Agatha Christie, the doyenne of ‘cosy’ crime novels and the creator of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, once said of herself that she was “A sausage machine, a perfect sausage machine”. She was talking about how her publishers thought of her, which was that their only real thinking about her was whether she could produce another book and at the time of their choosing.
I spent Friday afternoon with one of my favourite social workers and when we reached the point of saturation on talking about the detail of the case and the task that we had to complete, she said something that has been kicking around in my brain for a while.
What she said was “Once you get a case into Court, the whole thing, every single conversation you have becomes about WHEN”
She’s right. When I started this job, the cases felt like they were about real children and real parents and real situations. When you went to Court, that was predominantly what you talked about – what was happening in the real world for this family and the PROCESS was secondary. Over time, the discussion about process became longer and the discussion about the family became shorter. The orders got longer and more labyrinthine, and less easy for a normal human being to follow. The balance has got more and more out of whack, to the point where now, the entire time at Court can be spent talking about the Court’s process, and in particular just getting the clockwork mechanism in place to make the case conclude by week 26. Sometimes I look over at the parents, who are in Court frightened or confused or worried and I can see that none of this sounds or feels as though it is about them at all.
Everyone in a Court case is just a sausage machine, and their job is to produce the goods on time. If you are someone who has a job that involves a lot of Court proceedings, your entire working week can be spent being a sausage machine – get this done, get that done, have you done that yet? Produce this report, observe this contact, speak to this relative. Make sure you get it all done on time. And if you are a lawyer, it can be easy to slide into the trap of just being like Agatha Christie’s publisher and that your only communication is to make sure that the goods are being produced on time. Social workers are people, not sausage machines. And parents and children deserve more than a system that treats them that way.
Of course everyone has to have targets and deadlines, and I’m not suggesting that the cases that just drifted and delay got piled up on delay was a good thing or a golden era to be returned to. But the NHS has targets and deadlines, but it is not so obvious in their client care and bedside manner – you might have a long wait in A&E, but they don’t add insult to injury by relentlessly talking about the target and performance measures when they should be looking at your injury.
I am finding that over the last year, I have social workers say to me that in order to make a rehabilitation work, or a placement with a relative work, or to get the right decision about a child more time is needed to do it properly, and I have to keep saying “Well, we can ask, but the Court is supposed to say no”. That doesn’t feel very nice.
Again, in the past the phrase “constructive delay” was used as a blanket excuse to justify any delay, any extra assessment, any attempt to leave no stone left unturned, but in throwing it away as a concept, we may have lost something really important. Let’s not forget that what we are doing in care proceedings is making decisions about whether a child can be safe with their parents. That’s a process that involves to an extent an educated or informed prediction about the future – something that isn’t easy to do. If you have less information than you want to make you feel confident about your prediction, don’t you end up with people playing safe?
If the social worker conducting an assessment really feels that more time and more work would make that possible and can explain why, then surely that IS constructive delay and there should be a place for it?
I don’t mean that adjournments should be given out like sweets, and that delay isn’t a bad thing. If there’s something that ought to have been done and nobody got round to it yet, then asking for more time to get it done is bound to incur some judicial displeasure and rightly so. What I’m talking about is where the social worker has done the work, asked the questions and reached a point where the only right answer is that “we just need to give this some more time to get the right answer”
(That’s something that one of the midwives of 26 weeks, Ryder LJ was talking about in the Re K case recently. Not in that context, but in the sense that just because there’s a time pressure doesn’t mean that a Judge should not sometimes step back and say, “It is better to wait and get this right, rather than do it now and get it wrong”. In the wise words of Billy the Kid “Speed’s fine, partner, but accuracy’s final”)
A pivotal moment in any Agatha Christie novel is the scene where the detective gathers all the suspects together and reveals the solution to the case. That has quite a bit in common with a social worker’s final evidence. Everyone is waiting anxiously to see it, nobody is completely sure what it is going to say, we know it is going to be important. At some point, someone will say loudly that this is all complete rubbish. And like Poirot’s solutions, there might well be a very difficult Court hearing after it is revealed – it isn’t really the final word on the subject.
Well, Poirot gives his solution when he knows that he has got it right, when all the pieces are in place and he can be sure that what he is saying is right. If he was instead told that by a fixed time in every murder case, he had to gather everyone in the drawing room and tell the assembled suspects who did it, then he would get some of them wrong. Sometimes not all of the suspects have even appeared (in care proceedings, relatives do come forward late on). Sometimes not all of the clues have come to light. Sometimes he might not even have a clue.
If Poirot says that he needs to do some further detective work to reach the right conclusion, he should be given the time he needs, and not be made to feel like he is a disgrace for even suggesting it.