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Over-egging the pudding

I seem to be jumping the gun on the Christmassy theme, it still (just) being November and having done a Santa Claus is coming to town post yesterday and a pudding one today.

 

[Quick tangent – I am myself surprised to learn that in the phrase ‘over-egging the pudding’ one is not talking about the sort of eggs that have yolks and whites. It seemed immediately obvious that it was about putting too many eggs in the pudding, but no – it means in this sense the ancient Anglo-Saxon use of ‘egg’ as in excite. So it means not whipping something up too much. Also ‘pudding’ here means sausage, not a dessert. So literally “don’t over-excite the sausage”   – apologies to anyone who typed “over-excite the sausage” into Google – this really isn’t the sort of site you were after. Just move on.   The metaphor works much better as ‘don’t put too many eggs into your pudding mixture’ than ‘don’t over-excite the sausage’  *]

 

Anyway, this case is about social workers over-egging the pudding when giving their evidence and presenting their arguments.

 

This is a County Court case (feel free to read that as being “Family Court sitting in a building which is called a County Court” if you are in the Ministry of Justice ) so it is not precedent, but it contains some important lessons and it is well worth a read.

 

Sanchia Berg of the BBC has written a good piece on it here http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-humber-30227974

 

 

The case is North East Lincolnshire v G and L 2014

 

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWCC/Fam/2014/B77.html

 

It was a case involving a three year old child called J. His mother had been unable to care for him due to substance misuse problems and she sadly died within the course of the proceedings. The two options that came before the Court were placement with grandparents, or adoption.

 

The Local Authority and the Guardian were recommending adoption and considered that the grandparents could not meet the child’s needs. It was said that the grandparents had had a history of alcohol misuse and domestic violence.

 

The Judge disagreed, but more than that, criticised the Local Authority witnesses for taking a biased approach and not being fair.

 

 

I heard evidence over two days. I heard in particular from Neil Swaby who had been the social worker for a substantial period, and also from Rachel Olley. During the course of that evidence the local authority’s case was severely undermined. Neil Swaby seemed very reluctant to accept that anything positive could be said about either set of grandparents. When he was referred to positive things said in the papers about them, he would say things like, “Well, I suppose you could say that”. He was very begrudging indeed in his evidence and I had the clear impression that he was, for whatever reason, whether it was his own inclination or instructions from above, that he was intent on saying only things which supported the local authority’s case and was very reluctant to make any concessions which would undermine that case.

 

           I then heard evidence from Rachel Olley whose evidence was totally discredited in my view. She sought to make it a substantial plank of her evidence that J was a child who had real behavioural problems, and had had them throughout his placement with foster carers. That, unfortunately, conflicted very strongly with not only what she had said in her own statement but what was said in the adoption social worker’s statement. Again I had the very strong impression that the local authority witnesses were intent on playing up any factors which were unfavourable to the grandparents and playing down any factors which might be favourable. In those circumstances I found it very difficult to give any weight at all to their evidence.

 

 

From time to time, I provide social workers with training, and a key part of that training is letting them know that a major thing that the Court is looking for is fairness. The power of the State is substantial and it is essential that when the State is making decisions and recommendations that can have such a devastating effect on people that they are being fair. That means giving credit for things that parents do well, seeing the positives, looking for the positives – it means saying sorry when the State have made a mistake or got something wrong, and it means not cherry picking in your evidence so that you focus entirely on the bad points and ignore the good points.

 

Things like this :-

 

When he was referred to positive things said in the papers about them, he would say things like, “Well, I suppose you could say that”

 

Can only persuade a Court that the worker is not fair and reasonable.

 

{I don’t mean in this piece to have a go at the individual workers concerned – firstly, anyone can have a bad day or a bad case, and secondly, I think the mistakes that these workers made are sadly not unique to them and are symptomatic of a culture of defensive practice and a preoccupation with ‘winning’ and ‘child rescue’. What these two workers did is not unique – it is rare for a Judge to nail someone for it so vividly and name them, but it does happen. Yes, a social worker has to present their professional opinion, yes they have to make a decision, yes sometimes that decision will be very painful for the family – but within all of that, the social worker should still be alive to the other side of the argument – to see how else it could be looked at, to acknowledge the real positives that the family have to offer}.

