Parents who record child protection meetings: what social workers need to know

A group of lawyers has produced guidance after finding that many councils don't fully understand the law around recording child protection meetings

Photo: PhotoAlto/REX Shutterstock
Photo: PhotoAlto/REX Shutterstock

Since a group of family lawyers found councils’ guidance on recording child protection meetings was patchy and unclear, the sector has rushed to offer solutions to a problem The Transparency Project said was exacerbating misunderstandings between parents and social workers.

But while the reaction to the project’s investigation, which flagged up a problematic lack of consistent guidance, has been broadly supportive, some dissenting voices remain.

Child protection consultant Joanna Nicolas says recording meetings would distract focus from the child and leave professionals too scared to speak openly and honestly about concerns. Meanwhile, members of The Transparency Project, a website aimed at promoting transparency in the family courts, believe this fear comes partly from an incomplete understanding of the law.

So what does the law say, and should social workers be worried about parents wanting to record child protection meetings?

The problem

Now everyone has a mobile phone, the technology to covertly record is far more readily available and social media means the ability to publish or share it has increased exponentially. This, along with the far greater exposure of parents to alternative sources of advice on the internet, has created a “perfect storm”, according to local authority lawyer and author of blog Suesspicious Minds, Andrew Pack.

The recording of child protection meetings will be debated in a panel session at Community Care Live Birmingham 2016, which takes place on 10 and 11 May. You can view the draft programme and register to attend here.

The recording itself should not be a problem, and may in fact improve parents’ engagement and help to foster a more constructive relationship, The Transparency Project lawyers say. But problems arise when these recordings are distributed. This then opens up concerns recordings may be edited or taken out of context and only show part of the picture. If shared publicly, identification of the child becomes a concern and if parents are making recordings of children during contact sessions, rather than professionals in meetings, there is a risk this could become emotionally abusive.

The law

Freedom of expression

According to a precedent-setting court case, Re J, parents have the right to tell their story as long as they don’t identify the child. But there is a clear statutory law in place that prevents anyone from publishing information identifying a child as being the subject of care proceedings. If a parent were to publish recordings or even an account of their case in a way that identifies their child, local authorities could get an injunction to stop that happening.

However, understandably, many councils have erred on the side of caution and tried to prevent parents from making recordings in the first place to avoid the risk of this happening, rather than waiting until information was shared that could potentially harm the child.

I have been recorded on cases previously – I have no objection to the idea but would prefer I was informed before any recording took place. Ultimately, we as professionals are accountable for the work we do.” – Richard

Andrew Pack says: “Once that information is out there, it’s out there. You can go and get an injunction but we all know what’s on the internet never really disappears. If some has tweeted it, all those retweets still exist. If someone has posted it on Facebook, the information will continue to exist on the feeds of anyone who shares it.”

I have been on the receiving end of edited recordings. I’d be fine with a transcript like a police interview recording which is sealed and with guidance of how it can be used.”- Helen

Data protection

In guidance given by councils to The Transparency Project under the Freedom of Information Act, several referred to data protection and human rights as reasons not to permit parents to record meetings.

The Data Protection Act 1998 does not prevent parents recording meetings. It was designed to apply to organisations processing data, not individuals, particularly if the data is collected for personal use. The Transparency Project has now published its own (non-binding) guidance which states that what a professional says at a social work meeting is not personal data for the purposes of the Act, although the personal data of others may be contained in what is said at a meeting. It is the social worker’s own record of any meetings which falls under the provisions of the Act. The same applies to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

Human rights

Similarly, family members do not owe a duty to one another or to the social worker under the Human Rights Act. When it comes to matters of human rights it is the social worker, as an agent of the state, who owes a duty to the family and must act with a respect for the rights of privacy, family life and expression. These are all conditional rights and can be interfered with where they compete with other rights if it is necessary and proportionate to do so. A social worker is already by definition interfering with individuals’ article 8 right to a family life and so must ensure they are weighing up all the competing rights.

I have recorded meetings with social workers, with their consent. This is a direct response to never having been given (or offered) minutes of any of the many meetings I have had with social workers.”

Privacy

The rights of the social worker to privacy do not apply since a meeting attended by someone in their role as a social worker is unlikely to contain information about the social worker’s private life.

The Transparency Project says in its guidance: “Generally human rights are rights owed by the state to private individuals.

“As long as parents who wish to record a meeting are prepared to agree not to distribute their recordings and will only use it for their own records or private court proceedings, we don’t think social services could be criticised for a breach of privacy in allowing this.

“Again, it is not the making of the recording that is problematic but the distribution of it.”

