I wonder how deep the murky waters of sub-optimal care need to be before it is deemed as “significant harm.”
Kate Wells, a retired social worker considers the recent judicial criticism of social worker’s ability to analyse the case before them and provide the necessary evidence of ‘significant harm’. She notes that the distinction between ‘sub-optimal care’ and ‘significant harm’ is not always that easy to find – and what does it say about us as a society that we have such low expectations for so many children?
When the courts criticise social workers for not providing evidence of ‘significant harm’
I do wonder why the LA lawyers are not picking up on this, and whether some of the blame should be placed in their direction. In my view it is unfair for criticism to fall on the social worker who has failed to provide the evidence to prove significant harm. The Team Manager should pick up the shortfall and if he/she fails in this way, then the LA lawyer most certainly should not fail to spot the lack of evidence to support the LA’s case.
Pressures on the newly qualified social worker
I am aware that newly qualified social workers are most definitely “thrown in at the deep end” in this day and age. Whereas, when I qualified in 1980 I was supported by experienced workers who had the time and motivation to coach me in social work practice, and this enabled me to gradually grow in confidence and become a credible and competent practitioner.
I do have some direct experience of poor quality social work and the reasons behind this, as from 2005 to 2009 I worked independently and carried out work for various LAs including Birmingham City Council. They were during those years, operating with approx. 30% vacancy rates. There were high levels of sickness with stress related illnesses and a reliance on agency social workers. There were struggles with excessively high caseloads which unsurprisingly left social workers feeling overwhelmed, stressed and de-moralised and managers seemed to lack the competence required to assist and support their social workers, but particularly the newly qualified. I spent a lot of my time carrying out this task myself on an informal basis of course.
I believe that in the intervening years, the situation in social care nationally has reached crisis point. I attribute this to the fact that the government have demanded all public services make massive savings in their budgets, with the result that they are largely unable to cope with their statutory responsibilities and this is certainly the case for Children’s Services.
Now that the Conservatives are re-elected I believe that the situation will deteriorate further, as they pursue their privatisation agenda. Allied to this is the fact that there is a dearth of social workers who are opting to work in child protection and who can blame them – to coin a phrase “They are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”
It is highly stressful and sometimes dangerous work, and if a child on your caseload dies at the hands of the parent or some family member, then you will be pilloried by all and sundry. The Director of Children’s Services will be on TV talking about “learning the lessons” and I am frustrated to the point that I shout at the TV – “why don’t you tell the truth – that no amount of learning lessons will prevent these horrendous child deaths at the hands of their parents/step-parents – RISK CAN NEVER BE TOTALLY ELIMINATED no matter how many risk assessments are undertaken.
It’s small wonder people unconnected to child protection are frustrated too, because they keep hearing the same things parroted each time there is a tragedy. Following procedures, working together with other agencies and close monitoring of a child at risk of abuse/neglect will NOT save that child when they are in the hands of an individual who is capable of inflicting serious harm on a child. Sad but true.
The particular criticisms in A (A child) 
What the social worker got wrong
I can see only too clearly the fundamental flaws in the social work assessment, and maybe the first flaw is that it was undertaken by a newly qualified social worker which is highly irresponsible BUT probably because there was no alternative.
It appeared that the social worker had decided the father was a “bad lot” and then proceeded to scrabble around to dig up as much dirt as she could. All that nonsense about whether or not he was present when his friend was killed on the railway. I can’t believe they went chasing after evidence as to whether he was there or not – what did it matter that he was engaging in a bit of hyperbole. But this was used to try to prove that the father told lies about everything.
More nonsense with all the USI rigmarole. Dear god, he was 17 and the girl 13, not ideal of course, but I could barely believe how the social worker had contrived to label this as child sexual abuse and the whole immorality issue and how this might affect his son. I’m not surprised the bloke got angry and accused them of “throwing this back in his face” and quite how she came to the conclusion that he was a risk to “vulnerable young women” is unfathomable.
The other great mistake was all the stuff about the EDL. I’m sure many of us look upon this group with contempt BUT it is a democratic society and as the Judge pointed out there was no link between the father’s involvement in the group with “likely significant harm” to the child. It seems the mother decided to have a “walk on part” by insisting to the social workers that the father was still very much a part of the organisation, although he was denying this was the case. How could the social worker not question the motives of the mother in making these claims? And whether he was or wasn’t still a member of the organisation is neither here nor there, as the Judge pointed out.
