Courts should not protect social workers from legitimate press scrutiny, rules judge

Social workers involved in a recent child protection case were named by the press after a High Court judge ruled their identities should not be protected. Alison Paddle looks at the case and its implications for social work, and social workers, in the future

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In a recent High Court ruling the Sun newspaper successfully overturned a ban on naming social workers and their employers when reporting child protection failures.

The judge, Mr Justice Baker, said there was a “clear public interest in facilitating an open discussion of the issues relating to child protection and fostering that arise in this case”.

He ruled the child’s identity should be protected, but allowed the press to identify those involved in lapses of child protection.

The case: Bristol City Council v C and Others [2012]

Bristol council recently won an award for its brave decision to let a BBC TV crew film its child protection teams at work. ‘Protecting Our Children’ was an illuminating and honest account of the difficult, skilled work that social workers undertake every day.

But in this case Bristol council was criticised for attempting to restrict media reporting of its failings.

The case concerned a five-year-old girl, referred to as A, who was removed from her parents because of domestic violence. She lived with foster carers while magistrates considered Bristol council’s care order application.

Two concerns about the foster home came to light in May 2012 while A was subject to an interim care order. First, the local authority learned from police that someone at A’s foster home had accessed child pornography two years previously.

The same day, during a supervised contact session, A told her parents that she had been grabbed around the neck by someone living at her foster home. Red marks were visible on her neck.

A’s father told police who informed the local authority and A’s social worker saw her next day. A’s account to her social worker included a number of worrying details – for example, she said this took place at two in the morning.

Magistrates who ruled on the case in October said Bristol had not followed child protection procedures, listing the lack of medical examination of A or immediate strategy meeting. Instead, a decision was taken not to remove A from the foster home.

It took two weeks for police and social workers to remove computers from the foster home and move A to another placement.

The day after the computers were taken the male foster carer apparently committed suicide.

Should social workers feel more exposed after this ruling?

When the Sun newspaper was alerted by the father, Bristol council initially obtained a wide-ranging order to prevent reporting of the child’s identity, or that of the foster carers, social workers or the local authority.

It had argued there was no public interest in identifying the child’s key worker and her team manager, but HHJ Baker’s judgment rejected the authority’s arguments. The judgment distinguished between the need for the child’s identity to be protected and the legitimate press interest in the actions of a public body.

So, should social workers feel more exposed after this ruling? I don’t think so, but the judgment makes it clear that their identities will not be protected where their work is thought to be inadequate.

Social workers need to be rigorous in holding adults to account for abuse, or failing to protect children, and they must apply exactly the same standards whether children are in the care of their parents or the local authority.

Social workers, like other public servants, have no general guarantee of anonymity, as previous judgments have set out – for example, the Rochdale satanic abuse case and [2010] EWHC 16 (Fam).

Any suggestion that public bodies are seeking to use the privacy of the family courts to cover up their own failings and inadequacies would undermine public confidence in the justice system, and this is unacceptable to the courts.

The message is that courts will be at pains to protect the identity of children, but local authorities and social workers whose work is open to question will not be protected from press scrutiny.

  • Alison Paddle is an independent social worker, a children’s guardian and policy adviser to guardians body Nagalro.

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