The strict deadlines imposed by the courts for parent and child assessments can place social workers under immense pressure, and will become even tighter when arrangements for assessments change under the new Public Law Outline.
Liz Davies, a senior lecturer in Children and Family Social Work at London Metropolitan University, argues that a system of child protection investigations rather than one based on assessments is what is required in order to provide the courts with the information they require for effective decision making.
Fitz-Patrick says that, in her experience, social workers’ assessments are generally accepted in court. But another social worker working in the West of England, who does not wish to be named, says that she regularly experiences parents’ solicitors successfully persuading the courts to agree to assessments being re-done by independent social workers at great cost to the council or the taxpayer (who foots the bill for this varies from case to case).
Rightly or wrongly, some social workers say they are viewed as being beneath the children’s guardian, and any experts called, in the court room pecking order. This is despite the fact social workers often spending very lengthy periods of time working with the children and their families, when experts may have only met them once.
Mark* says: “Once a judge said to me he wanted an expert with a capital ‘e’ rather than a social worker who was an expert with a small ‘e’. We have tried to emphasise [to the courts] that social workers are graduates; they have high levels of intelligence; carry out evidence-based practice; and now have to complete continuing professional development.”
Anthony Douglas, chief executive of the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass), sympathises with this point and says there is a history of social workers having a low status in the family courts. “It’s because, in the end, social workers have case responsibility. Most other people [involved in the case] are commenting on that,” he says.
Julia Cheetham, a barrister in the family team at Deans Court Chambers in Manchester, says that pre-case preparation is essential to social workers being able to stand their ground. “If you know what you are talking about and you know the material well then you will come across as confident,” she says.
RELATIONSHIPS WITH GUARDIANS
Although some social workers describe their experience of working with children’s guardians as positive, others say they find some hold adversarial attitudes towards them rather than wanting to work together. Others expressed concern about what they felt to be a lack of experience among some guardians.
Douglas says that, even when guardians find fault with social workers’ work, they should aim to work through this with them. “If a case hasn’t been assessed properly then the role [of the guardian] is not to be adversarial: it’s to challenge and recommend something different but it should still be based on partnership working.
“It’s really a partnership over the nine months of the case [the average length of cases] between a social worker and a guardian. From our point of view, we appoint one guardian throughout. But quite often the local authority will have more than one social worker on a case and it does make joint working quite difficult. It works better when there is just one.”
Being cross-examined is becoming rarer for social workers due to fewer cases being contested and cases often being negotiated behind the scenes rather than being played out in the court room. However, there are still occasions when it takes place and social workers need to be prepared.
Cheetham says that social workers must make sure that they have read all of the papers in the case, re-read their own files and, crucially, bring them to the court. “All too often social workers say ‘I’ve left my file in the office’,” she says.
She explains that this file and the social worker’s running sheets, where they record their day to day dealings with families, are essential documents for the case.
She says: “There may be things in their running sheets that people had not necessarily thought would be important but it quite often happens that there’s a disparity about what’s happened on a certain day and sometimes that can only come from a social worker’s records.”
When giving evidence, Cheetham says that the most important thing is for social workers to ensure they mention the positives in the parents’ relationship with their child or in their behaviour alongside the negatives. “This shows that it’s a balanced, considered view.”
She says that it is also important that, outside the courtroom, social workers keep abreast of key research by relevant bodies.
* Not his real name