What the judge got wrong
It wasn’t clear whether the father knew about the mother’s sexual offences before or after she became pregnant with A. It was difficult to prove one way or other I know, but there was no mention of the mother’s account of this issue – did they not bother to discuss this with her, or did she back up the father and so they decided against including it in the assessment. However the Judge decided that the father was being truthful and didn’t know about the sexual offences until the Court hearing. He didn’t say on what basis he made this decision. Is it not for him (or any other Judge) to make it clear in their Judgement the reasons for their decisions about the truthfulness (or otherwise) of witnesses?
I was also concerned about the fact that the father was on his 3rd relationship in a relatively short space of time, demonstrating that he was unable to sustain lasting relationships, which would in fact cause emotional harm to a young child, especially as based on past experience, this young child was likely to have a series of “step-mothers” and so no continuity of care. Maybe the Judge would have discarded this too, as failing to prove significant harm.
The issue of the conflict between father and his 1st partner H and the reasons for the separation, and the allegations about bruising to the children whilst in his care, should have been thoroughly investigated and fully outlined in the assessment. Maybe it was, as I haven’t seen the full report obviously, and I know there was some reference to comments made by a CAFCASS social worker but it all appeared to be inconclusive and the Judge threw it out again as failing to prove likely significant harm, which indeed it did, but I think it was a serious omission by the social worker..
The issue of the father’s relationship with J I found very worrying. There seems to be no doubt that the father deliberately failed to mention that he was in a relationship with J and the report did evidence the fact that this was the case as they had evidence that the pair had made a joint housing application. I don’t believe the father didn’t realise he should have mentioned his relationship with J in the assessment. Clearly he was keeping it quiet in the knowledge that if the LA discovered J’s child had been removed from her care it would significantly weaken his case, which indeed it should have in my opinion. His parents were complicit in this omission too. I think this issue (probably above anything else) demonstrates that the father is unable or unwilling to put the needs of the child before his own needs, in his choice to form a relationship with J, knowing about her child being removed from her care. He was happy for her to become a substitute mother to his own son.
I am aware that the father later stated that his relationship with J had ended and I was astonished to read that the Judge stated quite categorically that the father said the relationship had ended and “I believe him………..” I DON’T – not for a single minute! Again there was nothing about what had led him to believe the father on this important issue.
The thing is Judges have absolutely no idea of how the parents caught up in care proceedings live their lives (I don’t want to sound judgemental) but am aiming for realism. I know it would be difficult for the social workers to prove that they were no longer in a relationship, but not beyond the realms of possibility. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the father returning to his relationship with the mother either, or allowing her to have unsupervised contact with her son.
I realise I couldn’t prove this in any way shape or form, but I think it is a huge problem, that Judges and lawyers can have no idea of the mismatch between their own lives and those of the parents who are opposing the LA’s application in care proceedings. In my experience most of these parents live a chaotic lifestyle, often engaging in “serial monogamy” often characterised by domestic violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. think that Judges and lawyers can have absolutely no understanding of the way in which the parents for whom they act, and are caught up in care proceedings, actually live their lives. I make this assertion not as a criticism but an observation.
I shared the social worker’s concerns about the conflict between the father and his parents, particularly his step-father and how the police had been involved on at least one occasion. Again I was astonished by the Judge’s comments that he had observed the father’s mother and step-father in court and had formed the view that there was a mutually supportive relationship between them! (or something similar) How naïve is that?? He has come to this conclusion simply by observation! They are hardly likely to become involved in conflict in the court arena are they!
What was really in the child’s best interests?
I was pleased that the Judge stressed that the newly qualified social worker should never have worked on such a complex case, and that the failure to evidence “likely significant harm” should have been picked up by the TM and/or the LA lawyer. It’s not surprising that the LA lawyer (unless it was outsourced in this case) gave up on most of the issues put forward by the social worker in her assessment. Too late was the cry. Maybe the LA are short of competent lawyers too? The Judge also commented that Senior Managers should be held to account and I absolutely agree. However he should also have cognisance of the fact that Children’s Services are buckling under the weight of having to make massive savings in their budgets, imposed by the Tories. And I can guess where he put his cross on polling day!
The CG also appeared to be “hapless” and contradicted herself in her written and oral evidence. However I believe that guardians are now inundated with work in the same way as LA social workers. I will return to this issue later in these notes.
The real issue here though is that this little boy in my view should have been placed for adoption to give him the permanence and stability that he deserves. He will almost certainly receive sub-optimal care with his father and frequent changes in substitute mothers.
The pity is that this case (and presumably so many others like it) was not handled by an experienced and competent social worker who understood the need to produce evidence to back up their case, rather than going off at a tangent on all sorts of irrelevant issues. BUT I note the Judges believe that sub-optimal care is to be accepted for some children, rather than “good enough” parenting. I wonder how deep the murky waters of sub-optimal care need to be before it is deemed as “significant harm.”
