Social workers have long complained that “no one understands
what we actually do”. How can we get it across to people what
social workers deal with day to day?
One suggestion made in the Victoria Climbi’ Report is that each
local authority establishes a committee of members for children and
families that contains lay members from other local authority
committees. The idea is that they will help keep oversight of our
activities and become better informed about the realities of child
But an even more radical way to inform the public has been tried in
the US. As in the UK, family legal proceedings have been closed to
public scrutiny, but now 13 states have opened up their family
courts to the press and public.
Americans refer to these courts as Chips (children in need of
protection or services) hearings. Decisions are made on standards
of parental care, ending parental responsibilities and other
matters determined by the standards of child care or extent of
child abuse in the family.
The confidentiality of sensitive family matters has always taken
precedence over any right of public access. Part of the rationale
behind opening these courts to the public has been the simple adage
that open justice is always better than closed justice. But it is
also about educating the public as to what child abuse is about. In
the words of the state of Minnesota’s chief justice, Kathleen A
Blatz: “How can we possibly tackle the problems so many of our
children face when the public at large has no idea what is
happening to them?”
In Minnesota, a three-year pilot scheme explored open Chips
hearings between 1998 and 2001. On the basis of a generally
positive evaluation by the National Center for State Courts all the
Chips courts in the state were thrown open in
An evaluation of the policy found none of the feared outcomes.
Child sexual abuse within a family was still reported and children
did not face bullying at school. The standard of report writing
rose and there were fewer unsubstantiated allegations.
However, the public still appear to have only a limited interest in
what goes on. Attendance increased just marginally – and that more
from extended family members than the public. After some initial
interest the press turned up for the more salacious cases only, in
much the same way as they always had done for the criminal trials
of abusers. Practitioners found reporting of their work to be
ill-informed, although the judiciary found it to be
Although public awareness of child abuse may not have increased
much, the evaluation did believe that professional accountability
in the courts had been enhanced.
But not everyone has been happy with the policy. The Federal
Department of Human Services does not have a policy of open courts,
and some social workers have voiced their worries. These concerns
led to three counties coming up with the alternative idea of
citizen review panels. This involved recruiting volunteers to act
as lay evaluators to oversee the child protection work carried out
by the social and health care professionals. The panels had some
success in their own right but did not head off the opening up of
the Chips hearings, as some practitioners might have hoped.
Could we think the unthinkable and open up family proceedings
courts or their equivalent? At present the idea is not even on the
agenda. Various home secretaries have toyed with the idea of
opening up the normally closed youth courts but that is more about
“shaming” young offenders than educating the public about child
abuse and social work.
The professional lobbies in this country have successfully resisted
public calls for the naming of sex offenders and their whereabouts
in the community.
Equally, the idea that social workers, magistrates, paediatricians
and others would voluntarily open themselves up to greater scrutiny
in the courts in the name of public education might be too much for
some of them.
Terry Thomas is reader in social work, Leeds
1 National Center for State Courts, Key Findings
from the Evaluation of Open Hearings and Court Records in Juvenile
Protection Matters, Court Services Division,