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UK Courts Don't Trust Social Workers
March 8, 2010 permalink
According to a new study, British courts hold social workers in low esteem and do not trust their evidence. Social workers are suffering the ultimate penalty of liars — being disbelieved.
Courts distrust evidence from social workers
Judges delay decisions in urgent cases affecting vulnerable children to hear from other experts, says report
Courts are refusing applications to take children into care because some members of the judiciary hold social workers in such low esteem that they do not trust their evidence, it will be claimed this week in a major study.
Local authorities told researchers that children were being put at risk because social workers were not always recognised as experts.
The findings are part of research commissioned by the Local Government Association (LGA) into the practicalities of implementing the 58 recommendations of Lord Laming's report into child protection , carried out in the wake of the death of Baby Peter. The 17-month-old boy from Haringey, north London, who suffered more than 50 injuries over an eight-month period, died despite being seen repeatedly by social services, police, doctors and health vistors.
The LGA report, carried out by academics at Loughborough University and published this week, concludes: "The low status afforded to social workers was ... perceived to impact upon the court decision-making process. A number of authorities felt courts were refusing applications that children's social care felt were necessary to protect children." Social workers, it says, "are not always recognised as experts in the court arena".
As evidence of their low status, it points out: "Experts such as hospital consultants are not expected to wait in court all day to give evidence, but social workers are, meaning they are not able to use the time available more effectively." The report found that social workers had to wait on average 20 hours in court to get a care order.
Nushra Mansuri, joint manager of the English office of the British Association of Social Workers, said it was appalling that professionals were treated so badly, and said it could be dangerous for children.
"There is good practice, and there are plenty of members of the judiciary who do show due respect," she said , but she had seen a number of examples of the sort of attitude detailed in the report. "I think there is a bit of a snobbery because social work is the soft target. We are the most exposed of all the professions, whereas others are a little more anonymous in the process."
She said judges had to try not to be influenced by the negative image of social workers portrayed in the media. "I'm sure it doesn't happen in most cases, but we as professionals are asked to question our prejudices all the time, and so should they."
A senior lawyer involved in child care proceedings said they were often subject to lengthy delays because judges were reluctant to accept social workers' assessments at face value, and would commission a series of additional and expensive "expert" views from psychiatrists and other professionals.
"If you have a case of neglect involving a mother of five, who has been a crack cocaine addict for 10 years, do we really need to commission another psychiatric assessment to tell us that she needs to be free of drugs before she can care for her children, which costs thousands of pounds?
"This is not about denying justice or a fair hearing to parents, but ensuring that justice for the child is not unnecessarily delayed, and that limited resources are made available to help parents avoid these problems and not diverted into telling us things we already know, that the social worker has expertise in."
The LGA research also focuses on Laming's recommendation that all referrals to children's services from other professionals such as NHS staff or police should lead to a full initial assessment. It claims the cost of implementing such a change would be £250m a year to councils, and require 6,300 more social workers.Shireen Ritchie, chair of the LGA's Children and Young People board, said: "One of our major concerns is the amount of bureaucracy that social workers have to go through when making these assessments. Meeting targets around assessments does not make children safer. Social workers need to be involved in the reflective process, as well as form filling."
Last year the children's secretary, Ed Balls, accepted all Lamings recommendations and said they would be "properly resourced".