Professor Ray Jones is not in favour of opening up family court cases to the media. Here he sets out his concerns with the High Court ruling seeking to do just that and explains how local authorities should react.
Working in child protection is a fraught task. Not only is there the distress of direct engagement with children who have been abused or neglected, there is also the onerous responsibility of assessing when courts should be asked to use their powers to remove children from parents.
It is not unusual for those who have abused and threatened children to be abusive and threatening to those who seek to protect the children. This is especially so of adults who are manipulative and controlling.
There is also the media, too often misrepresenting the difficulties of child protection, blaming social workers for taking action or not acting, misreporting that social workers are the holders of powers to remove children from parents and eager for the human interest angle of parents abused by social workers.
Staffordshire legal challenge
And because social workers are seen to be at the bottom of a hierarchy of child protection workers – with judges, doctors and police officers either too high status or too powerful to be attacked – it is the social worker who is targeted to be vilified.
But what to do when those found to have not properly cared for children turn their controlling, threatening behaviour on to child protection workers? This is what has happened in Staffordshire and it was challenged in the High Court.
The council sought a legal order restraining a father from placing harassing and abusive material – including a video he made of a social worker involved in removing a baby – on the internet through social media. It not only allowed his children, now adopted or subjects of care proceedings, to be identified, but it specifically focused on and identified the social worker.
In his judgement Sir James Munby, president of the High Court’s family division, drew a distinction between protecting the interests of the children and taking action in the family proceedings to prevent identification of the social worker and others involved in the case.
Easy fodder for the media
I am no fan at all of opening up very sensitive, and sometimes salacious and sensational, family court proceedings to the media. It is intrusive for children, it undermines confidence in being able to speak to professionals with any degree of confidentiality and it creates easy fodder for the media to create villains, and never heroes, out of those who give their working lives to protecting children.
It also gives a platform and megaphone to adults who are bullying and intimidating. I have seen this occur elsewhere through my involvement in child protection. It is now enabled and encouraged even more through social media. I have myself, as a director of social services, been targeted at least twice by fathers and others who have used social media to abuse me.
Was Judge Munby right?
But what did the president of the High Court decide in his Staffordshire judgement? He took action to protect the interests and identities of the children, but did not agree that this required limiting the identification of those social workers and others who were acting to care for the children.
And he gave a priority to making family court proceedings more open and transparent, and to allowing critical and harassing comment about social workers and others, as a means of promoting awareness and accountability of family proceedings.
Was he right? Probably so within the emphasis being given to transparency and openness. However, the current emphasis may leave children more exposed to distress through public reporting of their abuse and workers undermined in seeking to protect children.
But if using orders in family court proceedings to prevent parents from harassing workers is seen as a hammer to crack a nut, there are other actions councils and care providers should now be willing to take.
What should councils and care providers do?
Firstly, the powers to seek injunctions outside of the family courts to challenge harassment and threat should be sought more readily by councils, as should actions for defamation with the assistance of councils.
Secondly, if parents themselves seek media and social media platforms for themselves, councils should be stronger and more robust in their response. They should explain why they’ve had to initiate care proceedings, with accounts made available that show how parents’ behaviour has threatened and harmed the welfare of children.
As Sir James Munby noted in his judgement, an important response to challenging comments that might be abusive or just plain wrong is “more speech, not enforced silence”. So, taking his advice, councils should be speaking more about why they have had to take the action which is being publicly criticised and castigated by abusive and neglectful adults.
Ray Jones is professor of social work at Kingston University and St George’s, University of London. Formerly director of social services in Wiltshire, he now oversees child protection improvement in four areas.