The Guardian social care network ran a piece last week entitled Muslim fostering row: Careless press must be held to account in which the author – a social worker expresses shock that “Tower Hamlets council responded and that a court document was made public, disclosing more information about the child”. She goes on to say that “social care professionals are not accountable to the press or public with regards to the care plan for a particular child; they are accountable to service users, other professionals, independent staff and, on occasion, to senior management and regulatory bodies.”
She is wrong. Child protection social workers are agents of the state. They act in our name. We give them the power through democratic processes and via Parliament to take children away from their parents – sometimes forever. As such they are accountable to us and it is important that any social worker understands this. If agents of the state feel as if they are unaccountable it will lead to abuses. When a social worker feels they can say “I don’t have to answer to you” we are all in trouble. One of the reasons for the open justice principle is to prevent and to shed a light on abuses of state power, whether it be by a social worker or a police officer, a lawyer or a judge.
The fact that in many cases the needs of the child for privacy means there has to be a restriction on what information is made public does not mean that social workers are not accountable.
Family cases are heard in private, but privacy should never be a shield for professionals, only for a child. That it is apparently seen as such by a practising social worker invested with highly intrusive powers is profoundly worrying, and one can only hope this is not typical. Both case law and judicial guidance makes clear that social workers ordinarily have no legitimate expectation of anonymity. The sometimes uncomfortable (and sometimes unbalanced) scrutiny of the press is one of the only ways the public can hold social workers in family cases to account, and one of the only ways that they can find out about what is done in their name.
Whilst there may be much to criticise about the reporting of the Muslim foster care case (and social workers have not held back in offering it) it is nonetheless important that the press should be entitled to report (albeit often on a restricted basis) – and all the more so where the public cannot come into court and form a view for themselves. As a practising family law barrister, I know from experience that there is, on rare occasions, much to criticise about the work of social workers.
Scrutiny is not just about criticism but also about validation of what is done to families by the state. Without some measure of public accountability the legitimacy of what social workers are doing in the name of child protection is called into question. There is a crisis in public confidence in what social workers do, as the #standupforsocialwork campaign acknowledges. Public confidence will only be restored by letting people see what happens in the family courts and in child protection, not by saying “I don’t have to answer to you!”.