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Little boxes and the ark of the covenant

As part of the continuing desire to standardise everything, and a belief that any problem can be solved if only there is enough written guidance, practice directions, policy frameworks and standard documents, there is a proposed model for the initial social work statement.

I am not sure why it is that there is a belief that one can collapse the diversity and detail of families into one standardised little-boxes pro-forma, as though all parents and children were Lego figures rather than individuals with hopes and fears, dreams and disappointments, struggles and triumphs.  If you have read any of the cases in my blog over the last two years, you will see that the Family Courts deal with surprising and intricate things, that people can end up in situations or predicaments that no person could anticpate and cater for in a standard document.  Structure, yes, guidance to avoid jargon and verbosity and sloppy attention to the difference between evidence and assertion – all good things. But don’t try to make a pro-forma that fits every case. It just isn’t do-able.

[I’m not entirely neutral on this point, I have to confess]

This one has been put together by the Association of Directors of Children’s Services.

I don’t want to be unkind.  (I should just end the blog there to be honest). Apologies if you, or your friend, or your cousin was one of those people. I’m afraid that I don’t like it. Others may differ from my opinion – I may just be one loud-mouthed jerk, after all. Don’t take it to heart.  Honestly, stop reading right now. There is a really nice you-tube thing of ducklings on a waterslide – go and find that, it will cheer your heart.

In a Solution-Focused-Therapy style, let’s try to say something nice  “What were you pleased with?”

Well, people have clearly worked very hard on it.

Not necessarily the right people, but people have obviously worked very hard on it.

This version is actually worse than the first version of it, which takes some doing. It is also worse than the standardised model laid out in the revised PLO. A sentence I never thought that I’d type – I prefer the version in the new PLO document.

It is packed full of everything that is worse about design by committee – it is little boxes galore, it is reductionist, it assumes that everyone who will be writing the document is a moron incapable of independent thought without being led by the nose to the next little box to complete. The process of reading it is offensive to your eyes. It doesn’t include a Welfare Checklist. (I mean, the Act gives everyone a specific tool for analysis, is it too much to ask that this tool would be a centrepiece of the evidence produced?) It makes the Core Assessment look gorgeous and inspirational (this is some feat)

My actual reaction to this, when I opened it up and read it was…. well, do you remember the bit at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the nazi’s open the ark and one of the chief bad guys has his face melt off whilst screaming? Sort of that.

It’s the sort of thing that when you read it, you wonder who it is supposed to help? The workers writing it? Clearly not. The parents reading it? No way. The Judges? I’d be amazed if any Judge would prefer this cumbersome little-box form (that at one point tries to encapsulate all of the issues and thought processes around contact into a six column table) to a considered narrative document.  So, other than the designers of whatever computer programme will standardise this onto every social work computer in England, who is it FOR?

I think, comparing it to Lucy Reed’s suggested pro-forma for social work assessment, which was intended to be a nasty satire – I think Lucy’s is more rigorous as a document.


This document, however, it at the moment still just a consultation (which means that it is inevitable unless people who will be writing them, reading them, trying to explain them to parents speak out and say how ghastly and unfit for purpose it is – OR of course if you disagree with me, you should tell them that too)

Consultation ends 26th March.

If you can’t manage a long and detailed response, just send them this link.


About suesspiciousminds

Law geek, local authority care hack, fascinated by words and quirky information; deeply committed to cheesecake and beer.

17 responses

  1. Not for the first time, I fear, you have missed the point. This document is not written in English, although it uses mostly English words and something vaguely resembling English syntax. It’s written in Bollocks, to degree standard, and if you want to practice in this field of law you need at least A-Level Bollocks.

    • It is a truly grim piece of work – I hadn’t even realised the worst aspect – it is supposed to be a statement, assessment, care plan and chronology all in one. It fails at being a good version of any of them.

      • Jack of all trades master of none comes to mind. Except in this instance the use of duct tape over craftsmanship is evident.

  2. I sympathise with both you and commentator Andrew because as practitioners (I am a mere client) you are likely to be lumbered with this rubbish. It is just a dreadful example of ill-thought out drafting. I will check back into Sir Martin Narey’s recent report to see if he wrote anything about how social workers need a proper education in order to write decent English and communicate properly. What worries me is that underlying the appalling drafting lies a lot of sloppy thinking and reliance on jargon and buzz words rather than real thought and analysis. To illustrate just how appalling this document is, compare it with the summaries drafted (at very short notice) by the Supreme Court when they put out press notices on judgements.

