A recent case where a mother and her children were wrongfully separated by a local authority, raises ongoing and very serious concerns about professional conduct inside the child protection sector.

In this case the mother was incorrectly accused of filming and taking part in a video which showed a woman abusing a child. Whilst the woman in the video was later found not to be the mother, and the child not the daughter, police did not share these facts with the local authority until care proceedings took place in November. As a result of the non disclosure, the children were placed in care and spent 10 months in a fostering placement before care proceedings began.

The implication from the article in Community Care is that the police appear to have been embarrassed by the error, and so instead of admitting the individuals in the video were not the mother and child in question, decided not to share this information until perhaps forced to do so by court disclosure rules.

And there’s more. The local authority social work team handed this brief to an inexperienced social worker who was not given proper support or supervision during her handling of the case. During an interview with the daughter, the social worker showed the girl a pixelated image of the girl in the video and asked if it was her, despite knowing it was not, and also told the girl that the photo had come from a family album.

The local authority’s lawyer and a manager then doctored the social worker’s final parenting assessment in such a way as to implicate the mother.

And although the judge residing over the case concluded that the mother’s and the children’s human rights had been breached and then went on to fine the local authority and the police £20,000 for the conduct which resulted in those breaches, Justice Cobb still ruled that no negligence, or professional misconduct had occurred.

Whilst concealing evidence and conducting poor quality interviews which feature deception and ethical malpractice continue to dominate the worst child welfare cases, we are most concerned by the editing of child protection documents, especially by individuals who have not produced them, as happened here. The parenting assessment edits in this case were clearly made to influence the judge’s opinion and bring about an outcome which would have covered up police and local authority error, and yet amending documents in child protection cases is still treated far less seriously than it should be.

At Researching Reform we would like to see proper processes put into place for any proposed edits or amendments in child protection documents, and this would include ensuring that errors once spotted, whether by professionals or families, are corrected through a thorough and transparent document production policy. It is an area we are passionate about and believe needs looking into.

What a document production policy might look like:

  • Child welfare professionals must produce documents in line with best practice guidelines whilst adhering to law and local authority policy
  • Where the author of a document or report wishes to make edits after producing the document, he or she must file a form with the local authority, preferably through an online database, which is numbered and accessible to all parties to a case entitled to see this document
  • If evidence is required to confirm the authenticity of any amendments outlining facts which are not immediately obvious, this must also be submitted with the form
  • The form must then be reviewed by a team manager or judge, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the edits. The reviewing party may also request further evidence or information before approving the edit/s
  • If the edits are approved, this must be evidenced on the form, so that a timeline of actions is recorded, preferably through an online system which logs and saves all data for every case, including who approved the edits
  • If the edits are not approved, reasons on the form must be given as to why
  • Where a professional who has not produced the document which is submitted for editing wishes to make an edit, that professional must also seek permission to edit that document via a form, as above.
  • All edits to a document must be shown to the relevant parties including individuals to whom the edits refer, so that they may raise any objections within a prescribed time frame
  • Families who want to address factual errors within such documents, whether they are found in the edits or the original draft of the document, should also be able to do so via a form, with appropriate evidence where required
  • Anyone found to have altered a document without permission should face being struck off and/or subject to criminal sanctions.

At first glance this looks like a lengthy and potentially costly exercise, but it is not. With the right software, which would be a one-off cost, and relevant use of online technology, a recording system and the forms to go with it would offer a court the ability to have the latest and most accurate documents before it. This would save the court an enormous amount of time and ensure that better decisions are made for families. Significantly, it would also reduce the number of appeals the court currently has to process, which often come about due to factual error, as this case shows. It would also deter professionals from behaving unethically.

So what do you think? Is greater transparency in how the system produces its documents the fastest way to a better, more efficient Family Court?