 

The Judge did say that he had rarely encountered this sort of behaviour in evidence from social workers, but that it made it very difficult if not impossible to rely on their evidence

 

Having heard the evidence of Neil Swaby and Rachel Olley I took the view, as I have already indicated, that the local authority’s case was wholly undermined. Their concerns appeared to be grossly overstated in order to try and achieve their ends. I have never, in over ten years of hearing care cases taken the view, as I did in this case, that the local authority’s witnesses were visibly biased in their attempts to support the local authority’s case. It is very unfortunate and I hope I shall never see that again.

 

 

 

The Judge looked at the particular criticisms of the grandparents, and set those into context. (The Judge doesn’t quote Hedley J’s masterful analysis in Re L, but the spirit of it is clear to see)

 

So far as Mr. and Mrs. C are concerned, may I say, I deplore any form of domestic violence and I deplore parents who care for children when they are significantly under the influence of drink. But so far as Mr. and Mrs. C are concerned there is no evidence that I am aware of that any domestic violence between them or any drinking has had an adverse effect on any children who were in their care at the time when it took place. The reality is that in this country there must be tens of thousands of children who are cared for in homes where there is a degree of domestic violence (now very widely defined) and where parents on occasion drink more than they should, I am not condoning that for a moment, but the Courts are not in the business of social engineering. The courts are not in the business of providing children with perfect homes. If we took into care and placed for adoption every child whose parents had had a domestic spat and every child whose parents on occasion had drunk too much then the care system would be overwhelmed and there would not be enough adoptive parents. So we have to have a degree of realism about prospective carers who come before the Courts

 

 

There was a new social worker brought into the case, a Mr Nelson. The Judge was critical of one portion of Mr Nelson’s evidence – and this will no doubt strike a chord with anyone who does children cases regularly – it is a hint that things are probably untoward but that we simply don’t know yet to what extent – a technique that is really easy to assert but because it is so nebulous and flimsy really difficult to analyse.

 

Dealing with Mr. Nelson’s report I find it is significant that Mr. Nelson seems to try to revive at least one aspect of the local authority’s case which had been discredited. For example, in relation to I who from the papers I had read, appears, despite his problems, to be a nice lad, Mr. Nelson sets out the history of the problems that I has had and concludes in paragraph 3.5 by saying, “At the time of writing this report I’s problematic behaviour is not known”. There is the clear implication in that sentence that there must be some problematic behaviour from I but Mr. Nelson does not know what it is. That smacks to me of the same bias that I regrettably have to say I saw from Neil Swaby and Rachel Olley

 

 

Another criticism of the grandparents was that if J were placed with them, he would not have his own bedroom and would need to share a room – what the Judge says here is telling

 

 

Mr. Nelson also raises issues which it seems to me are not serious issues. For example he raises an issue about the sleeping arrangements. Now, I accept, of course, that in an ideal world each child would have his own – his or her own bedroom and certainly you would not have children of different sexes sharing at least beyond a certain age. But we live in fact in a world where probably the majority of families all sleep in the same bedroom and so it cannot be said that the fact that a child may have to share a room is a significant problem

 

 

The case is not decisive of anything other than the result for the individual family and individual child, but it does raise some wider issues about the importance of being fair, the importance of not setting the bar too high for family members and the importance of being realistic about your expectations and seeing things in the round.

 

 

Have a good weekend everyone and don’t over-excite any sausages.

 

 

*[As with any Etymology, you have to take these explanations with a pinch of salt.  And oh God, looking at the eytomological explanation of “take it with a pinch of salt” opens up a whole new can of worms… and so the long day wears on]

Hippocratic Oath and the Brownie Promise

The Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges (who once described the Falklands conflict as “like two bald-headed men fighting over a comb”) once observed that despite the Koran being set entirely in the Middle East, there is not one reference to a camel within its pages.

