Family Courts: What do social workers have to fear from the press?

Social workers appearing in family courts may be named if government proposals for greater public scrutiny of proceedings are followed through. But will they be blamed and shamed by the press as a result, asks Sally Gillen

“Your biggest worry is being torn apart by a barrister. You feel as though you are under a spotlight. You have to steel yourself and think ‘have I made a good statement?’

Nushra Mapstone (pictured left), a former child protection social worker, remembers the anxieties that accompanied taking a case to court. If the government wins backing for proposals to make family courts more open, social workers can expect to see their names in print, a move Mapstone says will make the work more difficult.

Behind the government plans, outlined in a consultation published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs last month, is a desire to improve public understanding of the courts’ work and end what many believe is a justice system operating in secret.

Nicholas Crichton, a district judge at the Inner London Family Proceedings Court, says: “I do not like the word secrecy. It suggests we have something to hide. It’s important that the public can see how conscientious the professionals are and how difficult the work is. It’s about public accountability.”

His is a magistrates’ court, which already allows the press and public into hearings. But he is clear that it is important that the court has control over who is allowed in. The government’s proposals, which are intended to protect the identity of children and families but allow professionals to be named, would affect county and high courts.

Social workers may instinctively fear the prospect of having their names in the press, having seen the treatment meted out to fellow professionals over the years. Coverage of the profession by some sections of the media reflects a combination of contempt and ignorance about what the work involves.

By extension, individual social workers involved in high-profile cases have found their names in the press and their professional reputation in tatters. And the damage does not end there because the impact of having your perceived failures publicised can be devastating personally too.

“I can understand their concern,” says Crichton. “The same applies to expert witnesses and this needs to be addressed in the consultation.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Constitutional Affairs said judges would be able to exercise discretion when it came to allowing the names of professionals to be reported, which will be important for social workers at risk of reprisals.

Last year, social workers at Essex Council found out what it is like to be hounded by the press and ultimately misrepresented in print over a case involving the removal of children from a couple with learning difficulties. Supported by local politicians, the couple’s story made national headlines when it was covered by the Daily Mail, which portrayed it as one of straightforward prejudice by social services against parents with learning difficulties.

Social workers in the case, who were unable to defend themselves against the accusations, were doorstepped by the newspaper, which threatened to publish their names.

So far removed was the coverage from the facts of the case that Lord Justice Mark Potter, president of the family division of the High Court, set the record straight by publishing an anonymised version of the judgement. Without reporting restrictions this situation may not have arisen. But, despite seeing the potential benefits for social workers whose work could be better understood if it was reported, some have misgivings.

Julia Brophy, a senior researcher in socio-legal studies at Oxford University, says training in court skills is patchy.

“Some social workers are not that experienced and confident in court – and if they are in the first years of the job they may not have much idea of what goes on in court,” she says.

“The quality of training in court skills is a bit hit and miss. A lot of it happens on the job. Some managers and team leaders are very skilled but that does not necessarily apply across the board.”

Social workers’ court skills attracted criticism in a review of the child proceedings system in England and Wales, published by the Department for Constitutional Affairs in May, which said some delays were caused by a lack of quality and continuity in court work. The government recommended the creation of a pre-proceedings protocol, which set several targets, including the reduction of judicial case management to 40 weeks. But Brophy warns that it has yet to announce how it will fund local authorities to train social workers in the skills they need for court.

“If you are going to give the media access to courts we need to make sure that social workers are well prepared and supported. Without some focus on support and training in relation to court skills I would worry about the impact on some workers,” Brophy says.

Mapstone learned how to perform in court by observing the social worker in court before her. Her experience was, thankfully, a good one. But it may easily have not been. Student social workers may, at best, practise in simulated court environments as part of their training. Ideally, they would shadow a social worker experienced in court work.

But a newly qualified social worker is unlikely to relish the prospect of being exposed to the degree of scrutiny that may be part of court work if the proposals are introduced, especially without adequate training.

Sarah Saunders is an expert witness with more than 20 years’ experience in social work. She doubts a move to open up courts to greater public and press access would deter her from continuing in the field. But she predicts that social workers could be put off working in child protection. “It’s already an overstretched area of social work as people do not like court work.

“I suspect that if social workers are being named and criticised this will deter a substantial number from moving into that area of work. It would be of concern that individual social workers may end up bearing the brunt of inadequacies within the organisation, such as policy decisions, lack of resources and poor supervision.”

Mapstone agrees, adding: “You can be in court and make your recommendations and you know the resources are not there.

Social workers could end up feeling they are blamed for that.”

Certainly history shows that when something goes wrong parts of the media prefer to hunt for an individual to blame in order to put a human face to failure, rather than to the faceless bureaucracy that is a local authority, which is often equally culpable.

Worryingly, social workers whose identities are made public could find themselves victims of reprisals from relatives of families they are working with. Saunders says: “Many social workers have received threats. Some are physically assaulted and often social workers receive abusive behaviour, threats against their families and damage to their cars. Even when social workers and Cafcass staff work within an organisation there is limited protection. Those working independently could be at even greater risk.”

More than 10 years ago, in 1993, the Lord Chancellor’s office consulted on ways to make courts more open. But its findings were inconclusive and the system remained as it was. This time around, especially in a climate of increasing concerns about lack of accountability in the system, it looks increasingly likely that the government, despite the complexity of the task it has taken on, will not be defeated.

Further information
Department for Constitutional Affairs

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