A psychologist at the collapsed south London charity Kids Company has been suspended for 12 months after being found to have given illegal drugs to a client she met there.
A Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) panel had ruled that Dr Helen Winter's fitness to practise was impaired after finding "all the charges proven" against her. Following the tribunal she was given an 18-month suspension, and yesterday she was barred from the register for 12 months.
Last month the Press Association reported that panel chair Penny Griffith said Winter's behaviour set a "deplorable" example to the clients and "undermined" her profession and employer.
"The actions of (Dr Winter) have damaged public confidence in the profession of practitioner psychologists and brought the profession into disrepute," she said.
However, yesterday the agency reported that despite this, the panel felt striking Winter off would be "punitive and disproportionate".
Winter had already admitted to meeting clients under the drug's influence in a nightclub, but denied offering drugs to a vulnerable client of the charity, saying, through tears, that it was something she would “never, ever do”.
However, Griffith said the panel had found "all the charges proven", whereupon the panel took further evidence to decide on a punishment.
During the tribunal, Winter confirmed that she had met with clients while under the influence of MDMA and had allowed two of them to stay at her flat. She also said that she had used illegal drugs while working at Kids Company due to problems in her personal life.
The Kids Company client to whom it was alleged she had given drugs, Client C, said in a written statement that she “couldn’t recall” if the allegation the panel heard yesterday, that Winter had given her the drug in a nightclub toilet, was correct.
Sobbing, Winter told the panel that Thursday’s hearing was “difficult and frustrating”, and that “the version of me [that was] put out there was someone I don’t recognise”.
Winter confirmed the substantive version of events offered by her colleague Nicci Shall to the tribunal on Thursday: She told the tribunal that they went drinking in south London on a Friday in January 2014 and had a mixture of wine and shots, including Jägerbombs, before buying some MDMA.
She confirmed they bought two grams of the drug – one for Shall’s birthday, and one to share that evening – and took some in a toilet cubicle. She said they then saw Clients C and D in the club’s smoking area, and talked to them for about 20 minutes.
However, Winter strongly denied the most serious part of Shall’s testimony – that she later offered the drug to Client C in the club’s toilet. She said it would have been a “complete breach of boundaries”, as well as putting “the client at risk of harm”. “Someone couldn’t pay me any amount of money" to give a client drugs, she said.
Winter also said Client C had “problems with her weight” and that it would have been impossible for the three of them to share a cubicle. She said there were generally toilet attendants and security who would have stopped them going in together.
Winter said the next day she received “anxious texts” from Shall. “I assumed it was because we met [the clients] under the influences of recreational drugs,” she said. The day after, she said, Shall’s texts suggested she “seemed to have become cross. … I felt she was starting to blame me for the situation.”
Winter told the panel she apologised for not taking Shall out of the club. She said she met with a manager at Kids Company on the Monday after the incident and told him she and Shall had run into two clients while out drinking, but didn’t mention she’d taken MDMA.
She said she thought the fact Shall was on a comedown from the drugs may have impacted on her anxiety. Winter also spoke at length about their relationship, telling the panel: “I think I became a sisterly character, think she trusted me to keep her safe.” In one text to Shall after the event she wrote: “I promise I’ll never put you in a position like that again” – which she said referred to taking drugs and not leaving the club immediately.
In another text Winter wrote: “I’m so painfully sorry, not that it will mean anything, but I’ve been crying about just that beyond the rest." Under cross-examination, she said “that” referred to taking drugs and seeing clients in the club, while “the rest” referred to “letting Shall down and being at work”. She was asked if she was “telling [the panel] a version of events and omitting details to make this less serious”, but denied this was the case.
Winter and Shall’s relationship gradually returned to normal, she said – they went for dinner and went shopping together – which was why she said she was “shocked and confused” when, months later, in May 2014, she was told she’d been accused of providing Client C with drugs.
She said that after Shall told her she’d met with Kids Company chief executive Camila Batmanghelidjh and “told her everything”, Shall added: “I guess you can call me Judas.”
Winter told the tribunal she’d used illegal drugs for four months “to shut off from painful emotions”, and mentioned the end of a relationship as a factor in this. She said she’d directed her energy into working at Kids Company during the week, but weekends were “challenging … I slipped into drugs an alcohol to cope,” she said, adding: “There was no way it was worth putting my career, health, and mental health in jeopardy."
She said, “hand on heart”, that she had “drawn a line under that horrendous period in my life and I look forward to starting a new chapter”.
Winter confirmed that Clients C and D had stayed at her flat after she’d received a call from one of them when they were drunk at a nightclub in Camden. She felt that as Client C had been combining alcohol and medication she should offer a place of medical safety. She said that Kids Company’s safeguarding team was satisfied with her decision but told her that in the future she should call her manager in such situations, whatever the time.
She said members of staff regularly got calls on their mobiles from clients and that clients were invited to a number of workers’ houses, which was an “old-school Kids Company way of working”. Winter added: “I had a client who would frequently threaten to kill herself. When you knew clients were going through stuff it was kind of left to the staff member’s discretion … There was an ethos that children recover with unrelenting love.” She said the ethos at Kids Company was for a key worker to become "mum, sister, auntie” to the young people.
Winter said she joined the charity as an HR department was being established, and that in May 2014 Batmanghelidjh had called an all-staff meeting in which she said four members of staff were going to take the lead on “giving guidance on boundaries”.
Alan White is a news editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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