‘In court the social worker’s knowledge of the child is often disregarded’

A social worker reflects on their experience in court and how their opinions are valued compared to children's guardians

Photo: weim/Fotolia

by Andrew Matthews 

Experiences with children’s guardians are a frequent discussion topic in my office.

In just under two years in practice I have had a range of experiences. A recent one has encouraged me to think more about the guardian role, the social worker relationship with guardians and the social worker role and position in court.

I was in court for a young person who I have been working with for around four months; the hearing was to discuss the long-term care planning of this young person who often goes missing after being abandoned by his father.

The guardian’s solicitor commented that the guardian had not managed to meet with the young person, and said this meant the views and feelings of the child were not heard and could not be presented to court.

I found this strange as I had presented written evidence which had referenced what the young person had said to me, and what they wanted to be shared.

He told me that he wanted to return home, but his views often changed which for me was possibly indicative of the mixed emotions he was feeling. This had been read by the court, by the guardian and the judge so I was left a little confused, and the comment struck a chord with me.

Why did it appear that the evidence I proposed was perhaps not representing the child’s voice?

Sidelined

For me it this comment was a feature of this and other court experiences, where the social worker’s voice – my voice – and understanding of the young person had been sidelined.

I felt that my experiences from working day-to-day with the young person were, to an extent, disregarded, with the view being that the guardian was the only route to understanding what was best for the child.

I thought about other cases and considered that often as the social worker, my expertise and understanding of the young person was not fully appreciated or recognised. The guardian being positioned ahead of the social worker had been a feature of conversations I have had with colleagues.

When I recently discussed the subject, colleagues spoke about there often being an anxiety of waiting to hear who the allocated guardian was when a case was to enter care proceedings.

There was a fear of scrutiny and undue criticism or the guardian perhaps not appreciating the social work perspective of the case. There was a worry that the court often favours the voice of guardians and as a result the evidence and view of the social worker was often insignificant.

Demoralising

Experiencing this in light of working hard to do the best for a child often across a number of months can be both demoralising and can add undue pressure and stress.

To be clear, the role of the guardian is one I support. The thinking behind it in representing the views and voice of the child independently is of course necessary.

Professional identity

However, there appears to be a conflict between the role of the guardian and how this relates to the social worker in court. There is room for the expertise of both but in my experience this is often not the case.

I feel this may be related to how the social worker is positioned in the court process and positioned within the wider context of the profession. I feel the social worker is often undermined; the social worker as an expert is missing and perhaps it is no coincidence that the professional identity of the social worker is somewhat unclear.

With the formation of Social Work England and the national accreditation process up and running, could this possibly help with the formulation of a strong identity?

I feel the idea of professional identity is relevant to this discussion as a lack of respect and understanding of the social work role could be addressed by a strong organisation espousing social work values, standing up for and representing the profession.

Respect

I suggest the implications are significant. Social work has a retention and recruitment problem; and social workers often complete difficult work where mistakes are made. However, the majority of social workers know the children they work with and their voices and opinions should be treated with respect in court.

The guardian’s independence is fundamental but the unfair focus on this at the detriment of the social worker needs to be reconsidered. In June 2014 Sir James Munby of the Family Division told  social workers he wanted to ensure their skill and expertise was respected in family court proceedings, saying he was aware social workers “for a variety of reasons” felt “deskilled, disempowered and deprofessionalised”

With the continued reliance on experts and the promotion of the guardian’s voice to the detriment of the social workers, I feel we still have some work to do in changing things.

Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym, he is a children’s social worker. 

7 Responses to ‘In court the social worker’s knowledge of the child is often disregarded’

  1. Borstal Boy May 26, 2017 at 10:28 am #

    Did you use the children’s actual words/ writings on this? Signs of safety stuff presented to the court alongside a formal report can be very effective it can literally show how much contact you have had AND what it means to the child. Also mJd sure you have a typed up copy of all your meetings with the children to present, the Guardian might struggle to match that!

  2. Jolly Jester May 27, 2017 at 5:29 am #

    Guardians are social workers too. It’s so disheartening to read a view that fractures the social worke profession and our expertise. The fact is that social workers are experts in their fields and I think your view is destructive and disrespectful to the profession as a whole.

  3. DragonGoddess May 28, 2017 at 8:09 am #

    This must resonate with all social workers in children’s services. I have recent case of a baby relinquished by birth parents for adoption. He was placed with foster parents at 8 months having been in hospital up to that time. He does have additional needs. Local authority (ie me) applied for placement order as adoption was seen as best option for child. The guardian however determined that the best course was to achieve an SGO for foster parents. Despite LA objections that the better course should be adoption as child was an infant and foster parents were in their fifties , the judge went with the guardians decision. Feels like social worker who knew the whole picture and had worked with the family for some time was totally disregarded and the guardian was the only expert in the room. She had met the carers and child once!

  4. HelenSparkles May 28, 2017 at 9:27 pm #

    Guardians routinely visit children once, I am impressed with their ability to canvass a child’s views and wishes, and to build a relationship quickly. Social workers have often visited children at home, as well as in a placement (family or fostering) and will have weathered the storms of fluctuating views and wishes as the chid manages their emotional landscape or doesn’t. For a child to be able to voice their views and wishes is tough, it’s a big ask, and the idea that only the Guardian hears their true voice is just not realistic. The child’s voice in court should be represented by the Guardian, their foster carer, their social worker, and anyone else who knows that child. Children who have become used to keeping someone happy by their compliance are over compliant, children who are glad to be in care may also feel anger at their family being fractured, it is all very complex within the court timescales. I wish Guardians could visit children more often and truly be valued as the independent voice of the child, as it is, their independences is their value.

  5. MRSK May 29, 2017 at 4:07 pm #

    I found that guardian’s often do not take risks and will present the safest option even if it is expressly against children’s wishes. My experiences demonstrate the certainty that guardian’s have as I have frequently heard it said “the judge won’t go against me” or words to that effect. Yes the children’s view is important but I haven’t seen a guardian yet who has supported what the children want. Most guardians I have had experience with have actively gone against what the children want especially in private law and they simply seem to echo what the parent with care wants using the children’s legal aid and legal team to support the views of the parent with care.

  6. Ciaran de Baroid May 31, 2017 at 8:10 pm #

    It resonates with the Irish context.

  7. Kent social worker May 31, 2017 at 11:04 pm #

    The role of the guardian is in my view given far too much weight in the court arena as an expert who is perceived by the court as outranking the social worker, which in reality is wholly inaccurate.

    There should be more guardians who have a dialogue with the social worker prior to the first hearing, about the child and for the guardian to at least acknowledge that the social worker is the person who knows the child and has brought forward the application on behalf of the local authority. Therefore ego and arrogance must be put aside in favour of working together to ensure the best outcomes for the child, If this does happen it is a rare occurrence, and when it does we can be assured that the child’s voice is heard. That is what the guardian is there to do.

    Guardians please remember you are also social workers in a different role working for a different organisation who are there solely to ensure the child’s voice is heard – nothing more and certainly nothing less.