Student social worker: “I felt almost like ‘the enemy’”

A social work student shares her difficult experiences in a court room and describes being at odds with her personal ideology

by Ricki Steed*

The court arena is quite an alien concept to me. At present it feels very distant from my ideological ideas about social work. I have found this part of my practice extremely difficult because, in an ideal world, I’d like to think social workers do everything they can to allow children to remain with families.

However, as I have learnt, this cannot always be the case. Sometimes parents and carers cannot sustain changes that make a child’s life ‘good enough’ for them to achieve positive outcomes. I have observed some interesting cases that have allowed me to reflect on the practice within a legal environment.

I was surprised about the large amount of paperwork and evidence that needs to be collated before it can even be considered that there are grounds for removal. I always felt that significant harm would be so clear and identifiable for the reasons why a child should be removed, however I have seen that it can be hard to witness.

Sometimes social workers may have been told that parents have reconciled relationships, or drug dealers have been seen in the home, or the child has been exposed to persons posing a risk, however the evidence to demonstrate the risks to the child is not always valid or appropriate to evidence a court report.

I have watched my colleagues be very upset in these circumstances as a single case’s paperwork can take up an entire week, and there is still no guarantee that the children on their caseloads will be protected from further significant harm if there are no grounds for removal.

I have also noted that the relationship between social workers and the parents they have worked closely with for weeks is exceptionally distanced from the normality of child protection visits when in the court arena.

One case I shadowed in court was between a social worker who had a good relationship with parents, however when I saw them in court it was very different. There was no eye contact and neither parent or social worker spoke to each other. I felt almost like ‘the enemy’.

Obviously when you are within the court arena it is very unpleasant for parents, especially if the local authority has issued proceedings for removal. The environment almost sterilises the feelings and emotions that have been displayed vividly in home visits, case conferences and core groups to a quiet professional silence.

This allowed me to identify the importance of engaging with parents during this process and ensuring they understand what is expected of them, and what the local authority is requesting.  Many of the parents that I have witnessed who have been upset and angry did not feel that they had been fully informed of what was expected of them or what would happen to their child.

The most remarkable concept I have identified within the court arena is the conflicting aims and ethos of child protection and legal representation during proceedings. Social workers work within the confines of the 1989 Children Act and Working Together guidance which makes child protection a shared responsibility.

I have found it beyond belief that there are solicitors that openly state that sex offenders, perpetrators of domestic abuse and chronic alcoholics pose no risk to children. I recognise that they have a job to do and that parents have rights to have their views represented, however I have found it hard to listen to when I know it increases the risk of children being returned to an environment that poses a risk to them.

I have heard solicitors outside the court room state that children who have disclosed abuse are ‘attention seeking’ or that father’s with drug addictions would be ‘better off dead’. It seems wrong to me that a profession that works alongside child protection could be so judgemental and disrespectful. I have been prewarned to be careful around solicitors as many of the people I work with state that comments they have made outside the court arena have been used against them in the court room.

I think there will always be a feeling of melancholy towards this aspect of social work as it is, for me, the last resort.  I am aware that I will find this area of my practice difficult and challenging, but as I learn, become more experienced and improve my understanding of the legal processes, I will be more confident in what is expected of me and how I can shape children’s lives for the better.

*Name has been changed

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6 Responses to Student social worker: “I felt almost like ‘the enemy’”

  1. Alan November 20, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

    If you put yourself in their shoes you will see a clear perspective to why you are seen as the enemy, doing everything to help the child stay with family all to often isn’t the norm. The nature of the job makes it very judgemental but there is no consistency, I have seen families torn apart when help would have sufficed and I have also seen kids left with a family when that should have been the last option. Families are asked to trust, then find it misplaced. Trust has to be earned. Too often words are not congruent with actions by both sides, honesty and transparency by both sides has to become the norm for boths sides.

  2. moment ngara November 21, 2014 at 8:05 am #

    There’s need to believe and trust our judgements when faced with competing paradigms. While the court may appear daunting to some, it should be always born in the workers’ minds that it is the battle ground towards justice. If properly fought, the battles could win the war. With this in mind, let us not be put off by how we are judged, but to be mindful of our quest for total quality towards excellence. Our remit remains that of giving a voice to the voiceless and as long as we stand for just, we can always have a face to put when faced with hostile situations. Let us always desire to do what we wish to get when judged bearing in mind that our judged failures will go a long way to influence how we practise.

  3. TC November 21, 2014 at 8:25 pm #

    I have done much work in the family courts. I have never encountered a social worker who ever worked openly and honestly with parents or have they ever tried to ‘keep the family together’. There is a group called SWAN (I believe based at Lancaster Uni) who are trying to change the currently model of how children’s services in particular work with families.

    I have never encountered a social worker trying to fight to provide a positive support package for families. I have never encountered a PLO letter that spells out exactly what ‘change’ is required.

    Basically, once a family comes to the attention of the LA, they are ‘deer in the headlights’. As opposed to the criminal justice system of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ the family courts are ‘guilty until you prove you are innocent.’

    And whoa betide any parent who makes a complaint; they are then presented to the court as ‘unco-operative or unworkable with’. The fact that the parent(s) can evidentially prove the accusations against them to be incorrect, misleading, out of context means nothing. The label will stick.

    I have read and heard ridiculous nonsense such as ‘the family own too many books’, ‘the parents are too educationally centred’, ‘the family attend the wrong type of church.’ ‘this 3 year old doesn’t know what a chicken nugget is but can identify a steak’; ‘the parents are too intelligent to emotionally engage with the children’. (And that is a sample)

    I suggest the first thing social workers do is stop relying on their ‘legal teams’ and start reading Mumby’s rulings for themselves.

  4. Ali November 22, 2014 at 1:36 am #

    Have you heard the adversary system? Legal professionals are trained to argue both side of the contention. As you know a legal rep for the family is legally bond to defend his client. All professions have their own strong and weak sides. Without this kind of system it would be a totalitarian system. Every one has the right to be represented you should not be naive.

  5. Debbie November 22, 2014 at 7:27 pm #

    there appears to be some misguided information here, ‘parents angry & upset at not being made aware of the consequences / given a chance to make effective change? Given the family have gone down the multiple services route, Core meetings, numerous reviews & Pre proceedings, makes it very difficult to believe parents claims of being left in.the dark so to speak

    Regards to child/ren being returned to abusive situation my role as the child’s social worker is to get to know my little person / young person. Then collate as much evidence as possible, analyse and evidence risk of significant harm should they return. The days of describing a ‘dirty;abusive;maltreated child are long gone, your reports need to show your the expert in your child’s life. Make sure all legal teams know this, legal teams for parents have no concept of C P. Their job is to look for gaps in your evidence, if you become the expert in.your little / young person there should be no.gaps.

    As a safeguarding / cp social worker I can say it is possible to remain supportive of your family throughout the whole court process. First thing is to make sure your family’s have access to advocacy, makes a world of difference

  6. garry December 1, 2014 at 2:31 am #

    Maybe you should remember that whilst you may be a social worker you are still not part of the judicial system and have no right to expect special treatment, it is an adversarial system for a reason, and you like others have to prove your case not just be believed because you have the label Social worker for the Local Authority, that authority tag seems to lend you to believe that you are the power when in fact you are not, the judge is. Likewise if you wish to complain about sex offenders maybe you would like to lobby government to remove Theresa May for her statement that there is no proof sex with underage children hurts them !