Doubt cast on an increased role for social workers in family courts

WigsThe head of the Consortium of Expert Witnesses to the Family Courts has criticised plans to give social workers an increased role within family courts.

Speaking at a parliamentary forum on family law reform, psychiatrist Dr Judith Freedman stressed that social workers are not medically trained and so cannot give assessments on medical matters, the Solicitors Journal reports.

“Now I have nothing against the role of social workers, I wish that social workers were able to do the work better,” she said.

In a recent report, President of the Family Division Sir James Munby said:

“Social workers are experts. In just the same way, Cafcass officers are experts. What has gone wrong with the system is that we have at least two experts in every care case – a social worker and a guardian – and yet we have grown up with the culture of believing that they are not really experts and we therefore need experts with a capital E. Much of the time we do not.”

And in a much discussed report on reforms to the family law system published last summer, Lord Justice Ryder said expert witnesses from outside the judicial system take up much time in the family courts.

Referring to Cafcass head Anthony Douglas, Dr Freedman told the audience:

“I just hope that when the president, Lord Justice Ryder and Mr Douglas go to hospital to have an operation, they can look forward to being operated on by social workers.”.

Following legal aid restrictions, some courts have begun to turn all reports from expert witnesses Dr Freedman added.

“How can we go from expert witnesses are important to we need none at all?”

The Consortium of Expert Witnesses to the Family Courts is a group of 600 medical professionals who prepare reports and assessment for legal cases.

Photo by John Halbrook  via Flickr under a Creative Commons licence




Dana - July 17, 2013 at 4:15pm

That is just the point, we don’t need experts unless its medical. Social workers are not experts, nor are Carcass! They should both do their best to keep the child within the family. They have their own agenda to remove the child from the minute they set foot in court. That needs to change if this system is to really improve the lot of kids. Social workers are people with training in a particular field that gives a bias to frankly look down on families especially if they are at the lower economic scale. Its easy for a social worker to have someone’s life spread out on paper and pick holes in it. Frankly anyone could do it! You just need to look at it from a skewed angle to throw someone in a bad light. Its harder to assist that family but it would be cheaper in the long run.

Paul - July 17, 2013 at 6:21pm

Anyone has only to read police and social services reports in many cases and contrast those with the evidence of genuine, medically qualified child experts to see that the agencies often get things horribly wrong. When men are faced with allegations of child abuse by their ex-partners, much higher regard is paid to the evidence of a false accuser. An alienated child is then interviewed by unqualified investigators to back up the allegations which are then presented as “disclosures.”

That is a nightmare scenario for many a father. It takes a true, medically qualified expert to untangle and see through false allegations that the agencies themselves are only too willing to accept at face value. Far easier to arrest and deal with a male child abuser than confront a false accuser over emotional abuse of her alienated child.

Marilyn Stowe - July 17, 2013 at 6:47pm

Dear Paul
Thank you for your contributions which are valued but I won’t publish comments which are offensive of others. That is not because of who they are, it’s just that this blog welcomes comment that adds to the argument and not against those who make them.
Best wishes

Paul - July 17, 2013 at 8:11pm

I am really not sure what I wrote that would have been construed as offensive. Perhaps you would kindly elucidate, Marilyn. I certainly wouldn’t set out to offend anyone though clearly I have certain targets for criticism in mind which I try to attack with hyperbole and wit rather than abuse.

JamesB - July 18, 2013 at 8:04pm

I strongly disagree that cafcass are experts in this field.

Herald - July 18, 2013 at 10:20pm

Paul, what you write is just too true for the liking of some. Those who cause permanent and severe damage to children and families through negligence, malice and the desire to increase profits deserve to be named and shamed as the most vile of people.

Paul - July 19, 2013 at 10:30am

What I find most offensive and intolerable is the fact that some separated fathers possess bogus police PNC records including a record of arrest, purely because the agencies themselves failed to follow statutory procedures in child protection when following up allegations.

There’s a whole new body of law and statutory procedures that needs to be laid down so that innocent fathers are not disadvantaged in any way by false allegations. These laws must be imposed on chief constables and directors of children’s services. These people must be forced to destroy records of unnecessary arrests or false information about child abuse held on police computers.

Dewi Jones - September 20, 2013 at 10:48pm

Sloppy documentation is a problem. Two SWs interviewing a mother on her own, writing notes, typing notes that support the conclusion they have jumped to and then immediately destroying the hand-written notes, the record being submitted to court without further reference to the mother to check they have understood correctly what she was trying to say. Spelling the mother’s name differently throughout the initial statement, spelling the father’s name wrong, stating the mother had a certain medical condition when she did not (Another spelling error?), making accusations about the family based on no evidence, jumping to a conclusion and failing to alter it as evidence to the contrary comes in, then making slanderous statements about two different consultant psychiatrists who disagreed with the SW contention that the mother was a risk, saying one was “only able to go on what she (the mother) told him and the other one “would say that wouldn’t she, he is her boss(incorrect), she is not going to disagree with her boss is she, it would be like me disagreeing with my boss.”, stating that the mother had thought about infanticide when she only had passive suicidal thoughts (up to 25% of target population have passive suicidal ideation in any given year, chances of progressing to active suicidal ideation or suicide are extremely low (<1%)), admitting in court that the mother had not said that and it was her opinion based on the mothers passive suicidal ideation, even though the document stated the SW had clearly separated fact from opinion when she clearly had not, saying the mother had OCD and there was a risk she might wash the baby in bleach, (only one recorded case of that with tens of thousands with the disease) etc. The Judge did not refer the SWs to their professional body for gross professional mis-conduct but accepts their evidence!? Psychiatrists not called as only one day hearing. It was supposed to be longer but SWs solicitor had the dates vacated by writing to the judge saying she had written to the other parties and had their agreement when they had not written and did not have that agreement. Judge accepted her apology for a clerical error!? SWs conssitently failing to file on time so family cannot form an adequate response. Contact notes of the same contact but by two different contact workers have opposite opinions of the family but only one set filed with court etc.
There is a severe training need for SWs learn ethics/professionalism, risk assessment (probability theory, sensitivity, specificty, PPV, NPV, Baye's Theorem), how to control for self confirmation bias, etc.
What is the current requirement to study SW, 2xEs?
Judges also have training needs and need to discipline SWs and LAs and need to recognise incompetence and refer SWs to their professional bodies for appropriate action.
Judge Munby is right when he says that since Capital Punishment, Care Proceedings are the most onerous. Perhaqps the same level of rigour should be applied in both cases. Beyond reasonable doubt, no hearsay evidence, jury, family interviewed in presence of solicitor, on tape, statement signed by family?

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