Why the pressure to do the best for children might make social workers act around the law

Are rights abuses due to knowledge gaps, or because the pressure to do the best for the child makes social workers manipulate the system?

Photo: Piotr Adamowicz/Fotolia

by Andrew Matthews

I was staggered to read about Herefordshire and the misuse of section 20. The cases involved Herefordshire council keeping children in care against the consent of parents under a voluntary arrangement called a section 20.

I found it shocking considering that the law within social work training is a significant part of the curriculum. Social workers are trained to have a strong sense of what is right, what is just and what is lawful. This is further true of decisions makers within local authorities.

There is no excuse for this and I struggle to comprehend why instances like this occur, yet I have considered why this may be the case.

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Firstly, one idea may be that management oversight is poor and the very roots of the practice system is flawed. There are practices going unchecked and unregulated. Ofstead rated Herefordshire as ‘requires improvement’ when assessed in 2014.

To think that this is the only reason is unfair for staff and social workers in this area, though. Bad habits of malpractice may have become the norm but then how has this idea of practice developed?

Manipulating the law

This leads to my second idea, the belief that social work teams and local authorities are acting in the best interests of the child and therefore the law can be manipulated. I have come across this in respect of interpreting Regulation 24 arrangements. Regulation 24 of the 2010 Care Planning Regulations sets out arrangements for the temporary approval of a connected person as a foster carer in exceptional circumstances for up to 16 weeks.

Therefore, if a child is placed with a relative, this would be completed under regulations 24. Under regulation 24, the child is looked after by the state either under a voluntary arrangement or court order. Both colleagues and I have observed the practice of where children are moved to live with relatives in the short or long term under what they refer to as a private family arrangement.

This is in effect a regulation 24 placement and the child needs to be legally looked after as the local authority is making decisions for the child which requires parental responsibility. Now this does happen legitimately, when families decide themselves, but what makes it different and problematic is when the local authority suggests or enforces this without a court order or without consent. When the local authority starts to suggest that care proceedings would be needed if this doesn’t happen is a clear misuse of power.

One could suggest that this, and the problems exposed in Herefordshire, is rooted in a lack of understanding. I truly find this hard to believe but do appreciate where workloads are at unworkable levels, working with high risk, environments can be confusing and overwhelming. However, the law is one of the foundations of social work practice and practice leaders have this knowledge and are decision-makers within organisations.


I therefore believe that actions can be taken knowingly because they believe that this is in the best interests of the child. Why, then, could practitioners and the authority choose to pursue a section 20 agreement without going to court?

Firstly, it is cheaper, to initiate care proceedings is costly and, secondly, it is time consuming. To have a section 20 agreement for local authorities in this case is perhaps convenient.

I believe that misuses of power are related to practitioners and organisations taking expert positions where the highest context is not the law, but doing what is best for the child. The profession is culturally and societally pressured to do the best for children and keep them safe.

But, and it is a massive but, we must act in line with the law. I think that the pressure is huge to keep children safe, which is often unrealistic. We are not infallible, and we cannot stop children from being harmed in every case. This is perhaps shaped from the top down, which has had the negative impact on practitioners and systems making decisions which are unlawful to keep children safe.

That said, my personal position is strong, whatever the intention, however good this may be, we cannot act above the law.


There appears to be a dichotomy at play; there is a pressure to do the best by children but we all need to appreciate that this is not always possible. The law in my view is fair and attempts the challenge of balancing the rights of the family and the rights of the child. In practice this is what makes social work as challenging as it is.

But we cannot take the easy way out and act punitively and unfairly just because we have good intentions. We must accept that we are not perfect and we will do our best to respect both rights of the child and family as enshrined in law.

I have attempted to articulate the reasons why misuses of power may be happening and I think the construction of social care as being able to keep every child safe does not help. This is not to say that the misuse of power by local authorities should not go unchallenged; my recommendation for practitioners if they come across this and are worried then it needs to be raised immediately. I would recommend raising with a trusted senior colleague or Principal Social Worker.

If it is felt that this is a problem organisationally then I propose taking advice from the Family Rights Group, CAFCASS or Ofsted. Malpractice needs to be voiced and practitioners can’t stand by and let this happen. While we might understand why this happens, it does not justify it taking place.

Andrew Matthews is a pseudonym. He is a children’s social worker.

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14 Responses to Why the pressure to do the best for children might make social workers act around the law

  1. Auwyn June 27, 2018 at 1:36 pm #

    I read the headline on this and was infuriated. I thought “No! Social workers are not made to act around the law, they choose to, or are complicit in those decisions at least”

    Thankfully, the rest of the article was more sensible and I have to agree wholeheartedly with much of what is written. My criticism of social work at the moment is that we have lost sight of the concept of “good enough” and much of what is demanded of parents is based on middle class values of fluffy, sit-com standards of parenting, far too often. LJ Black’s comments about us needing to accept that there are some children whose parents are and will continue to be a bit rubbish (I am paraphrasing, obviously) but that in and of itself is not sufficient for the State to intervene…and yet we do and far too often in a punitive manner.

    It’s time we, as social workers, became more militant around our values and spoke out about the misuse of power that we as practitioners and our employers as local authorities and agents of the State, see or use.

  2. Barbara MacArthur June 27, 2018 at 4:14 pm #

    “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – when I was a local government social work during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s I found it impossible to carry out my job properly without occasionally having to bend the rules. I am 92 now so have lost touch, though I am still an unpaid Carer – ineligible for Carers’ Allowance of course.

  3. EJ June 27, 2018 at 9:12 pm #

    What an excellent reply. Whistleblowing needs to happen, sadly it is a cultural thing – they do because they can and then the LA as a body defends and covers for them. Except in cases where they need a scapegoat.

