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?
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.
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.
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.
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.