Social worker assessments relied on more heavily in court as use of experts dwindles

But most professionals do not feel this has led to a more appropriate use of experts in court

Local authorities provide evidence to be included in court bundles. Photo: Jochen Tack / imageBROKER/REX Shutterstock

Social workers want more support to provide “effective and confident” evidence to courts, a report commissioned by the Ministry of Justice has found.

The report found the use of experts in family court cases has declined by 48% since new guidance was introduced limiting the cases where additional expert evidence should be provided.

The research, which consisted of a survey and in-depth interviews with a range of professionals involved in the family court, found participants had identified advantages in local authority social workers providing the core evidence about families, such as their ongoing relationship with the family and familiarity with the case.

Levels of skill and confidence

“Despite this, concerns were expressed by many participants, including local authority social workers themselves, that not all social workers have received appropriate training, or were able to display the same level of skill or confidence as independently appointed experts,” the report stated.

Local authority social work assessments have been relied upon more heavily instead since the introduction of new Family Procedure rules.

These govern how family court proceedings are carried out.

The amendment to the rules in 2014 changed the threshold for appointing experts from “reasonably required” to “necessary” to resolve a case.

The research, commissioned to evaluate the impact of these changes, found judges, in particular, believed the new rules had led to a more effective use of local authority social workers and they were less likely to now use independent social workers as experts.

Independent social workers

But 57% of those interviewed, including social workers, either disagreed or strongly disagreed the new rules had led to a more appropriate use of experts.

Some judges interviewed pointed out local authority social workers may not have time to complete their assessments alongside other workload demands and argued the use of independent social workers was still necessary for that reason.

Unbiased evidence

One independent social worker interviewed for the study said local authority social workers may find it difficult to present unbiased evidence:

“They’re there to support the family, yet they’re assessing to take away a child. So how do you marry up those two positions?”

Many of those interviewed  believed social workers were being asked to provide evidence outside their expertise. Psychologists said assessments of attachment could not be adequately carried out by a social worker.

New threshold

The report said: “Perceptions around whether the impact of the new rules was leading to a more appropriate or proportionate use of experts were mixed.

“Although survey respondents and focus group participants tended to believe that prior to the rule change, the courts were over-instructing expert evidence, some participants felt the use of experts had ‘swung too far the other way’.”

More from Community Care

6 Responses to Social worker assessments relied on more heavily in court as use of experts dwindles

  1. Janet Francis January 6, 2016 at 2:17 pm #

    1) attachment. how is a Psychologist going to assess attachment if they either deal with the parent or deal with the child? It has to be the social worker. they work with both.
    2) FGM, Same Sex Marriage caseloads. levels of experience to assess isn’t just down to ability, it is down to availability to have experience. What do London SW’s say?
    3) Are Independent SW’s going to have the same level of experience, albeit it may be historic, than working SW’s for a Local Authority? Legislation and types of caseload change over time.
    4) Are the Fostering/Adoption elements of Social Work able to meet the individual child/rens assessed need by way of provision of Fostering/Adoption practice.
    5) The Assessment Framework has to be completed in time to meet the 35 day lawful deadline.

  2. Jane Benanti January 6, 2016 at 2:21 pm #

    I agree that in many cases local authority social workers have a better understanding of the case because they have more contact with the family as a whole than an independent social worker or appied psychologist expert. They can also exchange information informally (assuming they have the time) as well as formally with the multiagencies involved. This an expert cannot do because of the need to demonstrate impartiality. However, there is a significant problem with the use of local authority social workers as already highlighed in the report:
    1. Few if any would have the training and expertise to carry out assessments for learning difficulties, mental health issues, substance mususe, attachment and personality difficulties.
    2.It is difficult for any social worker working on the case to remain impartial and this is crucial to proceedings.
    I also agree with the comments about the rule change when ‘experts’ (questionable in some cases) were over instructed. Sadly, the pendulum has indeed swung too far the other way so we need to lobby for change.

  3. Planet Autism January 6, 2016 at 3:07 pm #

    ““Despite this, concerns were expressed by many participants, including local authority social workers themselves, that not all social workers have received appropriate training, or were able to display the same level of skill or confidence as independently appointed experts,” the report stated.”

    How on earth can a social worker expect to have the same level of skill as a doctor?!

    There is already a big problem with social workers not understanding disabilities and making wrongful assumptions and value judgments.

    Anybody with ideas above their station, or as a colleague puts it “working outside their sphere of expertise” is going to make many mistakes.

    I don’t know what’s worse, LA paid experts on a gravy train writing what social services want them to write or social workers having ideas above their station.

    “One independent social worker interviewed for the study said local authority social workers may find it difficult to present unbiased evidence:

    “They’re there to support the family, yet they’re assessing to take away a child. So how do you marry up those two positions?””

    Precisely – but social workers have NEVER provided unbiased evidence to start with! Many social workers work in a culture of blame and look for negatives.

    “Psychologists said assessments of attachment could not be adequately carried out by a social worker.”

    Absolutely incorrect! Considering autistic children are being wrongly ‘diagnosed’ with attachment disorder because there are some superficially similar traits between the two conditions (hence the Coventry Grid was needed in the first place) there is no way a psychological condition should be ‘diagnosed’ by anyone without legal qualifications to do so. Even psychologists and psychiatrists get it wrong. Hence the exponential rise in false accusations/diagnoses of MSBP/FII.

  4. Planet Autism January 6, 2016 at 3:08 pm #

    Amendment to previous comment:

    Final paragraph should read “Absolutely CORRECT!”

  5. Paul January 6, 2016 at 8:43 pm #

    Psychologists said assessments of attachment could not be adequately carried out by a social worker.

    From personal experience I can confidently say that this is a myth. I am a very experienced social worker with advanced training in attachment at masters level. I and other similarly trained social workers are more than qualified to assess attachment. I have seen numerous psychology reports in which the authors have made conclusions about the children’s attachments based on absolutely no evidenced based assessment method whatsoever. I would go as far as to call it a big con. It is a myth that because someone has a psychologiy qualification they can assess attachment. Extra qualifications and rigorous training is often needed. In many cases that I have encountered the trusted assessors don’t have the necessary training and yet their word is taken as the truth because they have a PhD after their name. Some of the reports are not worth the paper that their written on. Unfortunately people are often too mesmerised by the jargon and initials after the name to see that it is a con.

    • Planet Autism January 10, 2016 at 6:20 pm #

      I amended the relevant word in my subsequent post.

      I disagree with what you say, because unless someone has robust psychological training they will not be able to identify *alternatives* to attachment, what you have said is entirely unscientific and unworkable. It leaves many families at risk of the false accusations and traumatic interventions I describe. That you hold that belief at all, as a social worker and non-expert in psychology says everything.