Judge criticises social worker’s ‘incorrect and inaccurate’ evidence

Hertfordshire council under fire for 'pervasive failure to accurately state correct position' and overly negative view of family

family court
Photo: designer491/Fotolia

A judge has criticised a local authority social worker for making “critical errors” in evidence she gave during a hearing to decide care arrangements for four children.

His Honour Judge Keith Wilding said Hertfordshire council’s case for taking the siblings into care gave him “considerable cause for concern as to the accuracy of the evidence of the local authority”.

In the hearing at Watford this month he also criticised Hertfordshire’s “tendency to only look at the negatives in respect of this family, and to wrongly infer something was a ‘concern’ when it was not”.

The judge accepted the children did not live in a perfect home, but said their parents’ behaviour, while on occasion “deplorable” did not cause the children significant harm.

“There is no foundation for making any public law orders in this case,” Judge Wilding concluded.

Emergency protection orders

The four children had been placed under emergency protection orders on 2 March 2018 after the youngest, ‘D’, was seen to have facial bruising during a home visit by social workers a couple of days earlier.

This followed an incident on 10 February 2018 during which ‘A’ had texted a friend saying that his mother had tried to stab him.

The local authority additionally referenced an earlier injury to D’s toe, as well as “many examples” that it said showed the children’s physical needs were neglected between 2016 and 2018.

It also alleged that the parents had not provided consistent boundaries for the children’s behaviour, including responding inappropriately to several incidents of sexualised behaviour.

“The mother’s reluctance to talk about sex means there [are] likely to have been limited opportunities for the children to have discussions with their parents about sexual relationships and/or sexual abuse,” Hertfordshire’s report is quoted as saying.

‘To the door of the court’

Judge Wilding’s criticisms of Hertfordshire’s evidence began with its insistence “to the door of the court” that many injuries to D had been inflicted intentionally and that the siblings had been at risk of sexual abuse. The local authority subsequently walked back its assertions during the hearing.

With reference to the wound to the child’s toe, the judge noted that a child protection medical made no mention of this being non-accidental – yet the council claimed “the medical confirmed it was a non-accidental injury”.

Judge Wilding further highlighted examples of inaccuracy by ‘Ms X’, the family’s social worker. These included describing a 2010 allegation by A as a “disclosure”, even though it had been investigated with no further action being taken.

Ms X drew more ire from the judge for her “misleading” depiction of a “pattern” of injuries to the four siblings that demonstrated a serious lack of supervision by their parents.

“The parenting assessment records very few injuries for A, some of which occurred at school, a number of accidental injuries to B, although there is clear confusion about dates… none for C and the known injuries to D,” the judge said.

“I fail to understand how Miss X has turned that into a ‘pattern of unexplained injury throughout the early childhood of all four children’,” he added, noting that the social worker had admitted being “just wrong” during her oral evidence.

Judge Wilding said he had no reason to doubt Ms X’s dedication and honesty but concluded that her “critical errors” meant her evidence should be treated with caution.

Stab threat allegations

Turning to more recent concerns with the family, the judge noted that many referrals to Hertfordshire children’s services had been made anonymously and, according to the mother, may have come from an estranged family member.

The mother – described in the judgment as “almost too honest” – accepted she had threatened to stab A, Judge Wilding said, but claimed this had not been said seriously.

“I note we are entirely reliant, it seems, on what the caller to the police said when this was reported a few hours after the incident took place,” the judge said. “I can find no direct evidence that anyone in this case who may have seen the actual text sent by A has set it down accurately.”

He added that neither the police nor children’s services – who did not respond for 10 days – appeared to have moved with much urgency in response to the allegation.

Judge Wilding also dismissed concerns around neglect and sexualised behaviour.

He said there was again no evidence of significant harm caused by a home environment that the parents had admitted could be “cluttered and unhygienic”.

The judge found that the parents had been consistent in their explanations of sexualised behaviour by A and B, while the local authority had again made errors in its records of one incident.

‘Tendency to only look at the negatives’

Overall, Judge Wilding concluded there was “throughout the local authority’s evidence a pervasive failure to accurately state the correct position by reference to the primary evidence”.

He added, “There was also, in my judgement, a tendency to only look at the negatives in respect of this family and not the positives, and to wrongly infer from the evidence that something was a ‘concern’, or to put it another way a risk, when it was not.”

Responding to the judge’s comments, a Hertfordshire council spokesperson said: “We accept the decision of the court and will carefully consider the comments in the judgment.”

