Talk to the hand – I’m not YOUR social worker!

Yes I Have Tried Talking To The Hand By Spooky Dad On Flickr (creative commons - thanks)

It’s an old chestnut, the idea that a social worker is there for the child and NOT the parents. Social Work Tutor was peddling it before Christmas :


However, it is clearly not just SWT who holds this wrong headed idea about the role of a childrens’ social worker either, as the recent Adoption Enquiry confirmed:

Social workers frequently construct themselves in pre-court proceedings as the social worker for the child rather than the family. A further level of fragmentation can get layered on later on with the social worker for the child seeking to communicate and work with a social worker who may see herself as the social worker for the adoptive parents…

The definition of the social worker role as being ‘the social worker for the child’ was a source of concern, as it often led to a lack of support for birth parents:

‘Children are part of families – a social worker cannot only be the child’s social worker.’ (birth mother)

So, it feels like this chestnut really does need roasting on an open fire until it is very very dead.

Now I’m a lawyer not a social worker, so I’m going to tackle this from a legal perspective. But that doesn’t mean I’m writing in some abstract way which is not relevant to social work practice. Although some resist the notion, the truth is that law is fundamental to the practice of social work. Where state agents are intervening in the lives of the vulnerable it is law that gives them a framework to protect against oppression.

So, looking at it from that legal perspective : is it right for a social worker to say that they are there for the child not the parents (as they undoubtedly often do, to the faces of anxious and needy parents)?  TLDR answer : Nope. It is wrong (Also, holding up a card or saying words like those on the card to parents is just going to make your job a whole lot harder because an ‘I owe you NOTHING’ introduction is not the best way to build a mutually cooperative trusting relationship).

Longer explanation of why this is a wrong message now follows…

Let’s begin with the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA) and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which the HRA brings into our law. It is an overarching piece of law which governs everything that a local authority does, including the social workers. Much of what Childrens’ Services social workers do on a day to day basis is intervening in the private and family lives of families – not just the children they are trying to protect, but their parents, siblings, extended family : by physically crossing their threshold, asking questions and delving into their past, their household goings on, their relationships, their interaction with other agencies, their past criminal conduct, their future hopes and fears… By assessing and reporting and sharing information. And of course in some cases by removing their children. Sometimes forever.

All of those actions are governed by the HRA because they are an interference with private and family life. If the state wants to stick it’s nose into the lives of families (as it undoubtedly must do sometimes), it must stick that nose in only as far as is necessary and proportionate, and only where authorised by law (usually but not always it is the Children Act 1989 which gives that authorisation in this field). If the local authority oversteps the mark a human right may have been infringed.

The ECHR / HRA allows for the fact that sometimes it is necessary to step on one person’s rights in order to protect another’s, and that particularly applies in relation to children. But it doesn’t mean that the rights of parents can be ignored. Social workers have clear legal duties under Article 6 (the right to a fair trial) and Article 8 ECHR (the right to respect for private and family life) to the whole family – to deal with them properly and fairly and to try where possible not to interfere with a family’s privacy and family life, either by sticking in that big old corporate nose, or by separating children from their families (and parents from their children) – unless all less harsh alternatives have been properly explored and ruled out. The balancing exercise between competing human rights and the need to protect is a useful way of looking at things for a social worker – can I keep this child safe somehow without breaking up this family? It’s what underpins the Re B-S balancing document that we now routinely see in social workers’ final statements. But rather than a generic tick box exercise this should be a proper analysis, rooted in what is possible and what might work for this child, in the context of this family and the services the state could provide to avoid separation. Human rights should be a tool that underpins social work rather than an inconvenience to be gotten around, as I sometimes sense (and have been told) that it is.

Quite apart from the ECHR and HRA, the UK is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which should be taken as an aid to interpretation of the ECHR. The Preamble to the UNCRC states

the family, as the fundamental group of society and the natural environment for the growth and wellbeing of all its members and particularly children, should be afforded the necessary protection and assistance so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community.

Several Articles in the UNCRC also spell out that the rights of the child and of their parents are interwoven. Article 3 requires taking account of the rights and duties of parents when intervening to protect a child. Article 18 affirms the primary role of parents to bring up children, and the obligation on a State to assist parents to do so. Article 27 affirms the primary role of parents to make adequate provision for their children, and the obligation on a State to assist parents in making adequate provision for their children.

