When Rachel Burns posted a photo of a singalong at work on her Facebook page, she had no idea that her actions would end her career. The BBC’s Laurence Grissell has been following her story for the past year.
“I absolutely loved my job. It’s my vocation, I love caring for people,” Rachel says.
For 21 years, until December 2015, Rachel worked at Park Hall, a residential care home for elderly people and vulnerable adults in Reigate, Surrey.
She’d started there as care assistant, and worked her way up. She’d been the manager for the last eight years.
“There were always activities going on. I wanted the clients to have a decent quality of life.”
One of the activities that Rachel organised for the residents at Park Hall was a regular music night, every Friday.
“We’d put flowers on the tables,” Rachel says. “The residents would all get dressed up and we’d have a different supper every week.”
As a keen amateur singer, Rachel would perform at the music nights, everything from Roberta Flack and Nina Simone to Boney M.
“The staff would get up dancing with the residents. You’d see smiles on their faces – it really was such a lovely thing to see.”
One Friday Rachel returned home after music night and decided to share some of the special moments from the evening online.
“I was quite elated at how the night had gone,” Rachel says. “I posted the picture thinking that it would just be seen by a few people, mainly staff, on Facebook.”
But two months later Rachel got a phone call summoning her to head office.
“As soon as I got there, when I saw their faces, I knew I was in big trouble.”
Rachel had done four things wrong. She’d posted the photo on Facebook, she’d identified a Park Hall resident in the photo – a man with Down’s syndrome who, eager to be photographed, had jumped into the shot beside her – she had also posted a video of the music night, and she was Facebook friends with a relative of one of the residents.
These were all breaches of Surrey County Council policy. Two days later Rachel was suspended from her job.
From the word go, Rachel held her hands up and admitted all the council’s allegations but nonetheless wanted to appeal against their decision.
“I know I shouldn’t have put that picture up there, but should I really have had my career of 21 years taken away for one mistake? I wanted justice because I didn’t believe what they had done to me was fair.”
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Rachel lost her appeal and was given just two days to decide whether she would accept demotion – with a significant pay cut – or face dismissal. She asked for extra time to consider her options, but the council refused. Instead, Rachel, who by now had been signed off with stress and anxiety, received a telephone call demanding that she come to a decision immediately.
“I said, ‘I’m off work sick, my doctor doesn’t feel I can make such a life-changing decision at the moment.'”
But Rachel was told if she didn’t accept the demotion she would be dismissed from her £45,000 a year job, with immediate effect.
“I got a letter the next day which said, ‘I’m sorry you have decided to accept dismissal.’ And that was it.”
Claire Pooley’s brother is the Park Hall resident in the photo that Rachel posted on Facebook.
Claire says her brother loves to be the centre of attention and loves to share photographs of himself with the rest of his family. The Friday music nights were the highlight of his week.
“He loves singing and dancing,” Claire says, “Rachel and the guys allowed him to just blossom on a Friday evening.
“The moment we walked in the door we knew Park Hall was a special place,” Claire’s husband Graham continues. “The atmosphere, the culture and the behaviour – people were happy there and had a lot of stimulation.”
The couple say that the Park Hall staff always encouraged Claire’s brother to get up and sing at the music nights.
“He would practise and get ready for it – although he sang the same three songs every week,” Graham says. “We loved watching him – it brought him alive, it was wonderful.”
Neither Claire nor Graham feel that Rachel should have been fired for posting the photo of Claire’s brother.
“None of us had a problem with it – gross misconduct or not,” Claire says.
“After 21 years is it appropriate to sack the manageress who’s created a culture and environment at this special home in the way that they have?” asks Graham. “The answer is no, it’s not.”
It’s autumn 2016 and Rachel has decided to take Surrey County Council to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal.
“They have to understand that this is my life that we’re talking about here,” she says.
“I want my career back.”
A preliminary hearing date is set for early November.
But she can’t afford any formal legal representation and so is planning to face the council’s barristers with only the help of her close friend, the Reverend David Walford, a retired healthcare chaplain who’s never done anything like this before and admits he’s out of his comfort zone.
“I’m very happy to stand up in front of people,” David says. “What I’m not sure of is facing people who have had a lifetime’s career in legal work.”
David was at Park Hall on the evening that the photo was taken. Like Rachel, he’s a singer and would perform at the Friday night music shows.
“I’ve seen a lot of care homes in my time as a parish clergyman and as a hospital chaplain. I knew the difference between what I’d usually see and Park Hall. Care with love, not care out of duty – that’s what Rachel was giving. The thought that Rachel was being taken out of that actually brought me to tears.”
To make matters worse, Rachel’s husband Gary is very unwell.
