A family court judge has criticised Gloucestershire council for failing to support a social worker who made false claims about the danger posed to him and his family by a father he felt threatened by.
The “panicking” social worker escaped censure by the court despite his behaviour being deemed unprofessional. But District Judge Howell said in his judgment that he was “gravely concerned” at the lack of support offered to the inexperienced social worker after he confided feeling intimidated to his manager. The hearing took place in November 2015 but the judgment was only made public last month.
The social worker, referred to in the judgment as LM, had prepared paperwork relating to care orders requested for the father CW’s children. But several weeks before the hearing at Bristol family court, LM made an “agitated” call to the local police ‘101’ line saying that he was frightened for his young children’s safety.
This followed rumours that CW had been trying to find out information online about him, and subsequent email contact by CW’s ex-partner with LM’s partner around buying baby clothes, culminating in a message saying that CW would be coming to LM’s house. Prior to LM’s phonecall, he had discussed with his manager feeling threatened by CW and frightened of him.
The existence of the call was brought to the judge’s attention on the first day of the hearing, with CW’s solicitors complaining that allegations of a threat to LM’s family were false.
In evidence given to the court, LM admitted that the information given to the police was “factually inaccurate and at other times exaggerated in its account of the incident to which it refers”. An earlier account by the newly qualified social worker, which suggested police logs of his call were wrong, was only disproved by a recording of it being produced.
“I am gravely concerned about how this young and inexperienced social worker was left in the position of potentially misleading the court in this way,” the judge said.
“It is surprising that a procedure had not been put in place when first he reported his concerns to anticipate the state he might be in if he perceived a threat in his own home, and which would have offered him support and guidance.”
The judge added that Gloucestershire council should have “taken stock” and considered either reallocating LM or offering him further support.
“I also question the support offered for his preparation for court, his understanding of the legal process and appearance before me,” he said. “The local authority need to look at these issues very carefully, learn lessons and put in place procedures to ensure that no other social worker, newly qualified or otherwise is put in this position in the future.”
As a result of LM’s admissions, the judge said it would be unsafe to give any weight to his submissions to court, describing the situation as a “debacle”.
“I do not think that many professionals could be expected to be level headed in such circumstances [of feeling intimidated],” he said.
“I also take account of his newly qualified and inexperienced status. However at the end of the day what he said about father in many particulars was simply not true.”
The judge declined to ‘name and shame’ the social worker, adding that he believed that “the management and systems higher up” were likely to be at greater fault.
Gloucestershire council’s failure to deal with the matter once the existence of the phonecall became known in-house was “complacent”, the judge added. “It is inconceivable to me that they could not see that it had potential to affect the weight I could give to the social worker’s evidence and potentially derail this case, causing delay and thereby affect the welfare of very vulnerable children.”
Despite LM’s evidence being effectively discounted, the court made ongoing care orders for CW’s children, based on expert-witness evidence provided by two more experienced social workers
Linda Uren, Director of children’s services at Gloucestershire County Council, said: “The safety of our staff is something we take very seriously, and in this situation a full risk assessment was carried out as soon as the first allegation was made by the social worker.
“After the assessment and discussions with the social worker, he continued to work with children involved in this case as it was agreed that this was in their best interests. We took the judge’s comments and recommendations on board and have used them to review practice.”