So, childrens’ rights are significantly embedded in the family and difficult to separate from them (See The Christian Institute & Ors v The Lord Advocate (Scotland) [2016] UKSC 51 (28 July 2016) for an example of this in action, which Allan Norman wrote about on Pink Tape here). Although the purpose of assessments and social work is to protect and enhance the welfare of the child, the HRA means that state interference is limited to that which is either consensual or necessary, and a social worker exercising the powers and responsibilities of the local authority owes a clear legal duty to each of the parents and each of the siblings within a family unit.


But of course these international provisions and the HRA deals with broad principles and rights. As well as being necessary and proportionate state intervention has to be authorised by law. There are more specific pieces of law which describe and constrain how social workers operate and what they do. This is where the Children Act 1989 (CA) comes in. The CA gives local authorities various powers (you can) and duties (you must) to protect and promote the welfare of children. Those duties and powers are given to the local authority (the state) not the social worker, and the social worker is the agent of the state.

The CA is of course about children (the clue’s in the title). But, there is nothing in the CA which entitles a child to ‘their own’ allocated social worker. This is a practice developed by local authorities in carrying out their functions under the CA and other Acts, where a family often becomes ‘open’ to social services because of a CA duty to assess the needs of individual children. As we shall see, it isn’t quite as straightforward as saying ‘My job is to assess the child / his needs, so I’m the child’s social worker’.

Some of the duties under the CA are targeted at children and their families, notably children in need and their families. Take section 17, Provision of services for children in need, their families and others :

(1)     It shall be the general duty of every local authority (in addition to the other duties imposed on them by this Part)—
(a)     to safeguard and promote the welfare of children within their area who are in need; and
(b)     so far as is consistent with that duty, to promote the upbringing of such children by their families,

by providing a range and level of services appropriate to those children’s needs.

(2)     For the purpose principally of facilitating the discharge of their general duty under this section, every local authority shall have the specific duties and powers set out in Part I of Schedule 2.

(3)     Any service provided by an authority in the exercise of functions conferred on them by this section may be provided for the family of a particular child in need or for any member of his family, if it is provided with a view to safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare…. [my emphasis]

This creates a duty towards children in need AND their families, and a power to provide services to a specific child or any member of his family. It doesn’t mention the allocation of social workers. In fact the only situation where the CA requires a local authority to appoint an individual worker to a particular child is in respect of former looked after children who qualify for a Personal Adviser (usually a social worker) under s 23D CA. Elsewhere, s25A does require a local authority to appoint an Independent Reviewing Officer to monitor the performance of the local authority in its duties towards the child. But no social worker. Further, in care proceedings, the court appointed guardian is a social worker appointed specifically for the child, albeit that their function is confined within proceedings (s41).

The ‘paramountcy principle’ contained in section 1 of the CA doesn’t help either, not least because it applies only to the court (and only then when it’s powers are invoked). However, the paramountcy principle and expanded welfare checklist in the Adoption and Children Act 2002 (ACA) do apply to the local authority as adoption agency when it is coming to a decision about adoption – and in those cases therefore the social worker carrying out the functions of the local authority must consider ‘the likely effect on the child (throughout his life) of having ceased to be a member of the original family and become an adopted person’, and ‘the relationship which the child has with relatives … and with any other person in relation to whom the court or agency considers the relationship to be relevant, including the likelihood of any such relationship continuing and the value to the child of its doing so, the ability and willingness of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, to provide the child with a secure environment in which the child can develop, and otherwise to meet the child’s needs, and the wishes and feelings of any of the child’s relatives, or of any such person, regarding the child.’ (ss 1(4)(c) and (f) ACA). That is a clear reminder that in the work carried out by a social worker the broader family relationships should be squarely in mind, but it is addressed to the local authority as a corporate entity, and doesn’t specify anything about the role of the social worker.

One view is that the reason that the paramountcy principle is not applied to the work of local authorities outside of proceedings is because the CA envisaged social workers working consensually with families, supporting parents to exercise their exclusive parental responsibility in ways that could be assumed to be in their best interests without reference to a court. The paramountcy principle is a guiding principle to assist with non-consensual decision making. As article 18(1) UNCRC tells us :

…Parties shall use their best efforts to ensure recognition of the principle that both parents have common responsibilities for the upbringing and development of the child. Parents or, as the case may be, legal guardians, have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child. The best interests of the child will be their basic concern. (Emphasis supplied)

Where a local authority becomes involved because its duty under s47 CA has been triggered, that duty is to investigate the child’s circumstances to see if any steps need to be taken to protect him. Where consent is not forthcoming to enable an assessment to be carried out the CA provides various non-consensual powers to ensure the situation can be properly assessed. But of course even then, although the assessment is of the child, his circumstances include his family and his needs include his need for a relationship with them.

