A social worker from Teesside, Lisa Finn, has been found guilty of stealing £28,000 from her council’s vulnerable families fund, in order to buy cocaine.
Lisa Finn, a 47-year old senior social worker from Thornaby, was expected to be imprisoned for the 13-month fraud, but was instead given a suspended sentence for what the judge presiding over the hearing referred to as “powerful personal mitigating factors”.
Lisa Finn worked for Middlesbrough Council at the time of her offences. Although she was described in Court as a ‘highly regarded colleague’ with a ’20-year career’, she was found to have stolen £28,397.18 between February 2017 and March 2018 in order to buy cocaine. She achieved this fraud by tampering with 60 documents used by the council to give money to vulnerable families in times of crisis; drawing out hundreds of pounds of cash at a time and using the money to buy cocaine.
Her offences only came to light when an internal audit into finances was carried out by Middlesbrough council. During this audit they noticed two excessive claims of more than £450 each. When these two claims sparked a full investigation, the council found out the true extent of Lisa Finn’s criminal activity.
During the trial, prosecutor Victoria Lamballe told the court how Lisa Finn achieved her fraud by forging signatures on 60 different claims forms to steal £28,397. Instead of giving it to the vulnerable families she was entrusted to support, she spent it on feeding her own cocaine addiction.
The court heard how Finn forged Section 17 forms, which allow for social workers such as her to access emergency funds for vulnerable families in need, in order to buy cocaine.
These forms need to be signed off by a line manager and department head before being taken to draw money from a cash office, but Lisa was forging signatures, which the Court heard often looked different from document to document, and drawing this money herself to feed her cocaine addiction.
When the evidence of her criminal activity was first put to Finn, she initially told her managers that she was stealing money to pay off her own daughter’s drug debt, and had ‘only’ taken between £10,000-£12,000. At this time she also claimed some of the documents were “pre-signed” by management, which was a lie.
Prosecutor Victoria Lamballe told Teesside Crown Court that: “She (Lisa Finn) admitted to police a week later to developing a cocaine habit -after working on a difficult case. She was spending up to £100 a day. All of the money was stolen to fund that, she eventually admitted.”
The court also heard how Lisa Finn had convictions for similar previous offences, seven counts of theft by an employee, from 1996. It is unclear whether her employers were aware of this history when they appointed her as a social worker.
Lisa Finn’s barrister, Ms Kelleigh Lodge, told the Court how the social worker had seen her mental health deteriorate significantly from 2016, as the stresses and strains of several difficult social work cases built up.
“She did not seek any assistance for her mental health, and resorted to using the substance which has led to these offences” explained Ms Lodge. “She is remorseful. She is ashamed and disgraced by her behaviour. She loved the job and her career, and has lost all that. Mrs Finn was thought of very highly by her colleagues, many of whom have tried to contact her since. But she can’t face them.”
The court was informed that the money Lisa Finn had stolen has been paid back from her personal pension pot.
Ms Lodge said Finn’s mental health has continued to suffer since losing her job and she is now receiving treatment for bi-polar disorder, after making attempts to end her life. The Court also hear how Lisa Finn looks after her seven-year-old grandson for two nights a week when her daughter is at work.
“If Mrs Lisa Finn was to go to prison, it would have a big impact on her family. Her daughter would not be able to work any more” explained Ms Lodge. “She is an individual who has punished herself by committing this offence, and losing a lot of respect from the position she was in.”
The prosecutor Ms Lamballe told the Court how the scale of Finn’s crime meant she could have been looking at three years imprisonment. But, after hearing Finn had admitted her guilt at the first opportunity, along with the raft of mitigating circumstances presented by the defense barrister, Judge Peter Armstrong decided he could suspend her sentence instead.
Judge Armstrong told Lisa: “The aggravating factor in all of this is that the money was wasted, going into the hands of drug dealers (however) immediate custody would result in significant harmful impact on others, in your case it certainly would because you are a carer for your grandson while your daughter has her own health difficulties and needs your assistance”
“The pre-sentence report confirms what I have already read about you in the excellent references submitted on your behalf by colleagues. I have read the letters from you and your daughters, and the report from the psychiatry department of Tees Esk and Wear Valley NHS Foundation Trust. All in all, I think it is a case where you can pray in aid your good character and all the good work you have done for the community as a social worker.”
In handing down his sentence, Judge Armstrong told a weeping Finn: “You have worked as a social worker for many years and are so highly thought-of you became a senior social worker. These courts are quite aware of the stresses social workers are under. It may well be when you were made a senior social worker the stresses on you did become so great you were unable to cope. You had an undiagnosed mental health difficulty for some time, and in 2017 you had a mini-stroke.
“Being unable to cope with the extra stress, you unfortunately – and this is the part which is the most difficult to understand – took to taking cocaine rather than seeking help in another direction. That, of course, became a habit and an expensive habit and so it was you were taking sums of a few hundred pounds at a time.”
Judge Armstrong handed Finn, of Ashdown Close, Thornaby, an 18 month prison sentence but suspended it for two years. Alongside her suspended sentence she must complete 30 drug rehabilitation days and be subject to a six month curfew, from 10pm to 7am.
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