It makes me cross when it takes adversarial cross examination of a social worker to force a Local Authority into pulling its finger out and fulfilling it’s duty towards children and parents. It shouldn’t be necessary. If things worked as they should such cross examination would fall flat. Far too often though, things do not work as they should and occasionally I am left agog at the answers given to legitimate and straightforward questions. I can’t deny a certain sense of satisfaction when a witnesses evidence is dismantled and left in shreds – but that is because it is one of those rare moment where it is starkly visible that the role I play can make a difference in how cases develop and progress, even maybe to outcomes. It is not because I enjoy humiliating or bullying other professionals who are (usually) doing their best with limited experience and training, minimal support and supervision, and far far too much work and responsibility for far too complex cases. I don’t enjoy that, but sometimes the only route to kicking a Local Authority up its preverbial arse is through putting the social worker in the box and exposing the holes in their planning and process. And again, whilst arse-kicking can be fun in it’s own special way it is only appropriate or effective where it serves a purpose (to take a probably inappropriate metaphor to it’s logical conclusion I suppose I’m talking about reasonable chastisement? ;-))
But just like actual physical chastisement, this metaphorical bashing is unhelpful in many ways and has consequences on relationships and for real people that we all want to avoid. It knocks the confidence of junior social workers, it puts strain on relationships between case workers and team managers, and may put them in direct conflict with their line management. It makes social workers defensive and hostile to discussions at court – understandably so. It creates an unecessarily combative dynamic between lawyers and social workers, and particularly the legal team for parents as ‘against’ the social workers planning for their children. In fact we all aspire to work cooperatively with Local Authorities, recognising that this is generally in the best interests of our own (parent) clients as well as the children.
But sadly sometimes we have to adopt a different approach. This is increasingly so in times when there is so much pressure on Local Authorities through volume of work, staff turnover, media scrutiny and public anxiety – things are very often not as they should be. It is at those times that pressure from Guardians and judges is crucial, and where a delicate reminder that things need to be sorted out does not work – well I’d like the opportunity to question the social worker please your honour. Hopefully after such moments of combat professionals can dust themselves off and carry on working together with refreshed understanding. But professionals are human too (really!), and it can be hard.
It saddens me that there is a perception at large amongst the social work / children’s services community recently that lawyer’s thrive on denigrating and criticising social workers seemingly for the sake of it. There is a chorus of voices saying that care proceedings waste valuable time and resources trampling on the self esteem of the social work profession, relishing the ‘blame culture’ and stringing out proceedings unecessarily by asking for endless reassessments. They say that courts should just accept social work evidence and assessment, respect their judgment and expertise and take exception to court scrutiny and the testing of evidence, suggesting it is a superfluous process and that it insults and undermines the social work profession (I have seen several of the submissions made to the family justice review by various representative bodies along these lines, and heard a number of directors of children’s services express this view in pretty plain terms). They are wrong.
I respect social workers and I wonder like many of my colleagues how they do it, how they survive the pressures. I would fail miserably as a social worker no doubt. But its not about questioning motivation, committment or passion. Its about ensuring the right outcome. So when social workers write s37 reports that fail to refer to significant harm or the care and supervision orders as within the range of orders available to the court under the Children Act 1989, when they write such reports without knowing what s37 of the act says, when they are told by team managers what to put into their reports rather than exercising their own independent judgment, when they completely exclude parents with parental responsibility from meetings about their children because they can’t manage their workload sufficiently well to make a phonecall, when they fail even to include children’s guardians or to keep the court informed about their planning for very vulnerable children… You get the picture. When that is the state of affairs (and I can tell you from recent experience it is) the court process is a vital safeguard – for children as much as for parents. It’s not about blame or criticism for its own end, it’s about ensuring good outcomes for children and families – should we not be in unison about that? It’s unfortunate that sometimes this is the only way to sort things out – but don’t blame the lawyers for getting rowdy about it. The court process should be seen as a mechanism for validating good practice and decision making (which, it should be remembered is most often precisely what it does do), and a sort of auditing check to identify less good practice or decision making. It could be used as a tool for learning and developing practice and procedures. It’s hard for individual social workers who are left in the witness box holding the baby, but the solution to that is better training, appraisal and line management, more general support about finding ways of ensuring that workers are not given cases that are beyond their experience and requiring social workers to have some basic grasp of the legal framework of family proceedings so that they are not left like fish out of water floundering around trying to understand what the court is asking them to do or left gasping in the witness box.
The adversarial system is often the subject of criticism – inappropriate in family cases it is said. Absolutely so in many scenarios. But it is fundamentally there to protect individuals against the invasive actions of the state, to ensure that whatever is done in the name of protecting and promoting the welfare of children is done well and done fairly and lawfully, and it must remain available in order to ensure both justice and good outcomes for children.