  3. I agree completely with all the comments above and I wonder if anyone could enlighten me as to how this creation links to the findings of the Munro Report into Child Protection Services which the Government claimed to have adopted. Munro in her three reports made extremely clear that she saw the ‘tick box’ culture of child protection social work as being a key problem which underpinned many of the ‘failing’ aspects of child protections services and strongly advocated a move towards more direct family work (Reclaiming Social Work model etc) where the social workers relationship with the family is prioritised. I imagine many of us working in child protection services saw this as a bit pie in the sky but at least it nodded towards not simplifying complex family situations so much as to make them meaningless and offered a reminder that having decent relationships with families is worthwhile and offers a better chance of children being helped to stay in families where possible.

    Munro also sets out in her report how current social work training does not include anywhere near enough emphasis on child development, attachment, assessment of parental areas of difficulty (eg substance misuse, domestic violence), risk assessment, analysis of the impact of ‘harm’ on each child (based on the child’s own particular needs), how to work directly with children and on top of that, Munro also stated that there is nowhere near enough training for social workers on how to ‘forensically analyse’ the evidence in their Court Reports.

    So…No experts allowed as the expertise is already in the Court, Social workers have been independently assessed as not having enough training in the very areas (coincidentally the key areas that experts such as Clinical psychologists are trained in to a high level) where they are now the only experts allowed by the Court to provide an assessment on, for example attachment, impact of parental difficulties on parenting capacity, child development (list goes on) and the above pro-forma couldn’t be more ‘tick box’ if it tried…

    I can understand this kind of short term, completely non-joined up thinking coming from this Government but I don’t understand the direction and attitude of the Family Justice system in all this at all – can any lawyers out there explain??

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  5. Ashamed to be British

    The bottom line is, that we need to go back to the social work we once had.
    Speaking from the view of a child who was under social services, I can happily report that my own social worker was the making of me, I believe this was because he was trusted to make his assessments and decide what was best, he didn’t have to run his decisions by a supervisor, line manager, manager and so on, he was employed to do a job, he was trusted to use his common sense and get on with what he was trained to do
    There are too many management decisions – these people don’t know you, they have never met you, they cannot allow a judgement to go unchallenged because they simply do not know why that particular social worker has built that particular case, nor do they care, complaints that are put in with proof from the victim is simply ignored.

    This system will never work until we go back to basics, every social worker should have children themselves, be over the age of 30, social work should be studied at University proper, then not allowed to be unleashed onto an unexpecting family until they have had at least two years in house training on the job.
    Sending in a 23 year old, childless, no experience in life let alone parenthood, slip of a girl, to decide what is best for a family they don’t know, don’t see 24 hours a day & deciding who they like the best is not going to work in the child’s favour

    So what else do they have apart from this ludicrous tick box A4 piece of paper to ‘work’ by? Forget the crap they come out with, it doesn’t work, that is proven fact, instead put into place some experience, some empathy and allow more groundwork with less management

    I also believe firmly that social workers should write up their own case load, so they can’t blame administrative error (a common theme)


    Keep the system we have and jail ANYONE who has been proven to lie to build a case

    Tick boxing someone’s entire life … pffft

    • I agree with almost everything you say, Ashamed to be British, but the skill base of the social work profession has become so impoverished by the introduction of bureaucratised practice that it will be extremely difficult to find the mature, skilled and knowledgeable social workers who could show there is another way and change things for the better. Incidentally, I was in my 40’s and a career practitioner when I became a children’s social worker in the 1990s.There were the same pressures then but more stability and support within teams. I do not have children of my own but am a step-mother – so please don’t rule out the child-free!

      • Ashamed to be British

        As a step mum, you are a mum, you have the knowledge of what it is to rush around all day, packing lunches, cleaning, cooking, appointments and so the list goes on, YOU would understand that a welfare check at 7 o’clock might find an exhausted parent who has just bathed and got the kids to bed, might possibly have a few pans in the sink, you would understand they’d get done after just having a cuppa, I’m afraid nowadays those pans are more than often used as a reason to remove children on the basis that the parent isn’t coping.
        True story

    • Not sure you can make having children a qualification for any job (except parenthood) – I remember some marvellous childless teachers.

