More trust in social workers will make the family justice system better
The lack of trust between the courts and social workers is a significant challenge within care proceedings. Jordan Binedell argues that better working relationships between different parts of the family justice system are essential for improving outcomes for children.
Where children are judged to be at risk of significant harm within their family home, local authorities can apply to take a child into care, which will give them legal responsibility for the child. These ‘Care Proceedings’ are managed within the family justice system that includes the courts, local authorities, and Cafcass (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service). Given the high levels of children entering care, this is a system currently under significant strain.
In my work on a project to understand the impact of delays in care proceedings, I have had the privilege of speaking to individuals from across the family justice system. Hearing directly from so many people who are working to improve outcomes for children has been an enlightening experience. However, there was one issue that struck me: it did not feel like a system where professionals, particularly social workers, felt they were trusted.
The impact of low levels of trust
It was evident during my conversations that stakeholders across the family justice system recognised a lack of trust. Some social workers described negative impacts, including instances of communication breakdowns and adversarial dynamics that hinder the exchange of crucial information.
I heard how a lack of trust undermines the effectiveness of decision-making processes for families and impedes the system’s ability to make informed decisions in a timely manner. A key example of this was the excessive use of Independent Social Work assessments (an additional assessment conducted by a social worker who does not work for the local authority). While there are cases where another assessment is required to ensure fair process and the safety of the child, there were other times where initial assessments, based on evidence-based practice and direct engagement with the family, should have been sufficient.
In these ways, lack of trust in social workers contributes to delays. This is not a new development – a “deep-rooted distrust” between local authorities and the courts system was identified as a contributing factor of care proceeding delays back in 2011 by a Family Justice Review report.
A lack of trust in social workers is not only contributing to care proceeding delays but also leaving social workers feeling undervalued and over-scrutinised by the family justice system. A number of those I spoke to felt that this is directly impacting morale and contributing to people leaving the profession at a time when local authorities are already struggling with workforce retention.
Given the existing state of relationships and their impact, how can trust be re-established?
Re-building trust will require effort from all partners to shift the culture across the family justice system. Whilst this will not be easy, there are ways in which partners can work together to improve understanding within the system and point the way to more effective collaboration.
Three examples of this are:
1. Court-specific training, where social workers are taken through ‘mock trials’ by the Designated Family Judge to build their confidence and help them understand how best to meet the judges' expectations.
2. Informal meetings between judges and local authority court teams. Court is often perceived as daunting, particularly for newly qualified social workers, so this helps those going to court feel more comfortable presenting their assessments. Additionally, it creates informal channels of communication so both parties can gain a deeper understanding of each other's perspectives.
3. A review of the use of additional Independent Social Work assessments. Those involved in care proceedings have fallen into a practice of requesting additional assessments, when often the information needed is covered by existing social worker assessments. The review process challenges this to asks whether additional assessment is really necessary.
To ensure the best outcome for children, the family justice system needs to operate in an effective, timely manner. Part of that means being more reflective of the fact that social workers are trained professionals who are working hard to improve children’s lives. Responsibility for improvement lies across the system and, through initiatives like the above, system partners must work together to build a more trusting culture and create confidence in its social workers.