    The trouble is, breaches all too often involve lying and ignoring the voice and needs of the child, so if it’s done on the pretence of putting the child’s needs first, I dispute that this is the reality. I think too often it’s about other more nefarious reasons.

  4. Julie Wilkes June 28, 2018 at 7:59 am #

    They do it because it’s cheaper.

    And because their ‘clients’ are not confident enough to object.

    Any abuse of power is ultimately ‘because they can’.

    The power relationship they adopt with people enables it to happen.

    This is doing to, not working with. #carecrisisreview

  5. Peter Ward June 28, 2018 at 8:17 am #

    Childrens services have of course been always underfunded,but this true of all similar services.The govt /senior managers have to decide to either increase our budget or reduce our responsibilities.We (sw)need to be far more political.We need to tell the world what we do and why.At the moment we only do this after a tragedy.Our managers need to get into the media much more.

  6. Fiona C June 28, 2018 at 8:46 am #

    One area the article does not touch upon is role of the Independent Reviewing Officer who should have an eye on drift and twin tracking by the time of the 2nd Looked After Child Review. Little mention is made of the IRO in the Herefordshire Judgment either.

    I have met robust and “go out on a limb” IRO’s but I have also met ones who openly say in meetings “our plan is” thus losing the perception of independence and perceived independence is crucial.

    All involved in Children’s Social Care have to work in a legal framework whether it is the family support worker, the social worker, their supervisors, their managers, senior managers, Directors and the IRO. It is staggering and indeed shocking to think either there was a deliberate process of manipulation of the law or, on the flip side, ignorance of it by all concerned.

    I occasionally lecture on BA and MA as a guest on sessions for Permanency Planning and I constantly stress the legal framework and advise you stray from it at your peril. whilst qualifying training can only ever provide a base knowledge of the legal framework, whether in Adults or Children’s Services, it is practice, supervision, working with colleagues from the legal department, further training and development that increase understand and expertise of the law.

    I have reached the age where my practice will soon come to an end but I still have hopes social work will continue to improve its image and presentation as a robust, fair, open, transparent and knowledgable profession which understands the legal frameworks within which practice has to be based.

  7. Wiinston Smith June 29, 2018 at 12:18 pm #

    I’m sorry but it is a very common standard technique, also if the parents insist an Interim Care Order will be sought.

    Another major factor is decisions taken by management and desire of the legal dept. to build a case.

    Then there are quota set by Central Government and various theories being promoted by partisan lobbies – like more adoption, MSBP, etc.

    • HelenSparkles June 30, 2018 at 11:49 pm #

      This makes as much sense as you do on Twitter, please explain?

    • Auwyn July 2, 2018 at 7:17 am #

      The article is not talking about s20 per se, but the abuse of s20.

      Of course s20 is a “common standard technique” but abuse of s20 remains a human rights abuse. You would agree with that, I hope?

  8. frank cliffe June 30, 2018 at 1:14 pm #

    Section 20 unfit for purpose.

  9. HelenSparkles June 30, 2018 at 11:54 pm #

    Social work exists within the framework of the law, it is inextricably bound to the state and the legislature, the law cannot be manipulated, it can be misused, but in reality it is clarified by case law. Everyone ignored S20 for about 30 years, including the judiciary, misuse brought it to the fore because that could have included coercion. It is right and proper that a court have oversight and make the important decisions about children that people think SW can, there is a power dynamic, and it is better that everyone has good legal advice. It is also important to recognise that family arrangements can be just that for example. Everyone acting in the best interests of the child without having to be directed to do so, a family creating a network of support realising what the issues are, and whilst they can be assessed. IMHO there needs to be an alternative framework for kinship carers anyway, approving them as FC is over challenging for some, and negates the positives of children remaining within their family of origin – sometimes whilst things are just being worked out.

  10. Albert Bartlett July 2, 2018 at 2:18 pm #

    Social workers working round the law no its breaking the law , why should social workers be any different to members of the public , laws are there for all not just the chosen few

    • Albert Bartlett July 2, 2018 at 9:34 pm #

      i guess what us parents that have had dealings with local authority care are wondering no we are demanding , how do you justify breaking the law or working round it which is still breaking the law , how many peoples children have been removed because social workers decided they should flout the law , and for those parents that do lose a child/ren because some social worker decided to be solicitor judge and jury and break the law , this has to be coming from management and top level staff for this to be happening , so again i ask the author to explain themselves ? .

  11. Paul Owens July 16, 2018 at 12:39 pm #

    Here’s a case to consider re Section 20 against the parents wishes.

    14 year old girl in hospital following the fourth overdose in two months. Hospital refuses to have the child any longer on the ward and is discharging that day against the wishes and advice of the worker and manager.
    Child refuses to stay with mother, father or any other relative. Mother lives 50 miles away and does not respond to phone calls, child hasn’t lived with mother since age of 6 anyway and only seen her twice since then. Father is known to drink regularly and child has taken overdose of father’s medicine which was not locked away as he had agreed. Father not at home nor responds to calls on his mobile, father knows child is in hospital as worker had informed him verbally by phone but he has not visited her in hospital for three hours, father does not work.

    On further discussion with child with medical staff present, hospital are still discharging that day despite child clearly saying she will jump off multi-story on release.

    Worker again visits father’s home, child’s younger brother is at home but is unable to contact father, father still not answering phone or visiting hospital, now after 5 hours.

    Child at significant risk and placed into care under Section 20, father gets in touch the next day to complain about child accommodated against wishes.

    Care proceedings later initiated

    Unfortunately there are occasions where a child needs to be accommodated immediately without agreement of parents