In social work assessments, professional opinion can often be recorded as fact

An adoptive mother and campaigner shares her experiences of social work assessments, and how unhealthy narratives can be recorded

assessment
Photo: momius/Fotolia

by Amanda Boorman

Nowadays it can be hard to tell what is true, what is spin, what is real news or what is fake news. Of course to further confuse us, the ‘truth’ is subjective and depends from what angle you are looking at things and from where you might be coming.

As a charity professional who advocates for birth, adoptive and foster families it increasingly worries me that the ‘truth’ in assessments for child protection and/or family support needs can be a version totally unfamiliar to the families who are recipients of the assessments.

As an individual that has needed support from health and social care for my adopted and fostered children I have first-hand experience of how traumatic it can be to see yourself reflected in a way that criticises you for something you haven’t done, or that takes your words or experiences completely out of context.

As a family we washed around in a non-action soup of multiple assessments for many years. Thousands of pounds worth of social work. I remain convinced that some of the ‘fake’ stories about our needs and experiences was to fob us off and grind us down. I’m not really sure why that would be necessary but it sometimes felt quite threatening and sinister.

‘Unpopular’

Being determined to receive the support the children needed did not make me popular and it would not be exaggerating to say it made me unpopular. This is reflected in some file recordings and the minutes of some multi-agency meetings.

We eventually got the support the children deserved and through official complaints an alternative narrative exists on the files. No apologies, of course.

Thankfully, I wasn’t fighting to keep my children from removal and I had resources and family networks to prevent us going down completely.

My experience of asking for help and being misrepresented was in part what motivated me to contact my adopted and fostered children’s parents despite their very negative appearance in social work files and reports.

If my words and intentions could be twisted to come out as negative then what chance could they have had to be heard through the child protection files that would eventually become their children’s life story?

See their truths

I wanted to meet them and see their truths from my viewpoint and perspective. After all, it was our family that needed to make and act upon an assessment of them as they were connected to us forever whatever the previously recorded ‘truth’ of it all.

It turns out they weren’t as dangerous as I had been led to believe. They were defensive and broken; they had damaged their children due to their own problems and personalities.

There were multiple injustices done against them in their lives including professional opinions of them recorded as facts. Injustice was also done through the omission of facts that would elicit any empathy towards them.

Positives about their families and family history were not featured at all.

An example to illustrate poor recording is that we discovered our daughter’s mum wasn’t a prostitute, as had been suggested in the files.

Misrepresentation

This misrepresentation of opinion as fact was due to our daughter’s dark-coloured skin and her brother’s light-coloured skin. It was suggested that their father most probably wasn’t the ‘real’ father to our daughter.

As it happens, our daughter looks just like her dark-skinned mum and her brother looks like his light-skinned, red-haired father.

Had the children not seen the files until they were adults these facts would have been harder to view as just an opinion as their father died during their late childhoods.

Thankfully they met him and had a healthy and happy relationship with him for many years. They didn’t need the DNA test to know he was their father. Had they have needed a test it would have been too late.

This was a very serious misrepresentation of somebody in a file. It could also be viewed as racist, and definitely judgmental. The consequences had the records not been corrected could have affected people’s lives and identities very deeply.

As a professional advocate I sadly remain shocked at some of the written assessments I see about people even though I have been present during the recording of them.

Words get taken out of context and meanings twisted. Actions are misinterpreted to suit a certain narrative. A narrative of blame.

Negative opinion

A recent example I have seen is the recording on file that a father we are now supporting had not been bothered to attend contact with his son and had even left one contact session early. That his attendance rate was less than 50%. The clear opinion on file was that it was a shame he couldn’t be bothered with his own child.

I know this father well. He is proud, sensitive, stubborn, afraid to appear weak. His truth is that his heart is broken. He needs support to express his grief and he also wishes to provide some of his benefits every week to the foster family who have his son.

He doesn’t trust services due to the negative opinion of him on files since he was a child himself and he finds it difficult to trust social workers enough to engage with them fully.

I understand that in a child protection assessment where a child or unborn child is at serious risk of harm a social worker must make a robust case to put before court. That isn’t the moment they want to be highlighting all the positives about failing parents or their wider families.

