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.

15 thoughts on “Social Work, the Courts and the Consequences of Transparency

  1. Surely social workers are aware they have a code of conduct, if they fall outside of this by act or omission, then criticism publicly should not be unexpected. If they feel intimidated, perhaps they should try feeling what it is like to be on the receiving end of their abuse of parents. Even if only abuse of power. The continuous emotional abuse they wield is unprofessional, however their professional body, HCPC are unwilling to take the majority of complaints forward.

  2. Reading this post was deeply depressing but I think confirms suspicions that many practitioners who have been working in the CP field for a long time have shared. It seems to me that the systemic and political changes which have been introduced since about 2011 are creating a situation where Social workers are now (mostly) the only ‘expert’ who has any real assessment role with families. I am not clear on what has happened to CAFCASS but speaking to a very experienced colleague recently, I was informed that CAFCASS are similarly being expected to have limited family contact and write to ‘templates’ and that for Guardians used to doing their own investigations and being able to disagree with LA based on evidence they have unearthed, the situation was described as ‘intolerable’.

    Whilst experts have their problems too, again, we could previously choose to undertake the type of investigation we felt was required to offer an informed ‘independent’ opinion – this capacity has been reduced by tighter case management of what is asked, LAA caps to limit what can be done in each type of assessment. But beyond this, there is a feeling that there is a drive towards avoidance of risk at all costs by LA and so ‘evidence’ of progress by parents which might suggest they could have their children returned under a Supervision Order (for example) is somehow getting lost. ignored, misinterpreted or treated as irrelevant and thresholds which strain the bounds of credibility are becoming more frequent as permanent removal from parents (adoption, SGO, long-term foster care) seems to be increasingly the name of the game.

    I am starting to wonder whether the generation of SW managers in post now are (given retention issues) those who have trained and come through such a risk averse SW culture that they have no real experience of actually managing cases where there is a potential risk to the child whereas ‘older’ SW (trained and experienced in a family support rather than risk elimination model) may have felt perfectly competent to manage that family in the community.

    I am not sure that more training is the answer personally as if the problem is systemic and the culture of SW is now so risk averse that it has forgotten that it was ever supposed to manage risk to support families to stay together (which is a stressful task) then what would SW be being trained to do? More risk assessment? It is very telling that Munro recommended closer more supportive therapeutic relationships between families and SW, as have other SW reviews but in fact relationships are becoming more distant and less therapeutic and supportive – more about ‘policing’ in Dr Devine’s terms. Until that aspect of the system shifts, it seems to me that Child protection is going to get more and more focused on identifying risk and ‘rescuing’ children and parents will be at serious risk of being set up to fail.

  3. Thanks for making this point Lucy –

    ‘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.’

    Exactly. Social workers in local authorities and Cafcass, and independent experts, have been routinely named for quite a few years now. I therefore hadn’t understood the point of the Unison survey.

  4. I think that some context is needed. If you think of the number of social workers employed by a Local Authority and the number of children open to each social worker, only a tiny minority of our work ever makes it into the court world. Most social workers have very little to do with court. This also explains why the quality of our performance in court is so varied because most of us are not in court enough to develop that professional skill.

    In a world where were are flooded with changes in procedures and the landscape we work is ever changing, we will only pay attention to the things that actually impact on our practice.

    If the survey focused on the type of social work role that required court work of it, I suspect the awareness would be much greater.

  5. The Unison website doesn’t have the report. It suggests that you can contact the press office for a copy, but doesn’t give an email address for the press office. There is a phone number, but I really wish that agencies who do a press release publicising a report, research, a new policy or a draft bill would actually put a link to the document itself.

    • I’ve emailed them to ask if I can publish it or if they can give me a link and to ask for clarification of some points. Will update post if and when response received. If you want to email directly try f.ayad@unison.co.uk in press office.