“He’s had the brain tumour for four years,” Rachel says. “He was very healthy, but he walks with a stick now.”
Not only is Gary unable to work, but without a reference Rachel can’t find a new job. She and Gary are racking up huge debts living off their credit cards, but she hopes her money worries will be sorted out once the case is resolved, with any luck out of court.
Two weeks before the date of the preliminary hearing Rachel is doing an unpaid gig at a local pub. She’s on stage singing Stuck In The Middle With You by Stealers Wheel and urging the punters to get up on the dance floor.
“It’s just so much stress, it’s crazy,” Rachel says later, “which is why nights like this are brilliant, just to let off some steam.”
The day of the preliminary hearing in Croydon arrives. Rachel, who always believed the case would be settled out of court, says she never thought in a million years it would come to this. She’s nervous.
“I’ve got to stand up against one of Surrey’s senior solicitors to defend myself when I made one mistake in a 21-year career. They have crucified me.”
The judge sets a date for a full hearing, but it’s seven months away, at the start of June.
Then, out of the blue, towards the end of December, Rachel receives a settlement offer from the council. For a couple of days, she considers accepting the £7,500, before having a change of heart.
“It was a joke, an absolute joke,” Rachel says. “And it’s not even about money now, it’s about showing them for what they are.”
With the case dragging on, Rachel is really feeling the strain. She is anxious and depressed. So much is at stake – by now, she and Gary are in dire straits. Their debts are mounting, and they’re seven months in arrears with the rent on the house in Reigate that they share with their border collie, Bramble.
“We are scraping pennies, literally pennies,” she says. “It’s never-ending, it never goes away.
“All I did was put up a picture of a client enjoying their life in the care home that I loved working in,” she says, beginning to cry.
By June 2017 the couple are at breaking point. They have no money in the bank and no savings to fall back on. Rachel is fearful that they’re going to lose everything, including the roof over their heads.
“It just goes to show that when you think you have everything it can be snatched away from you just like that, for one mistake,” she says.
The trial is taking its toll on David, too. He’s exhausted. “This case has just become monstrous,” he says.
Two days before the tribunal is due to start Rachel decides that she’s packing it in, she can’t go on. Her husband Gary pleads with her for almost three hours not to walk away now. This isn’t the first time Rachel’s doubted the wisdom of continuing with the case.
“This case has destroyed her,” Gary explains. “She has no confidence any more, she doesn’t sleep any more, we argue much more now. It’s been disastrous.
“I’ve had to watch my wife slowly falling apart, because of what they’ve done to her.”
Finally, in early June, in a rundown corner of West Croydon, Rachel’s employment tribunal gets under way. She has given evidence and a number of witnesses have spoken and been questioned. But two days into the proceedings the judge has to adjourn the hearing when Rachel becomes very distressed.
“It just got too much,” she says. “I thought, ‘You’ve broken me to the point where I don’t have the self-esteem at the moment to go back into management.’ And it’s such a shame. I said I was sorry, I told the judges the absolute truth.”
The case finally concludes but without any decision. Rachel will have to wait another seven weeks for an answer.
It’s the beginning of August 2017, nearly 20 months since Rachel was first suspended from her job, and she has some exciting news.
“I won! Oh, my God, I won!”
The court has upheld her claim of unfair dismissal.
The judge decides that Surrey County Council’s decision to demote Rachel was within the band of reasonable responses, given that she’d admitted the allegations against her.
But she concludes that the timescale the council gave Rachel to decide whether she would accept redeployment or face dismissal – just two working days – wasn’t long enough. This procedural aspect, she says, was a fundamental flaw.
“Justice has prevailed!” Rachel says. “It’s amazing that if you believe in something and you know your worth you just keep going. You keep going, and going and going.”
But Rachel will have to return to the employment tribunal on 13 November for a remedy hearing at which the court will decide how much she should be given in compensation. She has no idea how much that’s likely to be but fears that the sum will be reduced because she admitted the allegations against her.
She and Gary now have debts to the tune of about £50,000 and are 14 months in arrears with their rent, and although Rachel now has a reference from Surrey County Council, it states that she was fired for serious misconduct, so the prospect of her finding work is still uncertain.
“As a manager myself I wouldn’t look very favourably on that candidate,” she says.
Despite the win, going back to work will be a struggle. Before losing her job two years ago, Rachel had been signed off with stress, and she still suffers from anxiety and depression.
Meanwhile the job she loved has gone forever. Park Hall closed its doors on 30 June as part of Surrey County Council’s plans to shut down all six care homes it owned and ran. The residents were rehomed.
“I really loved Park Hall,” Rachel says. “It was like a family to me more than going to work.”
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Text by Sarah McDermott, photographs by Phil Coomes
Read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-41851771