The work of a children’s solicitor

 Caught in the crossfire of care proceedings trauma   Solicitor Laura Coyle describes how she convinces angry parents to co-operate with social workers who they think are “out to get them”

The new public law protocol requires social workers to carry out more substantive pre-proceedings assessments and arrange protocol meetings for solicitors to attend. My job is to assist clients at court and help them understand papers – such as core assessments, contact sheets, statements and expert’s reports – amassed as a result of these proceedings.

Many of the parents involved in care proceedings have been in care themselves or suffer from mental and physical health problems, as well as drug or alcohol dependency. Most clients are angry at the “intrusion” of social workers in their lives and cannot accept that the concerns raised by social services are serious enough to warrant proceedings.

Clients with older children, and who have never had involvement with social services, are particularly mystified by what is expected of them in proceedings, and rely heavily on me as their solicitor for explanation and guidance.

All care cases are difficult due to their sensitive nature. Clearly, this has a bearing on the parent’s relationship with their child’s social worker. I receive many calls from clients asking for a social worker to be moved from their case. Parents’ criticisms can vary from a feeling that the social worker failed to keep them informed about changes to contact, to a general perception that social workers are “out to get me”. Social workers are rarely moved off cases which means I have a lot of work to do to try to facilitate a good relationship and ensure the parent’s views are heard.

The fact social workers move between jobs a lot does not help forge relationships with parents I have had clients who have dealt with four social workers during proceedings. There are very good social workers who work well with parents and help them understand proceedings. However, there are those who simply see a statistic and not a family which has been broken up and is trying to deal with a traumatic situation.

My job as a solicitor is to bridge this gap and provide advice to my client while encouraging them to work with the local authority.

It is also imperative for the social worker to try their best to understand that parents who have their children taken into care may not comprehend the reason for their involvement or what is expected of them. Once this fragile ­relationship is damaged, it can have a knock-on effect for the entire ­proceedings.

Not all cases that involve social services culminate in court proceedings. There are many circumstances that lead to a parent requiring the assistance of social services for accommodation under section 20 of the Children Act 1989 and who agree to the child being voluntarily accommodated.

I usually go to court once a week. This could be seen as the most exciting aspect of a solicitor’s work but television has a lot to answer for. The reality of a day in court is lots of waiting around. In nine out of 10 cases an order is agreed before the hearing so I rarely use my advocacy skills in front of the judge.

Laura Coyle is a solicitor for Freemans Solicitors

This article is published in the 4 December 2008 edition of Community Care magazine under the headline Caught in the crossfire of care proceedings trauma

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