 In a similar vein, the Children Act 1989, which governs what we do when conducting care proceedings, makes no reference to social workers at all (and the much bandied about word ‘cooperation’ appears only once, in section 27, which relates solely to two Local Authorities co-operating with one another).

 In large part of course, that’s because the Children Act addresses itself to Local Authorities, and puts the duties and powers on them as a corporate and administrative body, and occasionally speaks of ‘officers of the Local Authority’

 And of course, social workers have not only to answer to the duties and obligations that fall on the Local Authority under the Children Act 1989 but also to their terms of employment, their line manager and their professional code of conduct. They have very firm guidance on Best Practice – there are reams and reams of guidance and strictures and stipulations they have to follow. And the profession is much more introspective and committed to doing the job well than the media would ever give them credit for.

 But it did get me musing on whether one could import something like the Hippocratic Oath (or the Brownie Promise) into social work  – one fairly short, pithy and clear statement of what society expects of a social worker and the code by which they should live.

 [I did not realise until I began looking at this, that around 50% of UK doctors don’t actually ever swear the Hippocratic Oath – which is the common name for what is actually the Declaration of Geneva 1948 . Looking at its terms, I sort of wonder what Doctor would have an issue in swearing it, other than Harold Shipman. And weirdly the major omission in this from the Hippocratic Oath was that under that, the doctors also swore to refrain from seducing their patients or members of the patients household during visits…

 

AT THE TIME OF BEING ADMITTED AS A MEMBER OF THE MEDICAL PROFESSION:

  • I  SOLEMNLY PLEDGE to consecrate my life to the service of humanity;
  • I  WILL GIVE to my teachers the respect and gratitude that is their due;
  • I WILL PRACTICE my profession with conscience and dignity;
  • THE HEALTH OF MY PATIENT will be my first consideration;
  • I WILL RESPECT the secrets that are confided in me, even after the patient has died;
  • I WILL MAINTAIN by all the means in my power, the honour and the noble traditions of the medical profession;
  • MY COLLEAGUES will be my sisters and brothers;
  • I WILL NOT PERMIT considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, social standing or any other factor to intervene between my duty and my patient;
  • I WILL MAINTAIN the utmost respect for human life;
  • I WILL NOT USE my medical knowledge to violate human rights and civil liberties, even under threat;
  • I MAKE THESE PROMISES solemnly, freely and upon my honour. ]

 

 

Also, in looking at this, I see that some social workers have of their own accord devised a similar Hippocratic Oath for social workers and signed up to it themselves.  A quick google search will turn some up. They are, for my tastes, a bit long and wishy-washy   (and frankly, do parents and children care that “My colleagues will be my sisters and brothers” ? ), though I admire the spirit of them.

 So, if you were writing, from scratch, a Hippocratic Oath for social workers, with what you wanted the professions ideals to be, what would you have in it?

 I will pre-empt some of the responses that I might get  (ha ha, the Oath should be “I promise to bully, intimidate, lie, cheat and deceive, and be a jackbooted nazi wherever possible” )    – let’s look at what we would want the ideals of the profession to be, and to have something fairly short and simple that would allow the public to know what was expected of social workers.

 For my part, I think a starting point would be  “I will always be honest and open with families, and my starting point will be to keep families together if I can”

 I would also want  “I will respect the people I am working with, and respect that I am intruding in their life and may have to say things that are hard to hear. Where they have problems, my starting point will be to try to help them.”

 And “I will listen to the child and their welfare will be my paramount concern, and I will always remember that where it is safe to do so, the best place for them is with their family”

 Would that be a decent start?

Or, in even snappier form  “A social worker should Be nice, be truthful, be fair, be patient,  be understanding, be sympathetic, be alert, be there”

 

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