Appearing in court for the first time is one of the most nerve-racking experiences a children’s social worker can face. Long days preparing reports, strict deadlines for assessments, a feeling of being at the bottom of the court’s pecking order, and the sometimes difficult relationships between social workers and guardians can all make for a highly stressful experience.
From April next year, a new protocol for family courts will change the way care proceedings operate. Under the plans, local authorities will be expected to submit better applications to court ensuring that all relevant assessments are completed in advance.
While many support the protocol’s underlying principles of aiming to speed up the process and to get councils to try everything possible for a family before resorting to court, concerns have been raised about potential consequences.
“I suspect what will happen next year is the number of court proceedings will dramatically drop across the country,” predicts Anne Fitz-Patrick, northern area service manager for children’s services at Norfolk Council, who questions whether this will mean children in need may go unprotected. “If the local authority has not done everything it is required to do, the court can award costs against them, so a local authority is going to be very mindful of its pennies and not put things in court.”
Sarah Saunders, an expert witness with more than 20 years’ experience in social work, adds that a shortage of qualified social workers, lack of family centre resources and capacity to assess kinship carers is likely to cause delays to the pre-court work. “One can envisage that, instead of children waiting while court proceedings are in progress, they will be waiting outside the court system for assessments and other work to be carried out, without the scrutiny and deadlines court proceedings bring,” she warns.
Children’s social work manager Mark*, who has 15 years’ experience working in family courts, says that there has already been a growing emphasis on negotiations outside the court room, and that this has resulted in the family courts system becoming less adversarial over the years.
But he believes that how social workers are viewed by others in the family court system is also, to some degree, in their own hands. “Sometimes social workers are their own worst enemies by not presenting themselves very well and not talking themselves up, conceding points too readily and suffering from legal representatives who are not as robust as many in the private practices.”
Mark complains that, despite children’s guardians’ experience levels falling since the entry requirements to be a guardian were reduced, shortly before Cafcass was established in 2002, from five to three years’ post qualifying statutory experience, the weight that their evidence carries in court has not fallen accordingly.
“Everybody would probably accept that, for a few guardians with many years’ experience in court work coming to an independent view, it was right that they got a slightly elevated status. But now that there are a lot more who have less experience than field social workers, and who don’t have the same analytical expertise, the courts need to adjust the weight.”
Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass) chief executive Anthony Douglas admits that the lowering of the entry requirement was a response to recruitment difficulties, but denies that this has led to a reduction in quality. “I think it’s a really difficult area to generalise on,” he says. “In reality, most people coming to us will have five years’ post-qualifying experience, and often five to seven years’.”
Alison Paddle, chair of the professional association The National Association of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers, says the body has long opposed the reduction in entry requirements for guardians due to fears that it would lead to a reduction in the quality of their work. “These are concerns that a lot of experienced guardians have about Cafcass,” Paddle says. “To have credibility, the guardian has to be a senior professional somebody who knows their stuff. Their role is to critically appraise the work of the local authority.”