  6. Really good post, it will be interesting to see the a copy of the full report to get a wider view of the statistics. I find many new reports and studies like these tend to use a sensationalist headline for shock and awe purposes, yet when you dig a little deeper into the actual data you get a sense of the bigger picture

  7. I was asked to speak at a South Yorkshire Family Court Forum event in Sheffield last year, to put the news media’s viewpoint about transparency in the family justice system.
    A good point made from the floor – I think by a Guardian – was that they are already identified and vilified on social media as a result of their work – that is, vilified by parents aggrieved by interventions/court rulings. So, the point was that being named by the news media in court reports is no big deal, compared to that.
    If a media report of a court case is not fair or accurate anyone defamed as a result could successfully sue for libel. Yes, funding a libel action is beyond the pocket of most individuals but not of a trade union or professional association. For example, the Police Federation has supported police officers in libel actions against the media.
    Anyway, most journalists who report from the courts and from published judgments do want to be fair and accurate. There is irresponsible reporting from time to time. But my experience is that local authorities could do more – without breaching the confidentiality owed to children or families, or the anonymity the law grants them in court reports – to engage with the local media to explain cases and child protection work.
    Mark Hanna, Journalism Studies Dept, Sheffield University
    Co-author of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists

  8. Julie, I think the issue is that whilst social workers were aware (or they ought to have been) that in a case that got reported as case-law they might be named, that you could easily go your whole career without ever making the law reports. In twenty years, I’d been involved in three reported cases. And also, you would know that the case was going in that direction – you’d be in the High Court or the Court of Appeal. [Also many of those reported cases didn’t name the social workers, although they were able to]

    Now it can be any case, and in your local Court and reported by your local newspaper.

    So I do see the point of the Unison survey.

    • Fair point Andrew – but the fact remains social workers have remained oblivious notwithstanding this stuff has been happening for year (in truth some lawyers are oblivious too – I got a totally blank look the other day when I asked what another barrister’s position was on publishing a judgment in a case we were doing). I think the biggest issue is a training issue. The fear is 99% through lack of knowledge and good information.

  9. I’m surprised at how little understanding there is of why social workers can fear this. Just think back to what happened to baby Peter’s social workers. It’s all very well barristers and legal professionals who operate in the safe and sanitised word of court treat us with the obvious distain you do, but please remember that we are the ones going into the community, into the dangerous homes, being assaulted, harrassed and for very little recognition or job satisfaction other than trying to do our best.

    • I understand that much of frontline social work is frightening and dangerous. I understand why social workers may be fearful of being named. But many social workers, cafcass officers, lawyers and judges are already named and the subject of really rather unpleasant stuff. What I don’t see is that the naming of social workers in judgments itself (as opposed to on social media or “shaming” websites etc) is likely to cause any of this to be worse – in fact in some cases it might have the potential to take the sting out of scapegoating of social workers who have nothing wrong because that will be apparent from a judgment. Where social workers are in the firing line but the fault lies further up the chain the courts often anonymise the frontline workers to protect them.

      For the record we (lawyers) do spend considerable amounts of time in very confined spaces with our clients – your service users – at some of the most stressful moments of their lives. I’ve never been assaulted but the risks are similar, if perhaps easier to manage in a public building rather than someone’s home.

      I do recognise though that the job you do is immensely stressful.

  10. I write as a retired CAFCASS officer specialising in private law. I agree with the comments about social work being dominated by risk assessment processes. Risk Assessment is regarded as a science, though in fact it is actually a matter of intelligent guesswork. In my long experience, it was rarely possible to be confident about risk unless there was strong evidence of previous convictions for violence or a a pattern of repeated use of drugs impinging on child care or sustained intimidating behaviour.
    The search to identify risk is destructive of clear thinking and thorough work resulting in poor advice to the family court. Current colleagues tell me that their work is “micro-managed” to a ridiculous degree.

  11. As long as social workers continue to snatch babies and young children not for anything the parents have done but for “risk” that they might do something wrong in the future they will deservedly be hated,villified and despised as a profession.
    Any family hearing social workers Knock at their door for the first time will NOT say “how nice of them to call” ;they will say “My God they are after our children!” or something similar but more explicit.
    Most of the decent types resign as social workers when they find out what they have to do to non crimuinal parents and those who remain are deservedly beneath the contempt of the suffering public;
    Name them and shame them all I say !

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