The National:

ALMOST 300 workers caring for some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people have been struck off for inappropriate, abusive and sometimes criminal behaviour in the past three years – equivalent to almost two every week.

Analysis of the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) data by The Ferret found that those removed from a register of qualified social care work professionals included at least 26 residential childcare workers and other staff working with sometimes vulnerable and traumatised children and young people, including those in care.

Other staff found unfit to practice included 114 care home support workers and managers, often supporting disabled or frail and unwell older people. A further 50 care-at-home workers were removed from the SSSC register after investigations were carried out by the regulator.

The most serious offences included the sexual abuse of young people in care or at boarding school, as well as the physical assault of elderly people in care. Other serious allegations made against care workers included theft or embezzlement.

Industry bodies and unions stressed that the vast majority of social care workers were dedicated, compassionate and skilled. The number of workers either struck off or giving warnings was just 0.24% of a total workforce of more than 200,000 people, according to Scottish Care, which represents the independent care sector.

But charities said they were alarmed at the findings and called for preventative action to ensure care staff had more training and support, with better monitoring and protections urgently put in place for those using care services. Scotland’s Children and Young People’s Commissioner called for “far-reaching” culture change.

The Ferret examined the SSSC data between February 2021 and February 2024 and found that a total of 502 people had been removed from the register, suspended or been issued with a warning, following a regulatory hearing or assessment.

In the most serious cases, 276 people had been removed or struck off, with a further 210 issued with a warning, which can remain on record for several years. That warning must be disclosed to future employers. Others were suspended or had conditions imposed on their employment.

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The data on care workers for children in residential care showed 26 people were removed from the register in the three-year period. Eight of the complaints were of a sexual nature. Several were workers who had sex with under-18s in their care.

Others had sent pictures of a sexual nature to young people over social media – one worker sent pictures of his genitals to a 15-year-old girl and repeatedly made sexual comments to her. In some cases, the abuse included sexual harassment or unwanted touching. Several of the cases led to criminal convictions.

In some cases, complaints weren’t made by young people, but action was taken after workers received convictions outside work. One worker was convicted for making indecent images of a child and another committed sexual indecency against an adult woman.

One local authority source said that the most serious cases could be the tip of the iceberg, with others going unreported.

In 2015, the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry was established to look at historic childhood abuse in care and public hearings started in 2017. But it will not hear evidence of abuse that took place after 2014.

Who Cares Scotland said it was critical that at the same time as Scotland examined historic sex abuse in care, work must be done to explore what is happening in the present.

Louise Hunter (below), its chief executive, said: “It’s truly saddening to learn about these findings. Nobody should have to experience what the people impacted have experienced.

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“These findings make it even more clear how important the role that an independent advocacy provides for care-experienced people. It is important that people have an independent voice they can feel comfortable to rely on and speak up on their behalf.”

Children and Young People’s Commissioner Nicola Killean said she was “concerned” by The Ferret’s research and stressed that all children have a right to protection from abuse or harm. The state has additional obligations to children in the care system, she added.

“Scotland’s child protection system has historically been directed primarily towards the risk of neglect or abuse from parents, or within a family setting,” she said.

“We know, as a result, the system has failed to respond effectively to abuse experienced by older children, by children in care, and abuse which is committed by professionals. My office raised these issues with the Scottish Government last year as part of the review of the National Child Protection Guidance.

“There needs to be a far-reaching change to the culture around this issue, including giving practitioners and organisations support on how to confidently scrutinise or challenge unacceptable practice.”

The Ferret also examined decision documents regarding workers in adult care homes and found examples of abusive patterns of behaviour including swearing at, slapping and pushing residents. In one case, a worker put his hands around a resident’s throat, causing bruising.

Another withheld food, medication and personal care and lied to colleagues, claiming she had taken care of the resident’s needs. Two other workers were found to be drinking at work.

Several of those providing care in people’s own homes were struck off for stealing money. In one case, a worker allegedly embezzled nearly £35,000, although she claimed it was half of that amount. In another, a worker repeatedly failed to arrive for shifts for several clients but later claimed in timesheets that she had been there.

Veronica Gray, policy director of elder abuse charity Hourglass, said the extent of the issue was poorly understood. Its research suggests about one in five people over 60 are subject to abuse, which means there could be about 286,000 older victims every year in Scotland.

She added: “Hourglass is keenly aware of the pressures within the health and social care sector, and we acknowledge the dedication and commitment of the vast majority of the workforce.

“Social care workers support some of the most vulnerable people in society and to see that almost 300 workers have been struck off or lost their registration in the past three years is shocking. Service users, their families and the wider public need to have confidence that those entrusted to provide this care are suitable and safe to do so.”

She claimed the findings “clearly show the importance of registration and monitoring within the sector” but warned that most elder abuse was carried out by family members, highlighting the need for wider protections.

Stephen Smellie, vice-convener for trade union Unison Scotland, said: “Where there are serious issues of conduct or harm to service users, it is right that the regulatory body SSSC takes the appropriate action. However, these are a very small amount of the cases that are reported to the SSSC.”

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He claimed many others were minor offences. Those with union representation were less likely to be struck off, he said, but many in the sector were not members of a union. Social care workers are among the lowest paid in Scotland – last September, the Scottish Government promised to raise base rates of pay to £12 per hour.

They also tend to work in challenging and understaffed workplaces.

Smellie added: “The SSSC should take a less punitive approach towards individual care workers who may make mistakes or, sometimes – due to lack of training, low staffing levels and heavy workloads – [do] not demonstrate the level of professional competence required.”

It should be “more ready to provide advice, support and training”, he added, and “highlight and address failings of employers who do not properly support and resource staff”.

A spokesperson from Scottish Care, which represents the independent social care sector, said it was largely made up of compassionate and skilled people. They added: “Social care providers use significant efforts to screen staff during recruitment, implementing strict processes to uphold standards.

“Despite these measures, occasional instances of underperformance can still occur.

“These statistics – while indicative of lapses – also highlight the effectiveness of our governance systems – reflecting the sector’s commitment to best practices.

“However, maintaining vigilance is essential, encouraging a culture of whistleblowing to protect the wellbeing of those under our care. Despite these challenges, a career in social care remains deeply rewarding.”

Hannah Coleman, acting director of regulation at SSSC, said: “Investigating and taking action when there are concerns about a worker’s fitness to practise helps to protect people using services and maintain public confidence.

“Workers are removed from the register in the most serious cases, which means unsuitable people are no longer able to work in care.

“It’s important to remember that the vast majority of the more than 174,000 people on our register practise safely, effectively and are doing a great job. On average, we investigate only 1.1% of registrants each year over fitness to practise concerns.”

It was the responsibility of employers, she added, to ensure that all staff were adequately trained, qualified and supported.