The question then arises, how far should a local authority reasonably go to safeguard against the possibility parents might distribute recordings to the detriment of their child? And how can social workers balance risks to a child’s right to privacy against the parent’s right to expression?

Why not have formal recorded record of conferences which is sealed and tamper proof and can be referred to as a true record for use in court or subsequent meetings? Any clandestine recording by any party can then be disregarded.” – Heather

The guidance

There are three main pieces of national guidance which refer to conducting child protection meetings. Working Together to Safeguard Children does not say anything about the making of recordings of child protection or looked after children meetings, or give guidance as to whether this should or shouldn’t happen.

The IRO handbook for independent reviewing officers on looked after children reviews also does not say anything about parents recording meetings. It makes it clear the IRO is responsible for ensuring an accurate record of meetings is made, but doesn’t include any way of addressing parents’ concerns about inaccuracies.

Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) guidance says social workers should have nothing to fear from covert recording, but if they find out they have been covertly recorded they should tell the court.

The Transparency Project guidance says the best way forward is for social workers to initiate a non-confrontational conversation with the parent about why they felt they need to record covertly.

“It might be helpful to have a discussion with them about why they want to record and what they will do with the recording. You may be able to find an agreed compromise once you understand better,” the guidance says.

Ultimately, it is better to have guidance and discretion to deal with the matter on a case by case basis, Pack says. But social workers need some guidance to know where they stand with the law.

Community Care readers commenting on the issue suggested an independent recording, sealed against the possibility of tampering, and available for all interested parties to listen to.

Pack agrees this is the best solution. But, he adds, whether there is the political will or money to put in the infrastructure to do it is a different story.

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12 Responses to Parents who record child protection meetings: what social workers need to know

  1. Sheril St Rose December 18, 2015 at 11:24 am #

    Parent’s should be allowed to record child protection conferences particularly because of the inaccuracy of the minutes which sometimes does not reflect what really happened at the meeting.

  2. Tallulah December 18, 2015 at 2:15 pm #

    Of course parents should be able to record child protection meetings, although what can they do about miscarriages of justice that occur in meetings to which they have not been invited? If there is a “strategy meeting” then the parents may not be present, and they may not know about the meeting. There is nothing to prevent the comments of those present from being changed so that it is not an accurate reflection of what was said in the meeting.

    All local authority meetings should be recorded – people could lose their child forever because of something that was not even said in a meeting, but that someone claims was said. There is a common habit in Local Authority meetings of writing what the minute taker thinks is “the gist”. Nothing but a verbatim recording for all meetings will do.

  3. Jane Young December 18, 2015 at 3:10 pm #

    What isn’t mentioned in this article is parents needing to record a meeting as a “reasonable adjustment” to mitigate the impact of a disability/impairment. I was involved in a recent Child in Need meeting (not a child protection meeting) that the parent wished to record because of significant information processing issues, which meant the parent was unable to process what was said sufficiently to form a clear understanding without being able to review the proceedings at a slower pace later on. As it happened, when the minutes came out they were so full of inaccuracies that the parent felt vindicated in their decision to record (with the Chair’s permission).

    My view is that recordings should never be destroyed until the minutes have been published and a formal note made of inaccuracies.

    • Tallulah December 18, 2015 at 10:40 pm #

      Indeed, Jane, what you say is correct. I have witnessed Child in Need meeting minutes that contained plans that had not even been mentioned in the meeting, but were included in the minutes, saying that everyone present had agreed. I have also seen minutes of a more serious nature that were found to have been falsified after the meeting. The parents were not present at the meeting, and the people who did attend did not see the minutes until a month after the meeting. By the time the minutes were challenged, a very serious (and incorrect) decision had already been made.

      Only a recording is accurate enough, and no one who practises social work properly should have any objection to such a thing.

  4. Anita Singh December 18, 2015 at 6:51 pm #

    There needs to be a legislative and clear procedural framework endorsed by LSCBs for the recording of any meeting where highly sensitive data may be shared with the participants and/or subsequently in Court. For example, in one case of mine the friends of the children that I was allocated to had made disclosures of sexually abusive behaviour and language against the partner of the children’s mother. Mother was fully supportive of the alleged perpetrator and dismissed the children’s allegations. So how does anyone propose this information is shared and for the mother of these children to record this information? I would also note that despite my clear requests in the Court and to our legal department for the anonymity of the children who made the allegations to be preserved, their full police statements without any of their names taken out were filed with the court without any anonymity afforded. (The documents had to be redacted). So what happens once you have parents being given full permission to record meetings?

    The child victims in my case refused to speak further with any professional about the allegations again.

