A family court judge has said social workers can use Facebook to track down missing parents in order to make sure they know about care proceedings.
Justice Holman highlighted the role the social media site could play after he cancelled an adoption hearing concerning a four-year-old boy because social workers had been unable to trace the mother.
A lawyer for the child’s father said the man’s new partner had been able to contact the mother days before the hearing by doing a “very simple search of a public Facebook website”. Holman rescheduled the hearing, saying it was “absolutely mandatory” that the mother be given a chance to participate.
The judge said: “So I do wish to highlight by this short judgment that, in the modern era, Facebook may well be a route to somebody such as a birth parent whose whereabouts are unknown and who requires to be served with notice of adoption proceedings.
“I do not for one moment suggest that Facebook should be the first method used, but it does seem to be a useful tool in the armoury which can certainly be resorted to long before a conclusion is reached that it is impossible to locate the whereabouts of a birth parent.
“Of course, not everyone is on Facebook but, in this particular case, a relatively socially disadvantaged young mother…has been found very rapidly by that means.”
The boy was placed with an adopter 10 months before the final adoption hearing. Following the initial care proceedings his mother had either left, or been removed from, the United Kingdom.
Social services contacted the relevant embassy ahead of the adoption hearing but were unable to trace her. The council made no other efforts to track down the mother, a decision the judge deemed deeply regrettable.
“There is absolutely no doubt that even though a placement order was made, the mother, who retains parental responsibility for her child, is someone to whom notice of this adoption application was required to be given,” Holman said.
The judge criticised a “total disregard” for the rules around birth parents being properly notified by a local authority, guardian and staff of the court.
The council and Cafcass said they were “sceptical” about the claim the mother could easily have been found on Facebook.
They told the court they had subsequently searched for the woman but were unable to find her. The father’s partner said this was because the mother had changed her name since being contacted in the days before the hearing.
The judge said: “If the account by the partner is a true one, it seems to follow that each of the local authority and the guardian could, in fact, relatively easily themselves have established a line of communication with the birth mother through Facebook.”
In the hearing, a Cafcass representative said such an action would be a “significant disciplinary matter” for guardians. However, after being asked by the judge to investigate it further, he found there was “no rule” against Cafcass officers trying to identify parents this way.
Manchester council said it had no rules preventing social workers using Facebook this way.
The HCPC has published draft guidance on social media for social workers in a consultation that closed in January. It states social workers in England should “maintain appropriate professional boundaries if you communicate with service users or carers.”