by Jenny Simpson
A recent court decision about the role of Facebook in care proceedings could prove to be the beginning of a new type of social work where for the sake of expediency a social networking site is used to find missing birth parents.
Justice Holman’s February judgment was made in circumstances where a local authority had tried and failed to find a birth mother. However, the girlfriend of the birth father had made contact with the birth mother via Facebook just days before the court hearing.
While it is acknowledged that Justice Holman’s judgment was clearly motivated by the need to ensure that the birth mother of the child received notification of the adoption application, this ruling could potentially encourage the use of Facebook as a means of finding individuals.
That said, Justice Holman sensibly tempered his ruling by stating:
“I do not for one moment suggest that Facebook should be the first method used, but it does seem a useful tool in the armoury which can certainly be resorted to long before a conclusion is reached that it is impossible to locate the whereabouts of a birth parent”.
However, with one use of Facebook identified and supported by a judge, does this open up social networking sites for other uses by social workers? If so, what are the implications?
One of the first implications is that every social work practitioner and their employer must consider the Data Protection Act 1998.
In other words, before any search can begin personal data has to be “fairly and lawfully processed”, meaning that there needs to be legitimate grounds for collecting and using personal data.
A further consideration under the Data Protection Act is that any data obtained and used must be done in a way that it does not have an adverse effect upon the individual.
Depending on what information is obtained and what it is being used for, it could be argued that a birth parent who is fighting care proceedings is likely to consider that any action on the part of a local authority as having an adverse effect upon him or her. Therefore, to seek information from a social networking site like Facebook could make both the local authority and the social work practitioner liable to further court action.
A second implication that is not obvious from Justice Holman’s ruling is that for an individual’s personal information to be used fairly and lawfully the individual needs to give consent to his or her personal data being collected and used in a way that addresses the intended purpose.
A third implication is Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is concerned with the right to private and family life. The notion of being able to live privately without interference from the state has been challenged in the courts across a range of cases over a number of years e.g. Peck vs. United Kingdom (2003) through to Plantagenet Alliance v Ministry of Justice & Others (2014).
Not so simple
Although it is more than likely that within the arena of child and family social work a local authority may be able to argue a specific limitation, this does not provide an exemption from an overall approach that needs to be proportionate, necessary and have a recognised legitimate aim.
Having looked very briefly at just three immediate implications stemming from Justice Holman’s ruling you might have the impression that a simple search on Facebook is not so ‘simple’ after all.
There is a need for caution to be exercised at all times and therefore social work practitioners need to seek advice and guidance from their employing organisation before taking it upon themselves to have a ‘quick look’ on Facebook. Failure to do so could mean that the practitioners are not only in breach of the Data Protection Act but also their own organisational policies and procedures.
Simply put, as social work practitioners there is a need for us to understand our role and its importance in the face of a changing legal landscape so that we can operate within its bounds, and be accountable to our service users and carers, as well as the wider public.
Jenny Simpson is a regional academic manager working for The Open University, on its undergraduate social work programme in the south of England.