Awkward standoffs at the coffee machine, anxiety over giving evidence and worries about whether your outfit is smart enough – one practitioner reveals what it’s really like for social workers in the family courts
When a student or trainee joins a social work team, you can see how eager they are to observe a care proceedings case. But many return disappointed. They realise it’s nothing like they’ve seen on TV, and that in most cases little happens in the court room itself. I think many students have a notion that parents and social workers go at it hammer and tongs in the court room, slinging accusations and counter arguments at each other via their solicitors. The reality is often more challenging.
Anxiety and exasperation
For a seasoned professional, the summons to court tends to provoke one or two distinct feelings – anxiety about giving evidence or exasperation at how much other work you could be doing. The discussions before entering the court room can take up to three hours, and courts are often so busy that you spend the same time again just waiting for a slot, often to go in for a directions hearing that lasts ten minutes.
Dressing for court
Often at court I have this terrible feeling of inadequacy. Not because of my role or experience, but because of my attire. Often I am using the free stationary and diary from the office and have a beaten up old handbag that will ‘do for work’, rather than some designer handbag and a flashy tablet computer. When training, social workers are often told not to ‘power dress’, but this doesn’t make you feel any better when you’re faced with a solicitor in high heels and a pencil skirt.
I often have to remind myself that while she may be going back to sit in her office and order a secretary to do her notes, I’ve got three child protection visits and a supervised contact to observe. I could have worn my fanciest suit, but in reality by 5pm it’s likely to be covered in snot, dribble, dog hair and the handprint of a cheesy-wotsit-fingered child. Many solicitors appreciate this, but now and then one comes along and makes the wrong assumption – that you have no clue what you are doing.
The right time for coffee
Many courts are not well-equipped for care hearings because they’ve lost their private social services rooms to other agencies. This leaves the social worker forced to sit in the cafeteria with any number of families whose cases may be being heard that day.
Often social workers arrive at court and spend the first ten minutes trying to hide from the stares and glares of service users, or avoid an awkward standoff at the coffee machine when both you and the family decide to go for coffee at the same time.
Finding your solicitor
Among all this is the hunt for your elusive solicitor, who you’ve probably never met before. And they probably aren’t even at court, they’ve probably instructed someone else to act on their behalf. More often than not the solicitors are tucked away in a smart-looking room full of other like-minded legal personnel. It might as well have a sign saying “social workers not welcome”; everyone in the room risks whiplash to turn and stare at an interloper who dares knock on their door.
Guardians generally have a different role and, therefore, a different experience of the court process. Families often believe they need to get the guardian ‘on side’, so are unlikely to be anything less than friendly towards them. A solicitor once advised I shouldn’t talk to a family prior to the hearing as this was ‘too friendly and unprofessional’. The guardian, however, was able to have a full discussion with the family and resolve some of the issues they were contesting. It made me come across as rather hard-faced and did nothing for my relationship with the family.
Who is ‘there for the child’?
Technically, the guardian is no more qualified than the social worker. They have done the same qualification, and have usually worked for the same authority, yet their view seems to carry so much more clout within the care proceedings process. This is because the general consensus is that guardians are “there for the child”. So, who is the social worker here for? Many social workers would say they are also there for the child, that is why they made the application in the first place.
Guardians are usually the last to file their evidence, and at times I read their statement wondering why a certain passage sounds so familiar, before realising I wrote it! Even more incredible is that a guardian now only has to see the child once within the entire court process, usually at the end. Of course there are some excellent guardians who see the child far more regularly, but on an initial application, how can a guardian say whether the child needs removing if they have never even seen the child?
‘The test’ seems to be a barrister or solicitor’s way of checking out how far you are willing to be pushed and how well you actually know what you are talking about. I’m sure you know the ones I mean, the ones who say nothing until your solicitor walks out of the room, then immediately begin asking about their client’s contact.
It’s often best to respond by stating you’d rather wait for your solicitor to be present. If you feel able to answer do, but make your solicitor aware, in front of all the advocates, about the discussion that took place. I found these scenarios good practice for giving evidence – once you’re up on the stand, you really are on your own.
Drama and politics
I probably make court sound a negative experience, but actually I like it. Yes, I begrudge not feeling very important sometimes, and wasting a number of hours sitting around waiting when I could be out visiting children who are at serious risk, but I do enjoy the drama, the politics and even the underhand banter that goes on. After all, mum’s barrister today is more than likely yours tomorrow.
Community Care is holding a family justice conference in London on 5 December. It will help you carry out better section 47 assessments and better prepare you for court appearances. Register your interest or request a brochure here.