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.


Social Work, the Courts and the Consequences of Transparency

UNISON have published the results of a survey of around 1000 of their social worker members, the results of which are striking.

Of those sampled (just over 1000 responders of a 10000 random sample of members) less than a third were aware of the Transparency Guidance and that social workers could be named in judgments, or that this could lead to naming in the media.

My first question then – what planet are social workers living on? Why are they not being provided with this information and how have they not noticed it being talked about in court, if nowhere else? Sorry, that was three questions – A mark of my profound disquiet that the level of awareness of something so important is so low. Not necessarily the fault of individual social workers, but a problem nonetheless.

Next point. 97% said they were worried by being named in the media.

I’m pretty unsurprised by this. 2/3 of the sample were told for the first time of the guidance in these terms “Were you aware of the courts’ guidance that social workers names will usually be published in judgments…and could be used in national and regional media coverage?” (I don’t know what the dot dot dot obscures by the way, that is in the report).

I would say that for any social worker who had never twigged this guidance existed, the reading of this question in isolation without any training or fuller understanding of the nuances of the guidance, might well provoke many to express worry.

The report gives a number of quotes from social workers who are clearly very worried about a range of things, including (but very much not limited to) being named in the media and as a result experiencing harassment or being exposed to risk as a result. But what is also apparent is that social workers are anxious because they think they might be criticised for not performing well – either in carrying out their day to day social work role or in presenting the case to the court in the witness box. The (selective sample) of quotes from social worker respondents to the survey disclose profound concern about workloads, management pressure, inadequate training and support. Some respondents express the view that they would not be supported or protected by their employer if criticised in a judgment. These concerns it seems to me flow from the systemic and widespread difficulties of frontline child protection social work rather than publishing of names per se.

What is striking is that there is no example given in the survey responses quoted of any social worker being adversely affected or harmed by being named in a judgment, or subsequently in the media. One social worker is quoted as saying she was named in a local paper and that she was not offered support – but, although it will inevitably have been stressful and uncomfortable to be named, there is no suggestion that anything specific resulted. Some social workers report being criticised by judges / magistrates, or assaulted at court – but again, whilst this is upsetting and stressful I’m not sure it has anything to do with the naming of social workers in judgments. Sadly, professionals are sometimes threatened or assaulted – or named and shamed online – regardless of whether a judgment goes on BAILII.

This survey makes no mention of the fact that it has been long established that where judgments are published social workers will generally be named and that the only real change is in the quantity of judgments published. There have been a few hundred judgments published under the new guidance, most of them name professionals. There has not been a massive explosion in the number of cases reported, nor as far as I am aware has there been an explosion in incidents against social workers or other professionals as a result.

I don’t doubt that this sort of social work is stressful, and that the court process is daunting, particularly where social workers are (as is so often the case) poorly prepared for the experience. But I’m not sure this survey demonstrates that there is a problem with the Transparency Guidance that goes beyond one of perception. I wonder what UNISON are doing to reassure their social worker members? I am a little worried that this survey might serve only to heighten the concerns of members about scapegoating, when this is not apparently based on any evidence, and is a lost opportunity for explanation of what social workers should expect.

Negative media coverage is horrible, particularly where it is inaccurate – and it sometimes is. It is a legitimate worry for all professionals, not just social workers. But exposure to public scrutiny is a necessary part of the system and a part of all our jobs – and a bunker mentality will not make this go away or cure the problems of public perception of social workers (or lawyers). Only where there is a particular high level of vulnerability or risk (for example where threats have been made) or some other compelling reason is a court likely to anonymise a social worker’s name. There have been two recent cases in which the court has quite intentionally and specifically anonymised the frontline social workers whilst naming the local authority – the court is quite prepared and able to distinguish between individual and corporate culpability when care proceedings go wrong (the Re A (Darlington) case and the Angola case (see Suesspicious Minds here which references both).

The survey report recommends better training for social workers – YES YES YES!!! – and that a protocol be drawn up for when social workers will be named. Er. No. We have the guidance and authority is clear – what else do we need? Social workers and lawyers just need to inform themselves of it, steel themselves, and when the situation requires it take appropriate steps to protect themselves or their employees.

One quote to end on from the survey :

there is often a strong senior management approach that we should proceed with our original plans such as adoption, despite legal advice that the threshold is not met, so that the decision…is made by the court, taking responsibility away from the authority should something go wrong when the child is returned home.

This will be a familiar description to many lawyers I think – often suspected but rarely articulated (unless you are having a particularly uncomfortable day as counsel for the LA). Personally, when I am acting for parents I often try and tease out that gap between the social worker’s professional judgment and the management line in cross examination (although I obviously can’t expose the gap between legal advice and management line, that is usually self evident in any event). This is very uncomfortable for social workers and I feel for them. However, this sort of defensive practice from social work managers is really worrying, and I am surprised it did not feature more heavily in the write up of the survey – although perhaps it was an isolated remark – difficult to tell as we are only given what appears to be a sample of a larger number of narrative responses.

I am aware that I am giving you selected highlights of a report that I have been slightly critical of for only giving selected highlights – I would link to the report but cannot as at the time I write it has yet to be published and the copy I have is embargoed. When I have a url to link to I will amend this post to include it – but check on for a press release and, I assume, a copy of the report itself.