Independent social workers not employed by local authorities can play a ‘vital’ role in complex family cases, senior judges have declared.
Independents often offer specialist skills and skills not available at local authorities, and they can help to prevent delays for children caught up in court proceedings and awaiting decisions on adoption and fostering, the judges believe. They can be especially useful in more intractable cases requiring thorough , independent analyses.
The judges interviewed said most of the independent social workers they had encountered were “were highly experienced practitioners with specialist skills, highly articulate, with effective and detailed knowledge of public law, child development and the needs of the court.”
Researchers from the University of Oxford interviewed 23 senior judges earlier this year, for a two stage assessment of the work of independent social workers.
The report, entitled “Modernisation of Care Proceedings and the Use and Value of Independent Social Work Expertise to Senior Judges”, concludes:
“Foremost for courts is that children, and just and fair proceedings, cannot wait. Immediate availability of high quality and timely assessments is imperative if timescales are to take precedence. Avenues must remain open to courts, guardians and local authorities to obtain the best evidence.”
In a joint statement, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), the Confederation of Independent Social Work Agencies (CISWA)and social work association Nagalro, urged the government to reconsider findings in the 2011 Family Justice Review. This characterised independent social workers as an unnecessary duplication of local authority work. Since then the Ministry of Justice has begun to actively limit their role in court proceedings.
The associations said:
“This research shows clearly the formidable expertise and experience that independent social workers bring to often highly complicated family court proceedings. It also emphasises that many observers have misunderstood and misrepresented the role of [independent social workers] over the past three years – these professionals don’t duplicate the work of local authorities or Cafcass; they provide high quality robust reports that help judges move forward quickly and ensure children spend as little time as necessary waiting for their futures to become clear.”
The statement added:
“At a time when family courts are facing unprecedented levels of care applications and increasingly limited resources, many [independent social workers] are being forced out of the field…We urge ministers to listen to the views of judges at the coalface and ensure courts have the benefit of this resource when they need it. If action is not taken then the very real risk is that the children at the centre of intractable court cases will be the ones who suffer the most.”