Social workers should not hide – they are accountable to all of us

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!”.

13 thoughts on “Social workers should not hide – they are accountable to all of us

  1. Some media coverage of social workers is very unfair. But some of it is not. Also, many journalists know – to some extent anyway – that child protection work is very hard. After all, for example, the criminal courts have many cases of child abuse, and many journalists have reported on these, by being at those proceedings and hearing victims testify. Also some journalists have family members, including parents, involved in child protection work, or in fostering, or are involved in that field themselves. I was speaking four days ago to a journalist brought up in care who is now part of the system approving new foster parents. It shouldn’t be the case that there are two ‘camps’ – the media and social workers.
    Also, it is a probably true that news coverage of any profession is likely to be substantially critical – that is, examples of things which went wrong outweighing examples of things which went right – whether the coverage is, for example, of police or lawyers or accountants. Sadly, newspapers devoted to good news do not survive – it’s been tried.
    What is needed, though, is more material published at local and national level in the news media explaining the challenges social workers face, their decisions and their achievements, including material they produce. Journalists find producing or encouraging this material – in a news or features format – difficult if those in charge of social workers, or social workers themselves, have a bunker mentality.

    • I agree wholeheartedly with everything you say, Mark.

      • & I agree with the post and Mark. I expect to be accountable, everything I do is within the framework of the law, and it is just unfortunate that media inaccuracies exist. Many are critiqued by you Lucy and the Transparency Project, but that they are distorted narratives is not a reason that there should not be any coverage. Until I read this, I was sure everyone would like more accuracy, because then people have more knowledge about what social workers do. It is absolutely wrong that the state should intervene in family life with no accountability, and as you say, social workers are agents of the state.

  2. Totally Confused

    quote: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.unquote

    I have in 9 years of experience found the opposite. Most social workers and their reports are sloppy, incomplete, based on half pieces of information. Very little fact based evidence and evaluation.

    There has been much debate of late regarding parents recording social workers and CAFCASS officers. I have experienced these people getting quite defensive at the suggestion. Wishing to record is seen as ‘See you don’t trust me and my professional judgment and honesty; so that means you can’t work openly and honestly with professionals.’ Yet, we all know, sometimes, recording is the only way for ‘truth to will out’.

    The management of the Tower Hamlets case has been terrible. But, to be honest, not unusual.

    Social Workers (who trained for this vocation- not profession- the good one’s consider it a vocation to advocate for others) have to accept that they are government employees; that is, as publicly funded, they are accountable to those who pay them. So therefore, they should be transparent.

  3. I’ve been circling this point for a while and I entirely agree with your post: as ever you put it far more elegantly than I can.

    Whilst social work affects the lives of many, it goes on almost entirely out of sight. Whilst we have elected MPs and other elected officials to craft laws and to oversee that application of policy in practice, this is at a far remove from many people’s experience.

    I am lucky to live a relatively privileged life: as part of that many of my friends, colleagues, relations and peers hold positions of influence and some power. Yet because social work goes on behind closed doors, and, bluntly, doesn’t really impact on most “people like us” (dread phrase but it makes the point: when I became entangled by them it was a first for pretty much anybody I knew), little is known about what Social Workers get up to or what they are doing in our name as agents of the state.

    At risk of sounding like a broken record, a senior member of a social work authority wrote to me after the event and confirmed that their actual approach to record keeping (for example) bore little or no resemblance to their official policy. Inevitably, once cracks have opened up, weeds will flourish.

    As a private citizen if you write to them they will tell you what their policy is. If you’re a Judge, for example, you would know what they policy is, and of course that would, to an extent, be trusted, because they are professionals etc. But…it turns out that they don’t even try to adhere to that policy. How would a politician know that? How would a Judge know that? How would we, as private individuals know that?

    We have entrusted them with massive powers to intrude on our private lives – but that comes with responsibilities and checks and balances. Part of that, for example, is to keep proper records. The police abuse of record keeping (etc) resulted in that branch of the state having much stricter standards imposed, yet Social Workers, as their work is more private and less disclosed, have yet to be subject to that level of scrutiny: and indeed as evidenced by the Guardian article and other recent commentary really object to any scrutiny by the press.

    Roll on more press scrutiny, let sunshine be the disinfectant and let the good social workers be praised whilst the bad are damned.

  4. Bravo. The most succinct and accurate portrayal of my own understanding of their culpability.

  5. “Both case law and judicial guidance makes clear that social workers ordinarily have no legitimate expectation of anonymity.”

    Any examples you can point me in the direction of?

    • Presidents 2014 guidance on publication of judgments…and practically any Munby judgment (although in recent examples he has saved the frontline social worker when really the fault lies with the managers.