      • Ashamedtobebritish

        It’s not the teachers who are making life changing decisions about these families, it’s jumped up power crazy teenagers who happen to carry the title billy liar/social worker

  6. I’m not sure what the document issued in the revised PLO was. Do you mean the original joint ADCS-Cafcass template?

    I agree with the comment above about the Munro recommendations. And all the research on how poor the ICS forms were. Forgotten already?

  7. Diane Jackson

    When I opened this the other night I wanted to weep and I do not see how anyone who is a social worker would not do the same; all values have been lost and any professionalism has disappeared.

    In the last few days there have been postings on the NAGALRO website about the lack of work being given to self employed children’s guardians, I stopped being one some time ago because I could not do work for an organisation that had lost the plot. Below is an extract of my posting on the issue yesterday, after I wrote it I felt very sad:

    “I think the writing was on the wall from the moment the CEO was appointed, SECs are ‘troublesome priests’ because we are not employed and therefore could not be ruled over in the way he has treated employed guardians. After having an excellent contract manager I had one who was a nincompoop i.e. neither intelligent nor competent and another who was a good skilled social worker who had become a automaton in order to survive in CAFCASS. I decided the only thing was to stop doing work for CAFCASS. Of course that was always the CEO’s plan to get rid of us but at least I could act with integrity.

    I don’t think there’s anything sinister in few responses, I think most people are feeling the way you do, finding other areas of work or deciding to stop. It is terribly sad something very special has been destroyed, the way social work in general is being destroyed by the bureaucrats. It’s a long way from Area 1 Westminster where I started my social work career.”

    Today on the same site a post informed that Jo Brand has written and will star in a comedy about life in a social services department, that’s fine I am sure she will do it really well not least because of her own psychiatric nursing background but also because her mother Joyce was a senior manager in social work departments. The news led me respond to the NAGALRO group attaching the following article from “The Independent” in 1997, written by Joyce Brand and in my view as valuable today as it was then:

