Council blames agency manager after judge deems social worker’s evidence unusable

Newham council was criticised for leaving the newly qualified social worker "poorly equipped" to carry out complex work

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A judge has criticised a newly qualified social worker, and her employer, for submitting evidence on a child’s welfare that was so poor quality it was deemed unusable.

Delivering his judgement on the private law case, Justice MacDonald found the social worker lacked “a basic understanding” of what was required of her when producing reports under section 7 of the Children Act 1989. He also criticised Newham council for leaving her “poorly equipped” to carry out this “complex piece of work”.

Responding to the judgment, Newham council said section 7 training will be “regularly” rolled out for staff and said the social worker’s supervisor – an agency social worker – had now left the council.

The case concerned whether an 11-year-old boy, C, should continue living with his aunt in London under a special guardianship order, or live in Manchester with his father, or move to live with his mother in Mozambique.

C had moderate ADHD and global development delay. He was receiving weekly counselling sessions and had been recommended to undertake comprehensive educational intervention four days a week. The court ordered a section 7 report, and two addendum reports, from the social worker in order to ensure C’s wishes and feelings were taken into consideration by an independent person.

Poor quality of reports

The judge said the social worker’s section 7 report “contained a significant number of factual errors, contradictions and omissions”. It contained no analysis of C’s best interests and was “simply a list of facts and statements with a bald conclusion”, he found.

The addendum reports had similar flaws and it was “concerning” that all three of the social worker’s reports were signed off by her practice manager, the judge said. This “amplified” the social worker’s assumption that she was doing what was required of her, he added.

The social worker was also found to be “entirely unable” to back-up her reports’ recommendations in oral evidence. This meant the judge felt “unable to attach any weight” to her evidence and had to rely on his own analysis of C’s welfare in reaching a decision on the case.

Lack of training and support

In evidence it emerged the social worker was newly qualified and had never completed a section 7 report. She told the judge her degree course had not covered the preparation of these reports and the only training she’d been given by Newham before undertaking the work was a “90 minute discussion with her supervisor”.

She had also been left with too little time to complete the reports due to a “substantial delay” in Newham’s legal department passing on the section 7 order to social services, the judge found.

The judge said his criticisms of the social worker must be seen in the context of her lack of experience, the failings identified in her academic training and the poor quality support she’d received from her employer. However, taking this into account, he concluded the social worker’s reports “nonetheless fall well below the standard expected by the court”.

The decision

After conducting his own welfare analysis the judge ruled that C should live with his aunt under a child arrangements order, rather than a special guardianship order.

He said the aunt had the best understanding of his physical, emotional and educational needs. He decided against the special guardianship order because he saw it as limiting the father’s parental responsibility, and he hoped a history of cooperation meant this wasn’t necessary.

The judge said he would have considered ordering the local authority to pay non-party costs if the deficiencies in the social worker’s reports had forced him to adjourn the case.

A Newham Council spokesperson said:”Prior to this judgement, the council rolled out Section 7 training and this will be regularly rolled out throughout the year to all staff.

“It is unfortunate that an agency member of staff failed to provide the adequate support and guidance to this social worker in this instance. This member of staff has now left the council.

“The council has now gone through a robust recruitment process to ensure that we have permanent staff in place who are able to provide high quality guidance to our staff.”

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8 Responses to Council blames agency manager after judge deems social worker’s evidence unusable

  1. julia abadi March 10, 2016 at 7:56 pm #

    I would assume that it is newly qualified workers and even students who bear the brunt of section 7 work and as such are mostly left to get on with it, despite the inherent difficulty in getting to the bottom of these contested private law issues. Unless they have a vigilant manager and good examples upon which to base their own report, this is going to embarrass the profession again.

    • Andy March 11, 2016 at 7:42 am #

      Students shouldn’t complete court reports. Although the NQSW didn’t have actual training on private proceedings she would have had basic assessment skills training and it would have been hoped report writing skills would have been assessed to qualify. The overall responsibility is the managers.

  2. Victoria March 10, 2016 at 11:08 pm #

    Private law is an utter nightmare. It generally involves a lot of he said, she said, that is usually impossible to substantiate with evidence and parents expect their allegations to be enough evidence on their own.

    I don’t remember having specific training on S7 or S37 for that matter. I do know my first S7 (written as a newly qualified Social Worker too), was praised by the Judge as being a “very thorough and comprehensive report”. I put that down to working in a team that shares examples of good practice. We share all our assessments, plans, direct work tools, etc with each other.

    I feel sorry for this poor Social Worker, no one wants a mauling in court, but this Social Worker was blindsided, and it must have been especially upsetting when they must have been led to believe their reports were satisfactory. I hope they received support to mitigate the potential for any loss of confidence, as a result of this.

  3. Clare Gibb March 10, 2016 at 11:35 pm #

    It is clear that the social worker did not have enough support, however, there is still no excuse for “factual errors, contradictions and omissions”, and I say that as a newly qualified social worker. Basic common sense should say at the very least you should check for that. That isn’t about “not being trained”.

  4. Andrew March 11, 2016 at 4:10 pm #

    Given the reported comments of the social worker, what does this say about how assessment skills and report writing are taught in social work education?

  5. Jane March 13, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    I am sorry but as a former manager and social worker there was a robust legal department to ensure the evidence provided was watertight .
    Where was theirs .In addition Service manager ?

  6. Deb March 18, 2016 at 7:19 am #

    As a Manager of a frontline child protection team I would not put any inexperienced social worker in such a situation , court work private or public is about making serious life changing plans for children and this experience needs to be built up over time I ensure no newly qualified is the primary worker and to gain experience they attend court and work with an experienced worker for their first year. It is a shame that the worker in this instance does not seem to have had oversight from the legal team and any other Manager apart from a Practice Manager.

  7. Jane F March 22, 2016 at 11:18 am #

    As a SW lecturer, the issue about what courses cover is complex. The introduction of the Professional Capabilities Framework 3 years ago, owned by the College of Social Work was a step forwards in terms of having a very clear and detailed set of standards structured for the different stages of selection, initial qualifying education and beyond.

    The skills day curriculum in our own course (which replaces 30 days of placement) is closely modelled on the PCF and includes assessment, observation skills, recording skills, evidence based judgments, report writing and court room skills.

    However, is only now that the first graduates are emerging from PCF based courses so it remains to be tested out there in practice whether this new curriculum is more effective in producing practice-ready graduates.