  6. Penelope Welbourne

    To be fair to the commentator, she did not say she felt unaccountable, rather that she thought her accountability was not to “the press or public”. I think there is scope for a bit more consideration as to what that accountability “to us” that you mention, actually means. Does it mean social workers have to answer any fishing expedition questions based on a half truthful newspaper article? At what level of detail? Private individuals do not have a right to private information about families in court, so just when does that ‘us’ become so powerful it compels an answer? I’m very much in favour of transparency, because people will be suspicious and afraid of what they cannot know about, and lack of it can conceal abuses. But social workers are not accountable to the press, any more than doctors or lawyers, that seems to me to be a fact, and I cannot see that their accountability to the public is at the level of a duty to reveal the details of individual care plans to anyone other than those individuals with a specific legitimate family or professional interest in the child’s welfare, as the author suggests. I would have omitted the ‘on occasion’, though.
    I can see scope for developing thinking further around the relationship between accountability as a public servant, and the need for agencies making decisions about child welfare to be open as far as they can be without compromising confidentiality. Accountable to ‘us, the public’ is just too broad. I’m not sure it helps social workers at all. And I would really worry about any social worker who thought he or she had to answer questions from ‘the public’ or press without advice, consultation, and a serious think about the best interests of their service users. This does not mean I think misinformation should go uncorrected, or agencies should be secretive, BTW. And of course they should keep records (and do everything else) in accordance with policy, etc.
    What guidance would you wish social workers to have? The press already have defined powers of observation and reporting in child care cases – are you proposing they be extended? And if so, how? (I only read your post: the Guardian article may have had loads more in it, but I missed it, so this is just a response to your comments, Lucy.)

    • Hi Penelope,

      Thanks for your comment.

      The “us” I’m referring to is the public at large. You ask “Does [accountability to us] mean social workers have to answer any fishing expedition questions based on a half truthful newspaper article?” I don’t think it does and I haven’t suggested that. I don’t think accountability to the public should be equated with press intrusion or with what the press think is newsworthy or interesting (although there may be much overlap).
      You go on to say “But social workers are not accountable to the press, any more than doctors or lawyers, that seems to me to be a fact, and I cannot see that their accountability to the public is at the level of a duty to reveal the details of individual care plans to anyone other than those individuals with a specific legitimate family or professional interest in the child’s welfare, as the author suggests.”

      I agree – they aren’t accountable to the press. As a lawyer I’m not accountable to the press, but I’m accountable as a professional – not just to my regulator but to the public because there is a public interest in people in my profession upholding certain standards. If I transgress and do something awful I would expect that to be published by my regulator (or dealt with in a public hearing) – and most likely the mechanism by which my accountability would become real would be via the press. But it doesn’t make me accountable to the press. And nor have I suggested that any notion of accountability means that private information about individual care plans should be disclosed. Accountability has to be balanced with the privacy of the family in question (I happen to think there probably was further information Tower Hamlets could probably have disclosed in this case that would have advanced public understanding without breaching the child’s privacy, with a bit of thought applied – but this is merely my hunch).

      You also say “Accountable to ‘us, the public’ is just too broad. I’m not sure it helps social workers at all. And I would really worry about any social worker who thought he or she had to answer questions from ‘the public’ or press without advice, consultation, and a serious think about the best interests of their service users.”

      Why is accountable to the public too broad? I disagree. Parliament, our elected representatives, have given social workers the power to take our children. They are accountable to us ALL when exercising the powers given to them on our behalf. I’m not interested in whether this notion “helps” social workers or not. It is a necessary corollary of being a public servant. But again, I don’t suggest and nor do I think that a social worker should answer questions from press or public without advice or without reference to service users – social workers have managers and lawyers from whom they can take such advice. I simply ask that when they make decisions about the correct course of action they do so with regard to their duties both to the individual and to society on whose behalf they act.

      At the Transparency Project we have recently published some guidance on a related topic – the publication of judgments. It is not intended to be for the benefit of social workers specifically or exclusively but it does contain some content that may be of use to social workers when thinking about issues of privacy versus transparency. See here. There is much more information and discussion on The Transparency Project site about how these sometimes competing aims may be more creatively balanced.

      Thanks again for commenting.

      Lucy

      • Thank you for your reply – I absolutely endorse your point that, “.. I simply ask that when they make decisions about the correct course of action they do so with regard to their duties both to the individual and to society on whose behalf they act.” That does seem very helpful as a starting point. I really like your blog, BTW, read it regularly and appreciate all you put in to it. I recommend it to all my students too for an informative and engaging perspective on family law.

  7. A thumbs up from this McKenzie friend in NZ too Lucy.

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