Student social worker: “I felt almost like ‘the enemy’”
A social work student shares her difficult experiences in a court room and describes being at odds with her personal ideology
by Ricki Steed*
The court arena is quite an alien concept to me. At present it feels very distant from my ideological ideas about social work. I have found this part of my practice extremely difficult because, in an ideal world, I’d like to think social workers do everything they can to allow children to remain with families.
However, as I have learnt, this cannot always be the case. Sometimes parents and carers cannot sustain changes that make a child’s life ‘good enough’ for them to achieve positive outcomes. I have observed some interesting cases that have allowed me to reflect on the practice within a legal environment.
I was surprised about the large amount of paperwork and evidence that needs to be collated before it can even be considered that there are grounds for removal. I always felt that significant harm would be so clear and identifiable for the reasons why a child should be removed, however I have seen that it can be hard to witness.
Sometimes social workers may have been told that parents have reconciled relationships, or drug dealers have been seen in the home, or the child has been exposed to persons posing a risk, however the evidence to demonstrate the risks to the child is not always valid or appropriate to evidence a court report.
I have watched my colleagues be very upset in these circumstances as a single case’s paperwork can take up an entire week, and there is still no guarantee that the children on their caseloads will be protected from further significant harm if there are no grounds for removal.
I have also noted that the relationship between social workers and the parents they have worked closely with for weeks is exceptionally distanced from the normality of child protection visits when in the court arena.
One case I shadowed in court was between a social worker who had a good relationship with parents, however when I saw them in court it was very different. There was no eye contact and neither parent or social worker spoke to each other. I felt almost like ‘the enemy’.
Obviously when you are within the court arena it is very unpleasant for parents, especially if the local authority has issued proceedings for removal. The environment almost sterilises the feelings and emotions that have been displayed vividly in home visits, case conferences and core groups to a quiet professional silence.
This allowed me to identify the importance of engaging with parents during this process and ensuring they understand what is expected of them, and what the local authority is requesting. Many of the parents that I have witnessed who have been upset and angry did not feel that they had been fully informed of what was expected of them or what would happen to their child.
The most remarkable concept I have identified within the court arena is the conflicting aims and ethos of child protection and legal representation during proceedings. Social workers work within the confines of the 1989 Children Act and Working Together guidance which makes child protection a shared responsibility.
I have found it beyond belief that there are solicitors that openly state that sex offenders, perpetrators of domestic abuse and chronic alcoholics pose no risk to children. I recognise that they have a job to do and that parents have rights to have their views represented, however I have found it hard to listen to when I know it increases the risk of children being returned to an environment that poses a risk to them.
I have heard solicitors outside the court room state that children who have disclosed abuse are ‘attention seeking’ or that father’s with drug addictions would be ‘better off dead’. It seems wrong to me that a profession that works alongside child protection could be so judgemental and disrespectful. I have been prewarned to be careful around solicitors as many of the people I work with state that comments they have made outside the court arena have been used against them in the court room.
I think there will always be a feeling of melancholy towards this aspect of social work as it is, for me, the last resort. I am aware that I will find this area of my practice difficult and challenging, but as I learn, become more experienced and improve my understanding of the legal processes, I will be more confident in what is expected of me and how I can shape children’s lives for the better.
*Name has been changed