    “The men who took the heart out of social work
    After 25 years I have been driven from my career by MBAs whose priority is management systems, not providing a service
    It is almost six months since I gave up, or more accurately, cravenly retreated from working in a local authority social services department. For 25 years, in London and in the country, I could say that despite the long hours, many unpaid, and diminishing resources, I had never failed to want to go into work. Now, however, I’ve reached the point where I think my daughter Jo Brand’s career of telling jokes about the state we’re in is of more use to people than my own had come to be.
    I have been privileged in my work to be with people in their pain and crisis and to share something of their success in survival as stronger individuals. I worked in a psychiatric hospital when our society still provided asylum and learnt there so much of the essence of human nature; I have specialised in working with families where there has been abuse of the children and have come to understand the price we pay for women’s oppression by stronger men; and I have ventured, albeit briefly, into the realms of senior management only to despair at the discarding of honour in favour of expediency.
    I finally, and sadly, abandoned social work when Shropshire joined London and the rest of the South-east in discarding genuine personal involvement with people needing help in favour of mechanistic rituals designed to protect the organisation. I am not alone – more than 80 workers in one local authority have taken early retirement this year.
    I had never before failed to maintain my optimism and enthusiasm despite the heart-aching task I had often to perform – what could move any woman more than to hear a young mother dying of cervical cancer describe what she wants for her children when she is no longer with them. I have heard the painful revelations of a small child whose body has been abused, and I have seen that pain shared and that child helped by the social worker.
    I know retired social workers who are surrogate grandparents to the children of the children they cared for more than 20 years ago. I have seen the foster parents who took into their hearts the two-year-old, developed only to the age of 10 months, and I have seen the special boy that he has become in the warmth of their family’s love. I have watched social workers harassed by barristers and who, in the interests of the child, hold their position against the onslaught of those indecently well-paid, heartless men. I have comforted the worker who had returned from discovering the little girl left for hours with tied arms outstretched to the sides of her cot.
    It was possible to bear the suffering I witnessed because I was blessed to work in the company of colleagues who were decent and humane and who gave unstintingly to the families with whom they worked. The vilification of social work by the tabloid press caused me no sleepless nights. I wanted no praise from the hang-and-flog-’em brigade who saw poverty as justice for the so-called feckless. And then I trusted that our managers shared our value system.
    In these workers is lodged the true decency of a welfare service, but underpinning them has to be an organisation that supports its workers. The first director of social services I knew was a Quaker, a pacifist and a leading childcare professional. That department’s value system was rooted in humanity and professionalism; that social services committee’s stated aim was to provide a welfare service of excellence to the residents of their county.
    What of today? What is it that has driven out those 80 workers and me? I cannot ignore the concerted Tory effort to destroy both local government and those professions that might impede the relentless march of the market, with its heartless disregard for those in poverty, those with disabilities and those elderly people upon whose earlier efforts our society was built.
    But it is from within the organisation that the greatest threat comes. We now have MBA managers so preoccupied with systems, recording and checking, that they have stopped valuing their most precious resource, their staff. A refreshing management thinker, Henry Mintzberg, has described MBA courses as attracting neither creative nor generous people and eventually producing the trivial strategist rather than the visionary who empowers workers.
    These managers have devised sophisticated and time-consuming assessment procedures which ensure that only a minimum of the truly deserving public will be given a service. They have set up procedures and instructions that are eroding the enthusiasm and generosity of social workers. They are busy enabling social workers to feel no pain, while they translate human distress into recordable statistics rather then having time to be of any real use to families who need help. I find it hard to hear that social work has moved to the point that – like health service workers who don’t notice a patient is becoming malnourished because he cannot manage to feed himself, or social security staff who now believe it is acceptable for 16- and 17-year-olds to be left financially unsupported – we are encouraged to ask whether the elderly disabled woman has antiques that could be sold by her family to provide for her care. We are required to respond to a request for support for a young mother suffering post- natal distress with the reply: “This is not one of our priorities.”
    In trying to make sense of this state of affairs, I am left with an explanation that is relevant not only to social work. The vast majority of field social workers are female. They have no difficulty in working to the British Association of Social Work’s definition of social work: that is, the enhancement of human well-being and the relief and prevention of hardship and suffering through working with individuals, families and groups. Most senior managers are male and to them such a philosophy is not nearly as attractive. How much more engaging it is to think about performance indicators, internal markets, and financial management. The statistics are stark: seven out of eight staff in personal social services organisations are women and most people using the service are women, but seven out of eight managers in these organisations are men.
    I want to be optimistic about the future of social work. Enthusiastic and decent young people continue to join, wanting to relieve and prevent hardship and suffering. If they are not to become disillusioned and if a social work service of value is to be retained, an assault upon present management practice has to be made.
    It may be that women managers will be somewhat put out by my analysis. I would so want to be able to identify their ability to stand out against the male culture. Instead, I am inclined to ask, just as Edith Evans did many years ago: “When a woman behaves like a man why doesn’t she behave like a nice man?”

    The pro-forma is just a further reflection of the destruction of social work. It seems to me that the directors of children’s services and the machinations of the CEO of CAFCASS are completing the work of destroying any vision or humanity in social work. I really don’t know how to respond to the consultation.

  8. Your prejudices are showing, Diane. Are you sure some of those heartless, well-paid barristers weren’t female?

  9. If the intent of the ADCS is to prevent Care Proceedings being issued then this template is a masterpiece. Any Social Worker faced with the prospect of completing such a horrible form will lose the will to live and seek employment elsewhere. As a Local Authority Solicitor the thought of having to check such a abomination and then to have to run my case based on it fills me with horror.

    I should not be surprised. Every appearance by a representative of ADCS on Panorama or Newsnight or similiar has been a disaster.

    After reading the FACTS that the Social Worker has reported in the statement the court should be thinking that analysis is redundant in light of those facts.

    • I agree Walklikeacat – and of course once we are done reading the tick-box form and interpreting it into English so that we can prepare the case, we then need to translate our English thoughts into the constraints of the tick-box rigid formula case summary for the Court (who presumably then translate it back into English for their own understanding). Then we produce a rigid tick-box formula order that buries the directions on page 5 after reams of irrelevancies. I am mystified as to what was wrong with writing a narrative document with coherent and logical headings and structure.

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