by Andrew Matthews
Attending court is a key part of the social worker role and one I am starting to experience more frequently. I’m drawn to the court’s analytical nature but the system itself leaves me disillusioned.
I’m struck by the theatre of the courtroom and how alien it is to 99% of the population – parents and social workers included. Is this approach what’s best for families or the social workers trying to do their jobs? Watching parents on the witness stand, I can’t help but think there is a better way this could be resolved or addressed.
In evidence, barristers challenge witnesses with multi-layered questions peppered with jargon. It all contributes to the court show on display.
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Often under this questioning it feels that legalese takes over and facts and truth are distorted. Questions such as ‘It is right isn’t it that if we consider X, then Y must be true’ and ‘It is not the case is it, that this actually happened, and your version of said events was in fact false, yes?’.
I have given evidence on several occasions. At times it became clear barristers were targeting my relative lack of experience in years practising to discredit and unsettle me.
One recent unpleasant experience involved a barrister wrongly surmising in her submission that I was both younger than the parents and would in effect struggle to understand parenting. This assumption left me feeling insulted and uncomfortable.
I’ve also seen barristers chat and laugh about their private and social lives in the courtroom while families look on, unsure about whether this is correct or not. I felt it was a little farcical.
Supportive managers mean I am kept focused on my role, but I can’t help question how the parents feel about all of this if my general feelings and experiences are of discomfort.
It’s difficult, because I feel confident about my evidence when there are risks to children, but feel the court environment is not parent friendly or helpful. As the social worker, you go from working with the family regularly for a long time to a court where you can share little, or no, communication often because of the context.
In social work it is important to be collaborative and work in partnership with families. Is court a place where this could ever happen? How could one work towards the removal of a child, yet work in collaboration if it is done against the parents’ wishes?
I remain optimistic that this can occur. But I feel disheartened how, in some of my cases, it is not a reality. Even when relationships have fractured it should not mean that attempts to foster collaboration should ever stop.
After a full week of court where I have been expected to hear all of the evidence, I have often felt drained and tired. I have felt worried about neglecting the other families I work with and the work I have to catch up with.
But mostly, I’m left feeling frustrated and sometimes a little angry at how slow the process can be and how alienating it can be for social workers and parents alike.
Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym, he is a children’s social worker.