The social worker is the local authority’s agent in respect of all its duties to children and their families. It may well be that childrens services ‘allocate’ a named social worker ‘to’ a particular child for all sorts of very sensible operational reasons. However those operational reasons cannot override the broader legal, and moral duties owed to families. Local Authorities must organise themselves in such a way as to fulfil their statutory and legal obligations to all those they serve.

If social workers operate under the mistaken belief (or policy) that legally they are the child’s social worker, there is a risk that they will feel legally empowered or even obliged to adopt a ‘child rescue’ rather than ‘family support’ approach to their work that can skew outcomes.

The ‘social worker for the child’ approach is, in my experience, often used to justify the cutting off of support to a parent following the removal of a child or the end of proceedings (bar that nebulous thing ‘post adoption support’). Once the particular child is ‘sorted’ (removed) the duty to the bereaved parents is seen (and often said) to end. They are left homeless or over-housed with insufficient income to meet their rent, distressed and often unable to function and to pick themselves up after the trauma of removal (often not for the first time). Such parents, in despair, often relapse to drug or alcohol use, or fall pregnant through chaotic lifestyles or intentionally in a desperate bid to ease the pain. They have nothing else left.

It is only in recent years, through projects like FDAC and PAUSE that some are beginning to grapple with the consequences of that – parents left in pain and without support and involved in a succession of repeat care proceedings as they are condemned for repeating the same mistakes rather than helped to find a different way. See various judgments of HHJ WIldblood QC for an expression of judicial frustration at the futility of obtaining psychological reports in care proceedings that tell the court a parent needs treatment which is too time consuming for the subject child to wait for, and which has almost inevitably not been provided before the next child comes along, because in between children social services see themselves as having no duty (though HHJ Wildblood’s judgment in Gloucestershire County Council v M & Ors [2015] EWFC B177 (5 November 2015) provides a rare example where a LA did agree to fund therapy post-removal). In fact local authorities DO have just such a duty under s17 CA combined with Schedule 2 (7) :

Provision to reduce need for care proceedings etc

Every local authority shall take reasonable steps designed—
(a)     to reduce the need to bring—
(i)     proceedings for care or supervision orders with respect to children within their area;(ii)     criminal proceedings against such children;(iii)     any family or other proceedings with respect to such children which might lead to them being placed in the authority’s care; or(iv)     proceedings under the inherent jurisdiction of the High Court with respect to children;

It isn’t a specific duty to provide therapy, but clearly the provision of therapy for parents who are likely to parent again, or the setting up of projects to help those likely to struggle with parenting are vires services for local authorities. Projects like PAUSE and FDAC are beginning to demonstrate that this sort of project may in any event be fiscally responsible because they will reduce the financial burden on the local authority in the long run.

Perhaps the most important provisions of the Children Act are the ones most easy to overlook : parental responsibility (sections 2-4). A social worker owes a duty to the parents of a child with whom she is working, or who she is assessing – because whilst the child is unable to deal with own affairs the parent is their proxy decision maker – they hold parental responsibility, and with that hold the rights to make decisions for the child unless the law or a court restricts that right (for example through the exercise of police powers in an emergency or through an EPO, ICO or other order). Even if a care order is in place parents retain their parental responsibility and the local authority may only ‘trump’ the parents’ PR where it is necessary. So again, on that basis the local authority owes a duty to the parents.

The social work regulator, the HCPC talks in terms of duties to ‘service users’, which is a more constructive way of approaching the task at hand : a local authority owes duties to provide a whole host of services to everyone living within its area, not just to children. We are all ‘service users’, whether of s17 type services or otherwise (and the HCPC define a service user as anyone who uses or is affected by the services). As residents in a local authority area the local authority is democratically accountable for the services it provides, and the Children Act 2004 requires each local authority to appoint a Director of Childrens’ Services and a lead member for Childrens’ Services to ensure that voters (including the parents of children in receipt of services) can ensure accountability in this area of work. So, from individual social worker, right up to the senior management or elected representatives, the duties owed encompass not just those owed to a child, but those owed to all the family.

Alright. That’s enough law. Let’s have some home truths : in my opinion as a human rather than lawyer, and regardless of the strict legal position, an assertion by a social worker that they are NOT there for the parent discloses a pretty poor level of insight into family functioning and into childrens’ needs (and rights) to family life. The focus must always be on the needs of the child, but tunnel vision is unlikely to enable a social worker to meet those needs in the fullest way – either for that child or any siblings who may follow in the future. Good social workers offer a hand of support not a hand that dismisses a parent as an irrelevance.


