes and support.

“We were aware of Lisa’s previous convictions, but were not aware she had grown up in the area or that details of her conviction were in the public domain.

“Not only would this represent a substantial risk to the reputation of the service and the council, but it would make it extremely difficult for Lisa to carry out her work effectively.

“Given her personal circumstances and that fact that Lisa was a newly-qualified social worker, we were extremely limited in the number of alternative roles we would be able to offer her within the council.

“Unfortunately, there were no appropriate alternative roles available for her.”

Miss Burnett has been unable to appeal the decision as she was dismissed during her probation period.

Lisa’s story

Born in Epsom, Surrey, in March 1979, Miss Burnett moved to East Sussex at the age of six and attended a local school.

After years of being bullied there, Miss Burnett said she never formed friendship groups, failed her GCSEs and moved to London in 1997, aged 18.

There, she was groomed by a group of men and formed a close relationship with one who invited her to Jamaica to visit his parents.

In a letter to ESCC, she recalled her memories and wrote: “On the day I was at the airport checking my luggage in, I went to show my passport and was asked to take a seat in a room with other women.

“I did not understand why I was there until a suitcase was retrieved with my name on and cut open in front of me, a tray was pulled out containing a white liquid substance. I did not recognise it as I had never seen it before.”

Miss Burnett said she struggles remembering the months after her arrest due to regular epileptic seizures resulting from stress and being denied her medication in prison.

She said during her trial her lawyer left the building and was never seen again, leaving her unrepresented during cross-examination and sentenced to three years in prison, reduced by 50 per cent on good behaviour or a fee.

Three months later – in June 2000 – Miss Burnett was released from prison on medical grounds and deported to the UK after communication with the British Government, Home Office and Vice Consul in Jamaica.

She added: “Until this day I still maintain my innocence.”

Life after prison

Back in the UK, Miss Burnett – having had four children – self-referred to social services.

After this experience, she decided she wanted to work with children and parents to make a positive difference and enrolled at Sussex Coast College where she obtained GCSE English and maths before completing an access to health and health sciences course, enabling her to study at the University of Brighton.

The conviction

In applying to the University of Brighton, Miss Burnett said she wanted to be open about her conviction. However, her college tutor and mum advised her not to because, as the conviction was outside the UK, it would have become spent and was not relevant.

However, in her second year at university she read up on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 which states drug offences are never spent for those who want to work in social services.

Miss Burnett added: “During my second year at university I completed my first voluntary sector placement with a children and young people’s independent advocacy service. During a tutorial at university, I was reflecting and linking my lived experiences to my practice.

“This led to the process of the Fitness to Practice procedure.

“I was open and honest about the occurrence of the Fitness to Practise with my placement provider and although I did not have to disclose details of my disclosure, I felt it was my duty as a professional to be open and honest about this.”

The outcome of Miss Burnett’s Fitness to Practice was that she should continue with her studies and it was believed she would be an ‘effective’ social worker once qualified.

What happened during her employment?

Miss Burnett started work for the council on September 17, 2018 and after shadowing a colleague during a meeting, she disclosed information about her conviction to him.

In the days that followed, another member of staff said they were approached by a safeguarding professional working in the area who had asked ‘whether it was true Miss Burnett had been employed by the county council’.

According to documents, the safeguarding professional had prior knowledge of Miss Burnett’s conviction due to media coverage from the time of the trial.

Miss Burnett was first called in front of Mr Jackson on September 24, who confined her to ‘desk-bound duties to safeguard the good name of the council’.

On Monday, October 1, Mr Jackson met again with Miss Burnett and ‘explained the level of concern’ before suspending her pending a hearing on October 19.

He wrote to Miss Burnett four days before the hearing to say he was recommending her dismissal.

Dismissal

Dismissing Miss Burnett, Celia Lamden, head of service for health visiting and children’s centres, said she made the decision due to the ‘unacceptable level of reputational risk her employment presents the council’.

She also said this ‘reputational damage’ extends beyond the role in children’s services meaning Miss Burnett could never be employed by the county council in any capacity.

What now?

Michael Foster, an employment lawyer, wrote to the council to say there had been a ‘significant injustice’ in the way Miss Burnett was allowed to further her career in the social services sector only to have it ‘snatched’ away from her.

He said Miss Burnett could lodge a formal complaint with the council but her preferred option would be returning to work in the social services sector.

However, responding to this letter Becky Shaw, the county council’s chief executive, said it was ‘highly likely’ Miss Burnett’s conviction and links to the community would be known to staff and service users, meaning she could not work in adult social care either.

She was advised to consider working for another local authority.

Miss Burnett said: “I can’t uproot my whole family and go and work for Brighton and Hove City Council for example.

“I have four children to care for and my mum. They are all in Bexhill and I need to be with them.

“I want to work and I want to help others.”