Social workers question decision making of family courts

Social work in the family courts: special report

Community Care survey reveals many social workers still feel undervalued and lack confidence when giving evidence in the family courts

Lawyers critical of social work reports for family courts

More than three quarters of social workers and guardians do not believe that family courts always make the right decisions for children.

Just 1% of social workers and guardians surveyed by Community Care believe family courts ‘always’ make the right decisions for children, while 2% believe courts ‘never’ make the right decisions. The rest believe courts ‘mostly’ or ‘sometimes’ make the right decisions about children’s lives.

The survey – based on the views and experiences of 185 social workers and guardians who provide evidence to the family courts – revealed the majority of social workers feel their professional judgement is undervalued in court, while many lack confidence when appearing as an expert witness.

‘Professional judgement undermined’

More than half (55%) of respondents said they feel their professional judgement is ‘never’ or only ‘sometimes’ respected by judges and lawyers, while over a third (35%) said they feel ‘very’ or ‘quite’ unconfident when giving evidence and being cross examined.

“It has become very nasty in court, and unprofessional the way some solicitors and barristers cross examine social workers in court,” one social worker said, adding that it is, “worse if the local authority and the guardian don’t agree on the child’s care plan”.

Less then a fifth (18%) of social workers said they feel ‘very confident’ when being cross examined in court, although just under half (46%) said they feel ‘quite’ confident.

One said: “I get terribly nervous before… However, once in the witness box, I am confident answering questions from barristers. Although they’ve read the files, I have met with the families and children on numerous occasions and made my recommendations on this basis.”

Status of social workers and guardians

The survey also revealed differences in the perceived status of social workers and guardians in court. Most respondents (54%) said social workers had a ‘low’ or ‘very low’ status in court, whereas 73% considered guardians to have a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ status.

Social workers said this discrepancy was unfair, with many complaining about the quality of guardians’ written reports and the time they spend with children.

One claimed: “Guardians appear to be getting away without providing written reports and without sharing their analysis of the situation.”

Another said: “In court, at the end of the proceedings often the guardian is praised when they have hardly seen the child, whereas the social worker is ignored”.

There was also good news, with 67% of social workers saying they had received formal training on giving evidence in court and 64% saying their manager ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ accompanies them to court if a case is particularly difficult or contentious.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Assocition of Social Workers (BASW), said the survey raised worrying issues and the concerns many social workers had about the family courts needed to be explored further.

“Does this mean that there are issues with the care applications themselves or is this about social workers and guardians recommendations being overruled by the courts?  If so, what are the outcomes for children in these cases, as crucially, that is the evidence base that should matter the most.”

What social workers say:

“The title ‘social worker’ does not often align itself with the word ‘expert’ and sometimes it is clear the questioning is aimed on a personal basis without redress. However, the quality of statements and assessments together with answers on cross-examination should be evidence enough of professional judgement.”

“I often feel that my judgement is not respected as the social worker. It frustrates me when my assessments are criticised to the point of them being redone by an independent social worker, who frequently reaches the same conclusion. It causes delay for the child.”

“Some members of the legal profession have little realistic idea about the demands of social work. For example, question [from lawyer]: ‘Why didn’t you sort out the contact arrangements at the time you removed the children?’ Answer: ‘The children were tired and hungry and needed to go to their foster home to be settled in. It was also 8.30 in the evening.”

Bullet pointCommunity Care is holding a family justice conference in London on 5 December. It will help you carry out better section 47 assessments and better prepare you for court appearances. Register your interest or request a brochure here.

Pic credit: Rex Features

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