Thanks to Allan Norman @celticknottweet for his input into this piece (ideas his, mistakes mine).


Feature pic : Yes I Have Tried Talking To The Hand By Spooky Dad On Flickr (creative commons – thanks)

25 thoughts on “Talk to the hand – I’m not YOUR social worker!

  1. I love this ….. Might be my favourite Lucy

  2. Many FNF’s service users experience of social workers is precisely this. The parent, especially the non-resident parent, usually the father, is an inconvenient irritation – delaying their ability to close the case and move on.

  3. Goodness me ! I actually agree with familoo that social workers (if we must have them ) should be there for the family not just for the child. Unfortunately the constant repetition of the mantra “the interests of the child are Paramount” has an undesirable implication that somehow these interests are not those of the parents.Sometimes this certainly is true but in most cases the two coincide yet so many social workers proudly tell parents “We are not here to try and keep families together ;we are here to protect your child”
    That places them in an adverse position to parents from the “off” yet judges still seem surprised and aggravated that these same parents have not “fully cooperated” with the professionals ………..

    • Paul Randle-jolliffe

      I do wonder if the designation ‘ social’ worker is not a misnomer.

      People have the picture of someone caring and wise, not my experience at all, more like well I won’t say it.

      I do think that investigation and support in all case should involve at least two separate people and they should not be in the same office and should act and be independent of each other.

      Having the illusion of one and the practice of another in one person seems to me to be a recipe for disaster.

      But there is always lessons have been learnt, really, I don’t see it.

      I always say to people these social workers are not your friends, they will destroy you if you let them.

      • That’s sad. Maybe don’t condemn the whole profession or the individuals within it just because there are some systemic problems and some bad apples? Hate is never helpful.

        • There are some excellent contributions here on this subject.

          There are very smart social workers and Cafcass officers. However, far too many people have experienced bad apples and systemic problems such as failure to adequately involve both parents. Many of them have resulted in life-changing consequences to them and their children, principally the loss relationships with their children. Too often this is through little or no fault of their own, contributed to by inappropriate interventions. Since most love their children above all else, they are their life, everything that they live for. Given this, can we blame anyone for their reactions? Would we be as accommodating if the professional was a surgeon who botched an operation or if systemic problems in hospitals resulted in life-changing consequences?

  4. Well said – and another aspect of this is that social workers should work with both parents wherever possible, even if one is not living with the child. In our experience (Families Need Fathers Scotland) the social worker often ignores the non-resident parent, usually the father, or views him as a risk rather than a potential support for the child. That’s not to say all non-resident parents are wonderful, but they need to be included in the picture, and may be able to help the child if they are given a bit of support or encouragement.
    Working with two parents as well as a child or children might seem excessive given the constraints that social workers are under, but it could make the difference and keep a child out of care.

  5. Many thanks, Lucy – important and very well put. Reminds me that the 89 Act started out as the Children and Families Bill – and many of us involved in the detailed consultations around it were disheartened to see the final title of the Act. A real lost opportunity to think child and family from the start, as the Act envisaged.

  6. Paul Randle-jolliffe

    Very important article Lucy that I shall share widely!

  7. Wish this legal argument had been around 10 or 15 years ago. Does anyone else remember when the assessment framework guidance was published there was mention that sometimes the best way to provide services to the child was to provide services to the parents? There is also an ethical argument by the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray in his ‘Reason and Emotion’ who wrote that when we treat someone as a means to an end rather than as an end in themself, we violate the integrity of their personality.

  8. A timely and useful summary – thank you. Though dispiriting that it needs to be said (I speak as a Social Worker), as it seems pretty fundamental to social work practice. Is there quantative or qualitative research indicating how widespread this is? In my (admittedly not necessarily representative) experience, some Social Workers are all too aware of the importance of supporting the whole family and of the right to family life. The crunch comes when there are serious and persistent concerns about a child’s safety which are attributable to the parents’ actions or inactions. Then it seems that the dilemma (or one of them) is reaching an analysis and judgement about whether parents are able, with support , to make changes to enable a child to remain with them or return to them, or if not whether wider family can care for the child. I am sure that the Transparency Project has the figures to hand, but has there not been an increase in SGOs made to extended family members in recent years? Could this not be at least partly accounted for by social work practice recognizing the importance of supporting a child in his/her family (admittedly alongside other factors such as, ahem, Re B and Re BS, nothing else will do, etc, and financial considerations re the cost of foster care and SGO). Just saying that it is complicated. Great piece, though. Thanks.

