‘It is my head on the block’: Why I’m giving up independent social work in the courts

This isn't just a gripe about pay, it's the offensiveness of how social work is devalued, writes one anonymous independent social worker

I’m giving up working as an independent social work expert witness in the family courts. After over thirty years as a qualified social worker, working in inner city and county councils, after supervising many great social workers as a team manager, followed by several years as a guardian, after over ten years of building up practice as an independent social worker, I have decided that I cannot continue.

I know my work is respected; solicitors continue to ask me to take on assessments and I have had two requests today. The feedback is that my reports are strong, written succinctly and clearly, pulling in social work research, child development, analysis of risk and social work practice. I work out each assessment carefully and aim to support my conclusions with evidence, so parents and councils mostly accept my recommendations.

I am, therefore, not often called to give evidence and cases conclude more quickly. This does not mean I am always right, social work is an inexact science and there are many variables to consider. I am as capable of making mistakes as any other person.

80% of ISWs consider leaving the profession: Read our survey on the state of independent social work in the family courts

The most important aspects of the work are to be truly independent, to look afresh at the situation and think hard about what will best help each child. My recommendations vary. Most frequently, probably, my assessment will support social work plans, although I may suggest a different arrangement of siblings in placement, for example.

I have also supported kinship carers social workers had written off, or not even assessed, and I have recommended adoption for children social workers planned to place with relatives I found were unsafe. I’ve asked councils to remove children from parents where they were at risk of significant harm and raised concerns about the quality of foster care.

I agree that ISWs and other experts should only be used where they are needed. The problem is that local authority social work is hugely variable in quality. I have seen appalling, as well as excellent, social work practice.

‘So, why am I giving up now?’

So, there are a proportion of cases where an ISW is vital to provide a court with the evidence it needs to reach a just decision. The cases tend to be complex; the issues may not have been appropriately disentangled; maybe the personalities are difficult or people are locked in confrontation. Sometimes the local authority has failed to assess a parent adequately, or at all. Sometimes they refuse to produce an assessment. Sometimes children’s services act badly, or the practice is muddled or ineffective.

Sometimes a guardian can undertake the facilitative, analytic or unblocking role, but these days many are so limited by the size of their caseloads that they simply do not have time for any such in-depth work. When a council has not produced an effective risk or parenting assessment it is not, and has never been, the Cafcass practitioner’s remit to fill that gap.

So, why am I giving up now? It’s because I am just not prepared to undertake such complex and onerous work when it is not properly valued, especially when it is my head and my reputation on the block each time I do a new case.

‘Independent social work attacked from within’

Fee rates for ISWs in family court cases have been cut. But this isn’t just a gripe about pay, it’s the offensiveness of how social work is devalued. ISW expert witnesses are paid a quarter of the rate that psychologists and psychiatrists receive.

In these times of austerity it is only fair that everyone bears some of the pain, yet ISW rates have been slashed by 40-50% from this extremely low base compared to a proposed 20% cut for all other experts. Social work assessment of parenting capacity is exactly what a court needs: a holistic view that weaves many strands into a balanced, child-focussed assessment.

Despite its core role, social work is poorly regarded and lacks professional status compared to other disciplines. Surprisingly, ISW is often attacked from within the profession. Some senior managers have demeaned ISWs to government, and in the media, while their own authority uses ISWs for complex assessments and regards them positively. Where is the College of Social Work and the ADCS in protesting at the discriminatory treatment of social workers by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA)?

‘ISWs asked to repay money’

The LAA is setting tight limits on the hours ISWs spend on assessments. It is complex, often demanding and painful work, but it’s vital for children to have good quality assessments and plans. Some ISWs are being asked to repay money because an LAA caseworker has retrospectively decided they spent too long on a case, or decides to cut the fee rate, even though it was correct at the time. Appeals are time-consuming and uncertain.

I will only take on work of this complexity if my skills are appropriately valued. I need to exercise my professional judgment, to be able to say what work I need to undertake to provide a good enough standard. I expect to be held accountable for what I do. I expect my expertise to be respected alongside that of colleagues from other disciplines.

ISWs are a major resource of much-needed social work skills, but their flexibility and expertise are not being properly deployed. Independent professionals do not fit easily into the managerial world of large social work organisations. I for one plan to work with children in other contexts that still enable me to do good quality work.

With regret, like many of my cohort of experienced, skilled ISWs, that will no longer include the family courts.

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