    A minefield, where there needs to be careful consideration of the potential for the safeguarding needs of children to be compromised in favour of assumption of the rights of adults.

  5. clarissa Fowler December 19, 2015 at 11:52 pm #

    ALL court meetings SHOULD BE RECORDED. The TRUTH should be known. if you are not afraid of the TRUTH what could it hurt? The liars are the only ones afraid of TRUTH.

    • Anita Singh December 21, 2015 at 10:27 pm #

      In the vast In majority of child sexual abuse cases, the liars are not the ones who are afraid, as the odds are heavily stacked in their favour. One only has to look at the statistics for the overwhelming number of cases that come to the attention of the Police, but never make it anywhere near the criminal Courts and few are found to be fact in public law proceedings. Clearly the liars have the odds heavily stacked in their favour.

      Yes, all Court hearings are recorded and subject to a clear legislative framework and no-one, parent or professional, can record Court hearings independently. If you did, you would be in contempt of Court.

      However, I was not talking about the recording of the Court hearings, but how documents filed in the Court had to be redacted due to the breach of confidentiality of child victims of sexual abuse that had nothing directly or personally to do with the case, but due to the alleged perpetrator of that abuse who was the father/stepfather of the children in my case.

  6. Family future trust December 30, 2015 at 10:23 pm #

    I have recorded meeting with notice and with out.

    I think recordings ensure that quality in social work remains. There is too much covering up mistakes rather than putting things right. The current way social work is done for many is unlawful, or and criminal.

    I have had refusals to meet with data protection and code of conduct by more than four local authorities, which is appalling. We are talking about indisputable content.

    We have to consider that some social workers are over worked and make mistakes in critical information, which is diluted by Chinese whispers. And can be incredibly damaging and dangerous both for the children, family and social workers.

    It’s time to police social work from start to finish. Recording visit gives evidence from/for both parties and evidenced rather than opinion or perception.

  7. Tim Haines December 31, 2015 at 11:14 am #

    In a recent case in the Court of Appeal in which JFF assisted, McFarlane LJ was entirely happy to accept five CDs of covertly recorded meetings from a mother. He made no comment at all about her habit of covertly recording. It does have to be said that his Lordship admitted to getting no further than 25 minutes into the first CD, and that anyone wishing to submit recorded evidence is advised to transcribe the recording themselves and present it as a witness statement.

    • Planet Autism January 6, 2016 at 4:00 pm #

      Agreed – and there needs to be accountability.

      Healthwatch oversees adult social care, but for clearly deliberate reasons, no similar body oversees children’s social care.

      As regulatory bodies are often either toothless or part of the problem itself and from personal experience the Chief Social Worker uninterested in massive issues in social work, parents are left no option but to record for their own protection.

      If you cannot have faith in a service that has become far less of a service and far more of an authoritarian overlord in attitude, you have to protect yourself and your loved ones.

      If nobody is going to root out all the bad apples in social care that are abusing their position, people need to take necessary steps to shine a light on them and stop their abuses.

  8. K. Danby December 31, 2015 at 11:17 am #

    I once attended a LAC meeting about my grandchild, held in a room in the local library, (representing my son, who was unable to attend). I placed my notebook and pencil on the table, and very clearly announced my intention to “make a record of this meeting” (I do Pitman’s shorthand). I was asked to “put my handbag in the other room”. When I asked why, it was suggested I had “a recording device” in my bag. I refuted this, and offered to empty out the contents of my bag onto the table. This offer was rejected, and I was told that unless I agreed to put my bag in the other room, the meeting would be adjourned, and re-convened at the council offices (it was made clear I would not be invited to this re-convened meeting). This now being a matter of principle – and every other female at the meeting retaining their bags in their possession – I continued to refuse, whereupon the meeting was adjourned, and everyone left the room. I sat at the table, recorded in my notepad the exact sequence of events – with timings – and then I too left the room. When the minutes of the meeting appeared – approx. 3 weeks later – they gave no mention of what I had said – simply that it was “suspected I was using a recording device to record the meeting, and this would breach the rules of confidentiality put in place to protect the child”!! Incidentally, no “minute taker” had been appointed at the originally convened meeting!

  9. R Shacks January 2, 2016 at 6:10 pm #

    I agree with all the comments here and have proof of a dishonest social worker so in circumstances where your child is ‘being assessed’ you have every right to protect their vital interests. The law requires us to do so within the meaning of ‘Parental responsibility.’ On a positive note, I was recently involved in a CIN meeting and the child protection social worker did not object whatsoever to being recorded so there you have transparency.

    My respect goes out to her, as I quickly establish a genuine social worker from the non genuine one.

    (A parent)