Social workers in the UK are breaking the law as they spy on families through Facebook, The Times reports this morning. Social work professionals are also setting up fake social media accounts to spy on parents and children.
A study carried out by researchers at Lancaster University found that social workers were failing to adhere to the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). The Law allows government investigators including social workers to view a citizen’s social media accounts once, but thereafter requires the actor to get permission for repeat viewing or continued surveillance.
The Times explains that the social workers observed in the study did not seek out this permission. The researchers concluded that the behaviour showed an “apparent lack of awareness or conscious disregard of Ripa”.
Describing one of the recorded incidents from the research, The Times said:
“At one meeting, discussing a mother who was deemed a high risk to her baby, a social worker asked a colleague: “Do you spy on Facebook?”
The colleague answered: “Oh, yeah, I’m a big fan of Facebook stalking and [our manager] always comes in when I’m looking at it, she thinks I’m on Facebook all the time. I’ve got a fake Facebook account and I have to be very careful with the families that I don’t reveal something I’ve seen on Facebook.”
The Times reports that four months later the children were removed from the family and that the social worker involved had checked Facebook on the morning the children were taken to “gauge” how the mother was feeling.
The findings have concerned the researchers who have identified legal concerns through the study: social workers are clearly breaking the law to spy on families.
The practice of spying on families through social media has been around for at least two years and may be aggravated by judges who are unfamiliar with legislation like RIPA. In 2017 this site wrote about a judge who gave social workers the green light to search for families through Facebook.
Justice Holman took the view that it was appropriate for child welfare professionals to use the social media platform to track down missing parents – but did not offer any information about RIPA or the need to contact police in the first instance, who are tasked with locating missing persons. Social workers do not have a duty in law to track missing members of the public.
Researching Reform also shared research from America which offered alarming insight into how social workers were using the internet to spy on families with no regard for the law. The report concluded that while social workers found the internet useful for work, they were unclear about how it should be used in a child welfare setting.
Other concerning observations from the report show a real and urgent need to address the profession’s behaviour around investigating families:
- Over half of the workers (58%) reported that searching for a client on Facebook out of curiosity was acceptable in some situations and 43% reported that they had done this.
- Over half of workers (53%) stated that it was acceptable in some situations to search for a client on Facebook that the agency would like to locate, such as a missing parent and about half (49%) had done this.
- 61% of the child welfare workers stated that it was acceptable in some situations to search for a client on a site like Facebook when the information might give insight into client risk factors and close to half (46%) had done this.
- About 65% of the child welfare workers reported that it was acceptable in some situations to search for a client on a site like Facebook when conducting a child welfare investigation or assessment and about a third had done this.
After Researching Reform called on the then President of the Family Division Sir James Munby to issue guidelines for social workers in the UK, guidance was published in September 2017 by the social care ombudsman. The guidance is a step in the right direction but remains incomplete.
Exactly one year later in 2018, online magazine Community Care published a survey asking social workers if they thought spying on families through social media platforms was legal. The outcome of the survey is not known.