Social workers can use Facebook to search for missing parents, says judge

Justice Holman highlights role social media site can play to make sure parents know about care proceedings

Photo: ribkhan/Fotolia

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.”



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8 Responses to Social workers can use Facebook to search for missing parents, says judge

  1. Dave Woodward March 7, 2017 at 1:29 pm #

    Fab! Whose Facebook account should we use to search with as it wouldn’t be mine? And what about data protection principles of sharing information securely.? And what about people with the same name being contacted by social services by mistake….I can see a can of worms opening up.

  2. Belinda March 7, 2017 at 2:03 pm #

    Commentary on the application of RIPA to child protection social work would be helpful for all, if Community Care could source it.

  3. Jayn Hawk March 8, 2017 at 1:45 pm #

    I agree with Dave Woodward, I would not use my fb account and even disguise my name on it so “clients” cannot find me.
    In addition to his comments, how do you search for someone you may not have the correct name or spelling for and don’t even know what the person looks like. Not everyone puts on their correct name or picture on their account. I have often been unable to find people I know well!!

  4. Ian March 8, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

    As Dave said earlier, a whole can of worms. My main concern would be around contacting the individual once they have been identified. Whose account would be used for that, how can you prove contact has been made and how can you prove the contact has been read.

    Facebook would direct any message to the ‘Other’ mailbox and there is no guarantee that the parent would see it.

  5. Oya Er Wilkes March 10, 2017 at 8:35 pm #

    We all have our professional email addresses and opening a new FB account with that email address as “Social Worker Name/Surname” shouldn’t be that hard. Copying any communication through FB on case records is like recording any other communication we make with our service users. Emails, FB, What’s App… Whatever the service user prefers, we should adapt and make that form of communication as safe as possible rather than digging our heels in and insist on using archaic methods. If we want to be part of the social world as social workers, we need to be progressive. Otherwise we will carry on being surprised in learning that service users view us as bureaucrates who are cut off from real life…

  6. Jim Greer March 14, 2017 at 11:55 am #

    I am shocked that there seems to be so many objections raised to using Facebook as a way to locate birth parents. I would say this would be a very positive and ethical use of Facebook.
    I have been told anecdotally that in some authorities social workers are routinely using service users’ Facebook accounts as a way of spying on their behaviour- a practice I personally consider to be extremely unethical.

  7. Sean March 16, 2017 at 1:15 pm #

    As a Guardian I am confused about this issue I understood using social media in this way was a violation of data protection. We all would appreciate guidance to allow us to do the job without fear of being disciplined.

  8. Anita Singh March 17, 2017 at 2:24 pm #

    How ridiculous that Facebook is the only way of tracing this mother to talk to her about the adoption of her son. What about using her National Insurance Number to gain information via a Court Order to establish her whereabouts. I agree with Sean, that any other means opens up the potential to complaints about a breach of confidentiality and exposure of the child’s details to many people.

    In response to comments that Jim Greer posted about social workers’ unethical use of Facebook to spy on service users, surely Jim you must be aware that Facebook is commonly used as a method of targeting and grooming vulnerable children? In this context,it is hardly surprising that social workers wish to spy in order to safeguard children.