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 unison.org.uk for a press release and, I assume, a copy of the report itself.

Rethinking Child Protection Strategy

Apologies that I do not have time to craft a full blog post and am essentially regurgitating the press release below – however I have heard Dr Devine speak at the Multidisciplinary Conference organised with the Transparency Project earlier this month, and it is a VERY interesting project. We were treated to a bit of an advance preview of some of the preliminary findings arising from the project’s meta-analysis and some of the statistics were eye-watering. So. In all it’s untinkered with glory, behold the press release from UWE :

Researchers from Bristol Law School at the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) are releasing the first Evidence Briefing to Ministers today from an ESRC funded project entitled ‘Rethinking Child Protection Strategy’.

UWE Bristol researchers Dr Lauren Devine and Mr Stephen Parker have completed the first phase of the project that is funded by ESRC’s Transformative Research Call. Their work takes a fresh look at aspects of child protection and safeguarding processes and their effectiveness.

The research is investigating the costs (financial, social and economic) of child protection intervention, a multi-billion pound per annum industry.  The research will include evaluation of the harms caused by interventions as well as the benefits.  The project is particularly interested in researching how rationed services mean requests for support are mixed with allegations of child abuse, making it difficult to separate one from the other.

Dr Lauren Devine said, “We can see that the mixing of referrals for support services with referrals for suspected child abuse is problematic.  We recommend fewer low-level assessments and wider availability of universal support services.”

The first phase of the project involved an analysis of child protection and safeguarding referrals and social work assessments.  The data demonstrates a 311 percent increase in referrals over the 22 years studied, but no corresponding increase in the detection of child abuse.

The results raise questions about the policy towards year on year increased referrals and the resultant pressure on social workers and Children’s Services Departments to make decisions about which cases should continue onto assessment and beyond, and which should not.

The next stage of the project investigates the impact of Public Inquiries and Serious Case Reviews, undertaken when a child dies, is seriously harmed and where there are systemic cases of abuse or of over-intervention.

Over the summer period two symposia will be organised at UWE Bristol to discuss the questions raised by this research.

The project’s home page can be accessed here.

The Evidence Briefing is available at: http://www.esrc.ac.uk/news-and-events/publications/evidence-briefings/index.aspx

LASPO Back in the High Court

On Wednesday 10 June (that’s tomorrow) the High Court will begin hearing a judicial review with far reaching implications for the ongoing implementation of the Government’s legal aid cuts. The Public Law Project has been instructed by the Official Solicitor on behalf of a vulnerable individual, ‘IS’, in a ‘systemic challenge’ to the operation of the Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) scheme, established by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPOA) 2012.

So if anyone is at a loose end tomorrow, that will be an interesting one.

Full press release here.