Thank you to Shaun O’Connell at Southern Family Aid for alerting us to this very interesting piece by Suesspsiciousminds, which aims to offer a practical approach for families working with local authorities in relation to child proceedings.

The piece and indeed the blog is written, presumably by a lady called Sue, who works as a lawyer for a local authority and in this post she attempts to address some of the imbalances she perceives inside the system in relation to the way families view social workers and lawyers who act on behalf of the local authority.

It’s a fascinating piece, because it highlights the way in which the culture inside a system can blinker people to the realities and nuances of everyday practice and in turn can make it very difficult for professionals and parents to communicate. This piece is well-meaning – the author in question is trying very hard to explain that not all lawyers and social workers who act for local authorities are unreasonable or unwilling to support families and is very sympathetic to parents who have children removed from their care, however it misses its target by a mile, for reasons which we hope will become clearer, below.

The overall problem with this well-meaning blog post is its sweeping generalisations. People don’t generally trust broad generalising and in a hugely sensitive political environment, it can be terribly unhelpful. The first paragraph which demands scrutiny reads;

“[Removing a child is] certainly not done to spite the parent, or for money, or to meet targets, or any of the other conspiracy theories; ultimately it is because a professional who is responsible in law for keeping that child safe reaches a point where they no longer feel that they can keep the child safe at home.”

For anyone who has read case-law, case files or worked on family law cases, the above sentiments will set alarm bells ringing, because, not every decision to remove a child is made with such clean simplicity and we have recorded cases which show clearly that sometimes, social workers and lawyers ignore the rules and regulations in order to push for outcomes which they ‘feel’ should come about. And sometimes, those feelings are misguided.

The issue surrounding targets has also been widely discussed and by and large targets have been removed as they appear to create the wrong kind of incentive, which in turn can lead to children being wrongly removed from their parents. In a system where pressure is high, both externally and from the top down, targets can become the elephant in the room for junior social workers who wish to keep their jobs.

Another issue we have with this post is its earnest and consistent use of the word ‘honestly’ which always renders the content a little awkward and is unlikely to inspire confidence and still with the sweeping and rather unhelpful generalisations, we have this thought, that “the success rates of all of those people who nod at Christopher Brooker’s columns and tell other parents how to fight the system is really very poor, honestly.” 

It rather begs the question: has this author spoken with ‘all of those people’? Or even some of them? Or perhaps just one?

And then we hit a rather more sticky wicket, in the form of the author’s practical tips to ensuring, as far as is humanly possible, that your child is not taken from you, wherever appropriate. The first piece of advice, on how to communicate with your social worker, is as follows:

Don’t make it hard to be liked.   Being likeable doesn’t mean being a doormat, but being likeable is something you shouldn’t underestimate. It’s like chemistry”.

This is perhaps one of the most important cultural confusions in the system. The family justice system is not a popularity contest. Parents should not have to put on a brave face and contend with pleasing their social worker during what is arguably one of the most awful moments in any parent’s life. And whilst violence is never acceptable, parents should not have to feel that they are subordinates in a system which should essentially be offering them support.

The next generalisation is a little disconcerting and it reads, “All care proceedings are about giving something up. Whether it is giving up drugs, alcohol, a relationship with someone violent, smacking the children, not doing housework, sleeping till two pm, you’re going to have to give up something”. 

Whilst we have no doubt that this may apply to some parents going through the system, and in fairness to the author, she is writing about her experience and what she has seen, this is not always the case. People make mistakes. Professionals make mistakes. Sometimes, it’s just about the system admitting it’s got it wrong and letting the parents go. But admissions like that come at a price. And the local authorities are often not prepared to pay it. If, as the author suggests, the system was always right, we would not be seeing the floodgates opening as they are now at the Local Government Ombudsman’s office, with large damages being awarded to parents who have been wrongly separated from their children. Mistakes happen. The system must be gracious when it makes them.

But by far the most confused sentiment expressed in this post though, is this one:

Nothing says “I’m a paranoid oddball who can’t be trusted” more than tape-recording every interaction you have.  It won’t be evidence anyway, and nobody will ever want to hear it. The only thing it does, is make everyone worry that you’re strange.

Social workers or local authority lawyers for that matter, should not be thinking that a parent is a paranoid oddball in the first place. That is the job of a designated psychiatrist, if one is indeed assigned to the parent or family unit. It is a classic example of how professionals inside the system sometimes feel as if they are the judge and jury of the families they survey and this is just not the case. Taking a recording of a meeting should never be viewed as a paranoid act – perhaps the parent is so overwhelmed at the time of the conference, that he or she simply wishes to be able to digest the information properly in a quiet space alone after the meeting. Or perhaps there have been misunderstandings and the parent simply wishes to make sure that they are heard. Or maybe the parent has heard from another parent that recording the meeting is essential, because little green men may appear and sing the national anthem at any time and that would be worth capturing on tape.

Either way, it shouldn’t matter what the reason is – recording a meeting does nothing more than preserve a perfect rendition of events. It is tamper proof and conspiracy theory proof. And if the social worker is well-trained and competent, the recording will be nothing more than a digital memory. Perceiving a request to record as eccentric or hostile, is plainly misguided and it’s about time we understood the importance of gaining the trust of family members. Without that trust, we cannot help them.

Our final point relates to the sentiment, that “no parent lawyer is ever, ever in the pocket of the Local Authority or doesn’t care about doing their best for you.”  In a perfect world, every lawyer would have a conscience and plenty of time to get everything just right. But this isn’t a perfect world. Lawyers are often overworked and to maximise profits for the firms they work for, find themselves working inordinately high volumes of cases for the turnover. And this in turn, means less and less time for the client. We have parents who tell us their lawyers never get back to them, or if they do, wait until the day before an important hearing and this often jeopardises important and relevant evidence which should have been admitted long before the eleventh hour.

This kind of work is tough and the system makes it very hard for everyone to do their best. But a little less judging on the part of the professionals who work inside the system and a little more listening, and we could, with time, unravel these sorts of basic misunderstandings and start to build bridges where we need them – from professional to parent.