In her recent Bridget Lindley Memorial Lecture, journalist Louise Tickle made a powerful case on the challenges posed to the role and processes of family courts, local authorities and social workers as the web provides increasingly instant and open means of communication for those subject to care proceedings.
The current debate about every individual’s right to privacy and control over their information – while at the same time highly valuing the opportunity social media creates to share personal thoughts, feelings and images – is a tense and unresolved question.
Tickle read posts from parents subject to care proceedings – undoubtedly one of the most challenging of processes when it comes to disputes between individual citizens and the State about the future care of children.
Care proceedings must be experienced by all parents as a fundamental threat to their position, especially when the local authority’s evidence is that their care has become a threat to the child.
Information and evidence is absolutely at the centre of these processes and social workers are key to the management of that information – its accuracy, its relevance and its purpose. There is a core issue of trust that runs through cases when there is a fundamental dispute between the parents and the local authority about the child.
The over-arching theme in Tickle’s lecture was the strong evidence from social media posts from parents about their views and experience of the alleged dishonesty, coercion and power of local authorities to construct false evidence about their failure to provide safe and child centred care. This is compounded by further posts that strongly indicated the failure of the courts to properly challenge and test this evidence from the parent’s perspective, which reinforces their sense of injustice.
As a panel member at the lecture, I came to think of these posts as suggesting a form of social protest by disempowered members of the community against a State whose interests and motivation were located elsewhere – the oppression, marginalisation and exclusion of the disadvantaged.
It is of course the role of the court to fully and transparently assess and test the evidence presented by the parties drawing on the legal framework that determines these issues including procedure and case law. Whenever an individual is faced with a charge by the State about their breach of the law – whether this is a criminal or civil matter – they are almost certain to defend themselves.
This is also the case where the charge is against the State for their failure to uphold the law in relation to the individual. Resolving acrimonious disputes is a part of the role and function of the courts using the principles of justice, fairness and transparency.
Tickle’s presentation raises serious questions about the position of the courts when social media posts from parents and others strongly indicate that they do not feel listened to and they feel overwhelmed by a powerful inevitability in the outcome.
On one level, there is nothing new in this. On another there is a serious question for professionals in making sense of and giving credence to what parents and others have to say when they express their views on social media.
Continuous and public challenge
For every professional, maintaining integrity, respect for and engagement with parents in great difficulty is fundamental to the role. But doing so when there is a continuous and public challenge on social media to the accuracy, relevance and fairness of a social worker’s evidence can be overwhelming. And Tickle raises a troubling question about whether this could be resolved by social work interviews being recorded as they are in criminal investigations. There is also another vexed question about the use of social media posts as evidence against the parents.
Every one of these issues is troubling. But the one issue that is given little attention is the position of the child in all of this. We know that children can be seriously at risk when the adults in their lives continuously argue and are in serious conflict with each other with both immediate and long-term consequences.
From their point of view, they need their parents and any professionals involved ‘to get their act together’ and pay attention to them and their need for a safe, secure and loving home. This indicates a powerful cooperative venture by adults and services that are on the side of the child. But unfortunately, the challenge posed by the tide of social media postings results in the child rarely being mentioned.
By Dr John Simmonds, Director of Policy, Research and Development at CoramBAAF.