It seems however that there is perhaps too much pressure to focus on the negative, and while the best interests of the child are being focused on so intently there can be a sadly ironic damage being done in the process.

Children are not separate islands unconnected to their families. However unable to care a family may be at any particular moment in history they are connected to their children forever through generations of history and cultural identity.

You cannot whitewash that and naming child protection as the reason is lazy and potentially abusive.

Truth of politics

In the case above I think it would be okay to record that the father couldn’t attend all the contact sessions precisely because his heart was broken and that sadly our culture is one that does not put funding and support towards failing fathers who have lost their children in child protection proceedings.

The truth of politics and funding is okay and should be shared in public records. Record that he wanted to come but couldn’t cope. That he wanted to contribute to his son’s care from afar and that he hopes for reunification one day. Surely his child would benefit from that truth when they read the files rather than the fake truth that he didn’t care at all.

It would be good practice that alongside child protection social workers, independent recorders could directly gather a parent and/or wider family’s history and experience so that such a document is placed alongside others. Gathering a child’s life story is urgent at this point, and should not be started years later by a non-family member.

A truthful life story is crucial to identity, belonging and self esteem, especially the good bits but even the tough bits.

Any story that leads to changing the course of a person’s history forever should deal with the evidence in its entirety and doing social work in complex situations does not make this less true.

Amanda Boorman is an adoptive parent and the founder of The Open Nest

13 Responses to In social work assessments, professional opinion can often be recorded as fact

  1. Donna Newman October 17, 2017 at 1:12 am #

    Sadly for far to long now we parents have been fighting these points & trying to get the truth out in the public arena reports are written for the SW’s benefits only many many things that are said by parents are either compleatly omited from the reports or compleatly twisted to mean something different entirely,

    Do we even dear to hope that because this has been written by a corporate parent so in a way regarded as a professional that this will be taken on board and perhaps parents will be looked at in a better light sadly I think not.

  2. Sam October 17, 2017 at 7:36 pm #

    I am sat here shaking my head once again. A mother described as a prositute, who wasn’t. Why should I be suprised though, having direct experience of factually inaccurate and missing case notes. Childrens life stories are enormously important and they need to be accurate. Self esteem and identity stems from who we think we are as children.

  3. Susan King October 18, 2017 at 12:53 am #

    It is little wonder that the profession is so mistrusted within Society. Assessment is subjective and is dependent on the interpretation of the assessor.
    I have worked within a Children’s Services Department and within the charity sector. What I noticed was that many social workers lacked credible assessment skills. Often, when I received referrals from social workers I needed to conduct an assessment of my own to try and ascertain what the real issues were.
    Many of the assessments lacked depth and did not explore alternative virewpoints or manage to portray a realistic view of the child and family.
    At best, those assessments (had I taken them as gospel) would have ensured that the work I carried out would be ineffective due to the inaccuracy of the issues recorded.
    It is easy to see how a power imbalance could play out to the detriment of some children and parents in child protection cases, whereby the parent did not have a voice or the confidence to chalkenge the inaccuracies.

  4. Cameron October 18, 2017 at 12:59 am #

    Inaccurate, misleading and inadequate social work assessments damage lives. In other jobs – from driving lorries to fitting gas boilers – you can’t get away with hurting people through shoddy workmanship. Rightly, you would be fired and prosecuted. In other public service professions – from surgeons to surveyors – the same is true, and you are allocated the time needed to produce work of at least adequate quality. But in social work, it seems that workers can not only get away with poor practice by crying “I’m too busy”, but they are actively encouraged by those who manage the system to keep producing third-rate work over and over again. And then congratulated for meeting their deadlines. It’s deluded. It’s totally unacceptable. It’s endemic. And it’s one of the very good reasons why why children’s social work has a bad name. And why all the good guys wise up and leave in the end, after years of beating themselves up and hopelessly taking personal responsibility for workloads that were never do-able in the first place. Those who remain are complicit in a system that was described by the last prime minister as “not fit for purpose”. Come to think of it, politics is the only other profession where brainwashed or ambitious individuals and their power-hungry leaders appear to have no shame in asserting and repeating biased, misleading and inadequate misrepresentations of the truth, and presenting them as the full facts. Regardless of the hurt they are causing the very children and families they claim to serve.