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18 Responses to Judge criticises social worker’s ‘incorrect and inaccurate’ evidence

  1. SW 111 November 5, 2018 at 11:47 am #

    There is a culture in social care to highlight the negatives in order to support their theory and seek removal/Court Order, ie in this particular case there was focus on negligent care.
    This is a common practice in other local authorities also.
    Despite all the discussion about strength based practice, Social Care practice, particularly in Children and Families is underpinned and driven by deficit factors.

  2. Daisy November 5, 2018 at 9:16 pm #

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t

  3. Amy November 5, 2018 at 10:39 pm #

    Just FYI His Honour Judge Wilding is a Circuit Judge, not a Hight Court Judge.

    • Alex Turner November 7, 2018 at 10:16 am #

      Thanks, corrected

  4. N Mirza November 5, 2018 at 10:43 pm #

    Social worker is not the only decision maker for issuing care proceeding, what about the managers and the legal team who have ultimate responsibilty.

  5. An November 5, 2018 at 11:42 pm #

    This social worker should be struck off as she could have had the parents prosecuted and the children taken into care permanently

    Over zealous

  6. SW89 November 6, 2018 at 11:59 am #

    Sounds like confirmation bias potentially.

  7. Liverpool November 6, 2018 at 5:58 pm #

    I agree with all the comments so far. There is a definite risk of seeing only the information to support your view, confirmation bias. Good reflection and supervision will help to keep that in check.

    When reviewing information relevant to the decision, you are required to consider lots of variables with, a heightened feeling of risk – pressures from internal sources and also external (pressure on services to respond). Again, support with complex decision making could be a good way to safeguarding this process.

    My initial thought, was this SW should be struck off, and the concern that mainstream media will be crawling over this story like a rash.

    But actually, we don’t know who else was involved in this decision making process. Was the SW given adequate support? It is possible that the SW is taking the fall… when there maybe other factors which have contributed to the decision – e.g. lack of supervision, high case load/less time to fully consider facts thoroughly.

    • Afia November 6, 2018 at 9:23 pm #

      Well done, for your balanced view on the judgement.

    • Anonymous November 8, 2018 at 8:02 am #

      Agreed. Let’s not forget that the final decision is made by management and most importantly director of CS whether or not they continue the proceedings.
      In one of my earlier examples my case notes were deleted as I noted my disagreement with TM.

  8. Julie November 6, 2018 at 11:21 pm #

    Don’t understand the legal team will advise the local authority and the sw is not the only descision maker have to present evidence to local authority legal gateway where head of service is present and they have the final say. Social work is such oppressive profession and is it little wonder the life span of a social worker is very very short

  9. sw11 November 7, 2018 at 10:54 am #

    Well, as usual the social worker, the visible face of social care takes the onslaught whilst the managers and service managers who approve and signed the reports hide in the background, and the social worker is apportioned all the blame.
    The management would not come forward to accept their responsibility, not even partial responsibility.
    This is the state of social care.
    Failing families and failing their workers.
    Theoretically speaking, support and reflective supervision could have prevented this but the management in reality is simply not bothered about delivering good supervision but their main interest is covering their backs ensuring their reputation is not at stake and they hide behind collective management decision such that the manager’s name remains unknown.

  10. Hilary Searing November 7, 2018 at 11:56 am #

    The Emergency Protection Orders were made in March – they last for a maximum of 8 days. The Final Hearing was in September. Can anyone clarify what the legal status of the children was between March and September?

    • Calum November 7, 2018 at 4:16 pm #

      There’s normally a second hearing for an ico

      • Hilary Searing November 8, 2018 at 4:57 pm #

        I know that the threshold for an EPO is lower than that for a full Care Order but you seem to assume that threshold for an ICO is much the same and is therefore normally granted. But judge should have been aware of the flimsy evidence being presented by social worker at the second hearing. Raises question in my mind about why judge did not throw out the application then.

  11. SB November 13, 2018 at 2:38 pm #

    Is there any way we can be told what decisions were made by the people of a higher pay grade to the SW?
    The case worker, as others have already commented, MAY be left to answer for the failings of others.
    It is very sad to see that recruitment and retention of SW staff is in such a sorry state however examples such as this do go to explain why this is the case.

  12. Andrrw November 15, 2018 at 10:37 am #

    George Bernard Shaw said there should be a second police force with the same powers and resources as the first who would try to prove the innocence of anyone charged by the first force. Perhaps the same should apply to social services!

  13. ShazEl November 23, 2018 at 1:25 am #

    Sadly this does not surprise me. Hertfordshire has a high case instance of CP Proceedings, often decided before the initial Child Protection Meeting has started.