All calm on the surface

You know how ducks look serene up top but are kicking away furiously below stairs? That’s sort of how I feel about the publication (at long long last) of Louise Tickle’s article about “Annie”, the mum from up north whose case we applied for permission to report on.

It’s a long read, but it’s over with in a few minutes, such is the care with which the reader is taken through from beginning to end. It is powerful stuff, but we graze and we move on.

But I know how much work has gone into this single feature. Its gestation has been as long as a human baby, and in order to create it a gargantuan effort and huge amount of care has been necessary from all sorts of people – not just the journalist herself, not just me as the lawyer who hopped off the Easyjet and asked for permission to publish the then unwritten article way back in September 2015 – but also Annie and her family, the local authority legal, social work, communications and senior management team, the judiciary… All of them made their contribution.

There is some criticism of the local authority in Louise’s article voiced not just by the mother but by others also. For my part I think it is evident that Louise has attempted to be balanced and fair, and the local authority have clearly been offered a right of reply. Using that right of reply they have bravely admitted some failures and talked constructively of change, of making amends – and of learning from Annie herself. Whatever my frustrations may have been at the initial reactions of the local authority to the application they have, since the making of the order, been big enough to engage in dialogue : Although the “a spokesperson said” sections may seem carefully written and studiously anonymous they go far, far further than you normally see – and they voluntarily acknowledge failure where the local authority could have simply put up the shutters and trotted out the “inappropriate to comment on individual cases” response. It is also important to remember that this is a local authority which is still caring for children in this family and who has still to work with their mother – there are genuinely limits on how far they can respond without compromising their primary role.

There is a poetic symmetry in this, for it was Annie who in her blog encouraged engagement where it was painful and anxiety inducing and counter intuitive. In some way this article has enabled Annie’s advice to come full circle and for the local authority to learn from her. I think they each deserve huge credit for that.

And as for the work of writing, editing, polishing the thing. I think sometimes we imagine journalists at old fashioned typewriters hastily writing at midnight to a news deadline the next morning, a haze of cigarette smoke surrounding them as they bash the keys. But there is a reason why it has taken from September until now to get this thing published. This sort of writing, and indeed any sort of good quality writing, takes hours and hours to hone, to tweak, to perfect, to get to the point where it reads so easily that you can be lulled into thinking the writing itself was effortless. It isn’t. It is agonised, anxious, painstaking. Every word matters. And every word counts.

Louise, Annie and I will all be at the “Where do we go from here?” multi-disciplinary conference on 3 June. Details here.

Social Work – an impossible job

Although I spend a reasonable portion of my time criticising social workers in the course of my job, I know and acknowledge that they work very very hard in impossible circumstances and a hostile environment – on both the micro and macro level. I don’t condone poor practice, but it is worth remembering what social workers have to put up with. They are almost as disliked and undervalued as a profession as we lawyers – it is not an easy job and it takes its toll on many social workers. I sometimes think that the only way for them to survive long term is to stop caring.

Daily Mail in accurate reporting of shocking case shocker

The headline and sub-headlines :

Judge blasts social workers for LYING under oath and doctoring a report as part of an attempted ‘cover-up’ over the future of five children taken away from their parents

  • Judge Mark Horton said there was a ‘deliberate and calculated’ change
  • Original report of parents’ assessment provided ‘positives’ and ‘negatives’
  • Workers at Hampshire council wanted the children to stay in foster care
  • Judge said changes improved the case for removing children from family

Suesspicious Minds has already checked its accuracy with the judgment from BAILII (A, B, C, D and E (Final Hearing) [2015] EWFC B186) and written it up here – and he is rightly flabbergasted. This is not a wind up or a massive hyper-exaggerated summary of some run of the mill case – it is awful and shameful behaviour properly brought to light by the judgment and the media.

It is the sort of thing that parents fear happens all the time, and whilst I don’t think it does happen all the time, we cannot say it never happens.

Sadly, the negative outcome of the proceedings is a reminder that successfully attacking the integrity of your social workers can only get you so far. You do still have to be able to demonstrate your ability to be a basically competent and safe parent, which often requires some ability to work constructively with professionals (assuming of course that threshold has been crossed). So, as I say to all my clients – these things are important but let’s not get overexcited or lose focus on building a POSITIVE CASE.

As the 2014 guidance on publications makes clear (entirely consistently with previous case law), in these sorts of circumstances social workers should be named. One can only imagine that the findings made will have quite serious implications for them professionally. They both appear to be registered with the HCPC who are the relevant regulatory body in terms of professional conduct of social workers. As flagged up in the judgment / blog post there may be other consequences, such as internal disciplinary processes and / or police investigation. I will either blog directly or link to any post by Suesspicious Minds (he always beats me to it) as and when any further installments arrive.