  5. Challenging patient October 18, 2017 at 8:43 am #

    Same is true in Mental Health.

    The word of professionals is regarded as gospel.

  6. catherine October 18, 2017 at 11:31 am #

    Sadly this is true and is distressing for children and their families who find themselves caught up in a broken system of inequality,injustice and oppressive practice. Parents do not have a vioce and when they do challenge professionals the outcome is that they are viewed as obstructive, difficult and challenging. Every parent in my view should have an independent advocate as sadly challenging social workers often leads to the removal of their children. Social Workers should always practice within the proffesional code of Ethics that underpins social work practice sadly this is forgotten.

  7. Sophia October 18, 2017 at 5:58 pm #

    Good article this type of inaccurate recording alongside no follow up after an order has been granted is in my view unacceptable for all the reasons stated above. My preference is that more emphasis is placed of forming a relationship and gathering a comprehensive social history and less on needing to win at case by any means.

    Whilst this is not happening in all cases it is becoming a trend to demonise birth parent whether seen or not.

  8. Planet Autism October 18, 2017 at 6:12 pm #

    Sooooo glad to see this article. It’s been going on for years and is endemic to social work.

    “they had damaged their children due to their own problems and personalities”

    The trouble is, there are also many entirely innocent parents who have NOT damaged their children whatsoever who are dragged into this Kafkaeque nightmare and falsely accused. Parents and their children too are traumatised by the lies, which are used to force them under damaging scrutiny or even worse, removal of the children entirely.

    To compound this dishonest and evil practice, social worker opinions are taken at face value in the family courts, by judges who seem to think that a social worker would not lie. How often have you read in a judgment a judge’s comment “I prefer the evidence/opinion/statement of the social worker”?

    The whole system needs an overhaul and heavy penalties built in for abusive practices such as this. There have to be safeguards to prevent misuse of the procedures, too many innocent families are damaged for life.

  9. Steph Hunter October 18, 2017 at 7:52 pm #

    This is an important article every social worker should read

  10. Jo October 19, 2017 at 1:45 pm #

    That account certainly rang a bell with me. In my working life mainly with survivors of VAWG, I’ve come across some fantastic social workers but unfortunately have also come across many whose skills and judgement left a lot to be desired and who manipulated and misrepresented what was said.

    The opinion taken as truth was also very damaging; many of my clients had not only to restart their lives away from violent men, but also fight the system at a time when they were most vulnerable.

  11. londonboy October 19, 2017 at 3:39 pm #

    The narratives within social work about people who need services are horrible and destructive. As an example I recently attended an event by the Howard League as part of this excellent programme http://howardleague.org/what-you-can-do/children-and-policing/programme-to-end-the-criminalisation-of-children-in-residential-care/
    and one of points raised ( hopefully I got this right as I do’nt have notes!) was that when all professionals are trying to put together a Care plan for a child who needs to enter the secure estate, parents usually know what will work for the child, but no-one asks them and they do’nt come forward they have been so broken by the system.
    How can a system that is about better outcomes for children be working if that is the result?

  12. Seymour October 22, 2017 at 10:15 am #

    a social worker had many untruths or omitted the truth . she was abusive ridiculed my autism and through her ineptitude and disbelief in my autism ignored substantial eligible needs and instead of helping me with housing after husbands death she caused me to be on street for six months aged 62 with no basic needs or duty of care and one arm in plaster…her untrue views were backed by managers and on a safeguarding meeting where I was found highest risk I was left out there as she recorded I knew risks and chose to be out there…The be livable lies and the experience has caused family problems ptsd inability to accept the injustice of the lies written and verbalised about me and the managers and higher sticking together also doing things wrong in covering up a huge injustice..my life is ruined I have no self worth from being chucked on street like a dog and all one manager said since ..We didn’t realise your autism affected you as badly as is now apparent

  13. Cambridgeshire Resident October 28, 2017 at 10:29 am #

    I wholeheartedly agree with the points made in this article.