Whisperings about secretive family courts and draconian social workers removing children from the glare of public accountability have long raised hackles and prompted morally panicked headlines.
Transparency is a generally accepted good, particularly when it comes to court proceedings, but there are growing concerns that a greater push towards it is putting the embattled social work profession under undue strain – with a knock-on effect on the vulnerable families with whom they work.
A report, published by Unison last week, shows 80 per cent of social workers polled would consider leaving the profession if they thought they would suffer as a result of being named in a family court judgment.
As it stands, a social worker shortage has led to increasingly unmanageable caseloads and a greater opportunity for children at risk to slip through the cracks.
A set of guidelines published last year clarified the need for greater transparency in the family courts, leading to a sharp rise in the numbers of judgments beings published.
One social worker found himself hounded by the press after being named. Reporters camped out on his doorstep and left him terrified to leave the house. But while the judge disagreed with his conclusions, there was no suggestion he had done anything wrong – making decisions to protect children from harm is a complicated matter of instinct and judgement, not a clear cut scientific process.
“These cases are rarely anything less than extremely complex and court proceedings are never entered into on a whim,” says assistant general secretary of the Social Workers Union, Lien Watts.
“I find it personally insulting, as a children’s social worker who has been involved in such proceedings, and on behalf of my many able and principled colleagues who do not take decisions to take such action lightly, that they extremely hard work they do can be reduced to a few sound bites that cannot possibly capture the complexities.”
This becomes particularly problematic when professionals are so fearful of being scapegoated that they avoid escalating concerns about a child. These fears aren’t necessarily unjustified when the internet is already awash with social work hate sites publishing details of where individuals work, the cars they drive and reasons they deserve to be targeted.
Watts is not opposed to social workers being named and accountable, but says the issue is whether they are the only people held accountable.
“[Decisions around a child’s welfare] are never one person’s decision. There are usually a number of agencies involved but it’s the social workers who are criticised and therefore suffer the knock-on effect,” she says.
Lucy Reed, a family court barrister, says where information can be published, it should be. “I understand why social workers are anxious as a profession but I think it is unlikely the publication of judgments will expose them to anything they wouldn’t otherwise experience,” she says.
But as Charlotte, a child protection social worker, points out: “If a judge doesn’t like the decision made by a local authority, it’s the frontline social worker in the firing line.”
She believes local authorities and even managers should be named, but not social workers. They might be scapegoated for decisions they did not agree with in the first place – it is the managers that make the final decision.
In Charlotte’s authority, social workers being “named and shamed” resulted in a crisis in confidence, with practitioners struggling to challenge decisions made the court room and the legal department became reluctant to say children’s cases met the threshold for intervention.
“It’s incredibly difficult when you’re trying to do right by a child and someone else says you’re acting in the best interests of the local authority,” she says. “You only get into this job because you want to act for the welfare of children –proceedings are soul-destroying and they can be career-destroying.”
Rachel Schraer is a journalist for Community Care. She tweets as @rachelschraer