What’s going wrong in social work practice?
There has always been a marked inability for some social workers to actually analyse a situation
Lack of knowledge
I believe that many social workers have a lack of knowledge on the following issues:
- Child development
- The needs of the child at different ages and stages of childhood
- The crucial importance of the very early years of life.
- Attachment theory
- The importance of observation of parent and child interaction
- The ability to analyse this interaction and other relevant issues
- The way in which ill treatment of a child can have an adverse effect on him throughout the lifespan
- The child’s sense of time
- The possibility of FAS in babies whose mothers abuse alcohol in pregnancy
- The adverse effect on children witnessing sustained domestic violence
- Sexualised behaviour in children
- Frozen awareness/watchfulness in babies and children.
Whether these sorts of social work skills are taught on the new degree courses, I don’t know, but I somehow doubt it. Moreover I think there is no likelihood that these skills will be learned in practice, given the lamentable lack of experienced workers with the time to coach newly qualified workers, allied to the overwhelming volume of work for social workers and managers alike.
Additionally I think that social workers became gradually de-skilled as it became custom and practice in care proceedings for birthparents to be assessed by a psychologist and there was an over reliance on his/her assessment. There has always been a marked inability for some social workers to actually analyse a situation. Assessments typically contain a great deal of factual information about a family, a lengthy description of the sequence of events, with dates when meetings/discussions dutifully recorded, but a LACK of analysis as to what all this really means.
As far as care proceedings are concerned, obviously social workers need to understand the importance of evidence based assessments and the need to prove significant harm. Allied to this I think they need to have the courage of their convictions and “fight the child’s corner” with more spirit and determination in their assessments. It isn’t enough to keep talking about the “best interests of the child” – it needs to be spelled out exactly what the child needs, what are those best interests, and what are the consequences of the child’s needs not being met. But this can’t be done without a working knowledge of the issues I outlined above.
Lack of confidence
Another issue is lack of confidence in the court arena. I have rarely met a social worker (or Team Manager or Middle Manager) who is confident in this setting. Indeed I would go so far as to say most social workers are intimidated by the process and this causes them a great deal of stress.
I’m sure that this lack of confidence is observable when they are giving evidence, especially in cross examination. I may be doing social workers a dis-service here but somehow I think not. I think they “undersell” themselves – they are the ones who know the family and the child/ren at the centre of the proceedings and will have seen at first-hand how the children are ill-treated, spent hours and hours with the family in their home surroundings and been involved in numerous meetings about the family, and the ones who have had disturbed sleep worrying over their cases, especially when newly qualified. Lawyers don’t have the same kind of understanding about child care, nor would it be expected that they would have, but it is for social workers to recognise this and not be intimidated by lawyers/barristers acting on behalf of their clients.
Where barristers are instructed for the birthparents in care proceedings, I think there are added difficulties, as I believe there is a significant “mismatch” between the ability of the average social worker and the experienced and competent barrister who is extremely confident in the court setting. Social workers may complete many years of practice and have very little experience of being involved in care proceedings, and maybe none at all, hence the court arena is a very unfamiliar place to them. There are publications to assist social workers when giving evidence in the Family Courts, but certainly there was no formal training for social workers on this important issue during the time that I worked for a LA Children’s Services Department.
Why is it ok to leave some children in sub-optimal care?
Munby in his Judgement on the case commented “there’s more than a whiff of give a dog a bad name here……..”
In my view this acceptance that many children will receive sub-optimal care has “more than a whiff of – well they’re the children of the lower working classes so they’re never going to make much of their lives…………”
Possibly unfair of me – I don’t know.
BUT I think that we should be aiming for good-enough parenting.
I did wonder if the Judge had made his decision for the child to be brought up by his father as a sort of punishment to the LA for their failures in proving significant harm. Possibly unfair – I don’t know.
There’s something I find very distasteful about this notion of sub-optimal care. Why SHOULD these children not be cared for in a stable home where their needs are met – with “good enough” parenting?
If they are left in sub-optimal care they will struggle in school, they will almost certainly have behavioural and emotional difficulties, and this prevents learning at even a basic level. They may well be assessed as having special educational needs, but this simply means they might have a Teaching Assistant to help them for an hour or so each day. They will be lost in the class of 30 children.
In 1973 Peter Wedge and Hilary Prosser wrote “Born to Fail” – a sociological study of the way in which children born into a deprived background were indeed “Born to Fail”
Over 40 years on and little has changed.