    • Hi colin, I am not sue that there are any figures on this. I speak from (15 years) anecdotal experience. Social Work Tutor didn’t pull that meme out of thin air or invent the idea himself. It’s a real world view held by many social workers I’ve met. From memory there has been an increase in SGOs following Re BS etc, but playing devils advocate some might say that some social workers have been dragged kicking and screaming into following Re BS and its underlying last resort ethos, and that perhaps they are not always fully understanding of its importance or in total agreement with it. Some, not all. So if you adopt that line of thinking you might not see the rise in SGO numbers as a straightforward indicator of a positive change in thinking in the way you suggest. It is complicated, isn’t it? Life would be dull if it wasn’t I suppose….

      • Thanks, Lucy. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest this attitude is not around, and I’m not a fan of SWT. I’m just aware that there may be times when there may be a tension or conflict between the right to family life and a child’s other rights. There have been times in serious case reviews or other reports following a child death when Social Workers (and other professionals) have been criticized for over identifying with parents/wider family and losing sight of the child, so it does seem to be a tightrope. Still, it is complicated. Thanks again for the piece.

  9. John the Scribe

    Unfortunately my experience of social workers was SWT’s dream come true, thankfully though my friends in the Catenians (many of whom are lawyers and health professionals) were able to help me in my quest to stop the state’s interference my nascent family.

    Your article reminded me of an episode of the Moral Maze late last year, when one of the witnesses expressed concern about the weakening of the social fabric against state interference.

    • Fortunately not all social workers think like this. Most are excellent and thoughtful human beings doing a tough job in difficult circumstances.

      • Dear Ms Reed

        My comment wasn’t intended as an indictment of social workers per se, (as the son of a social worker, albeit one who dealt with vulnerable adults I appreciate the work they do), and I was initially open to engaging with Social Services after my sons’s diagnosis.

        It was however rather galling after having sought employment that was more family friendly, put together a comprehensive care plan to meet his needs to be subjected to (by a young man who flaunted his sexual preferences) an interrogation on how my religious beliefs (I am an unashamed Catholics) would influence my parenting.

        It seemed that 15 years command experience as an NCO in our Armed Services (during which I obtained a doctorate in Engineering), finding employment which allows my wife to be a full time mother, and putting a care plan together counted for nought in his eyes.

        With the help of my brother Catenians I lodged a complaint at which point a far more sensible social worker was sent round, one who realized that we ‘had it all together’ and that the state ought to leave us alone.

        I appreciate that not all social workers are as ‘forceful’ as that young man, but it has damaged my trust in the system and means that I’m less likely to access children’s services in the future, even If I need to.

  10. Perhaps a useful connection between law and social work could be the three aspects of the ‘modern contest’ described by Gustafson & Cooper (1990): left, civility – where help is likely to be reliable; middle, ambiguity or confusion – where help is usually proposed (and fierce advantage usually taken); and right, contest – where ferocity is relatively unchecked. My corporate philosopher brother Roger often makes the point that when people go to work they can leave their humanity at home…

  11. I completely agree. In my previous career as an Independent Mental Capacity Advocate there were several cases where I advocated that the best interests of relatives, usually my clients’ children, were not mutually exclusive or incompatible: what is more natural than a parent wanting their children to prosper or even benefit from parental generosity sometimes at the expense of the parent. The same principle can apply in Children’s law : is it too generous to parents to suppose that the welfare of the child may include a child’s innate wish for wanting happy supported parents?!

  12. No mention of split court cases, or the reason as to why split cases were even allowed in a British Court of Justice, hopefully
    you are saving this topic for a later blog

  13. The secret family courts are evil corrupt scum,they get away with destroying many families for life it’s heartbreaking we loved our boys so much we are broken.we have had no help what is wrong with this country

  14. I’m currently going through Care Proceedings. My family was torn apart on the basis of “there being a future RISK of serious emotional & physical neglect”. Backed up by flimsy evidence, twisted statements and other factually incorrect reports.
    A family member is applying for an SGO and it is they who are presently caring for my children under an ICO. It was clearly stated in a recent visit from the SW that now the children are no longer in my care I’ve become “Irrelevant” and my welfare is not their “Concern”. Furthermore the recommended contact between my children and I once the SGO is awarded is “once per three months for three hours”. I have supervised contact three times a week for 1.5 hours.

    Where is the LA’s attempt to protect the family unit??

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