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I’m a sausage machine, a perfect sausage machine

 

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.

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About suesspiciousminds

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

15 responses

  1. Masterfully written and with such an insightful and balanced perspective. It reflects the challenges of the Court and the Social Worker to keep human experience at the heart of all actions and decision making.

  2. I work for a neighbouring local authority and work within many of the same courts as you. I am all for streamlining care proceedings in appropriate cases as this is better for the children, less heartbreaking for the parents than endless assessments with obvious negative outcomes and less of a burden on the tax payer. On the whole I have found that the courts have accepted my occasional request for more time for the social work team to reflect upon the best way forward or for additional assessment or for adjournment to trial a rehab to parents. The real problem for me is that at a time when we are supposed to be streamlining cases, ever increasing ridiculous bureaucratic requirements are being placed upon all parties, but most particularly the local authority. I used to be easily able to carry 20+ sets of care proceedings – conducting almost all interim hearings – now I struggle to carry 10! I also think that the ever increasing public denouncement of mistakes is less than helpful. In 18 years doing care proceedings in various parts of the country, acting for parents and children as well as the local authority, I can honestly say that the vast majority of people working within the ambit of care proceedings are hard working, well intentioned and striving to do their best. But, the reality is that they are also human and so make mistakes. Being pilloried for those mistakes will simply make the people who care, leave. I also sometimes can’t help but wonder how good a job the judges/ magistrates would do if they swapped jobs with a social worker, social work manager, local authority lawyer or legal aid solicitor? Perhaps we should lay down that challenge to the President!

    • Ashamed to be British

      My stance – the taxpayer’s money should not come into it, Social Services are always trying to state this is never about money, you’ve let the side down, and I have to say, there is never room for error when it comes to people’s lives, however, you are the first SW I’ve ever seen admit they get it wrong, so you get some kudos for that

  3. Fantasticccc, this is so spot on . It IS sadly now even more about numbers rather than people, the 26 week number ! it’s now even more about what’s in the best interest of the budget ( any budget, be it Legal aid, Social care, courts! ) and not about the best interest of the child ….lip service is being paid to a right to a family life by the broken court and broken care process….you can have a family life if you can be assessed as ‘needing’ such within 26 weeks and to have such you need no expensive assistance from the ‘state’ !

  4. Ashamed to be British

    You know, it’d make more sense to put in support and exhaust every avenue BEFORE taking it to PLO, al this snatching at birth and 26 weeks to get the job done is just rubbishing what is meant to be a fair system, it can’t be fair with a 26 week deadline

    And from experience, the proactive supportive approach works very well

  5. I am glad you see the same as I do Mr. Sus, I had thought for past year I was loosing the plot and I was the only one who saw it how it really is in the courts these days.

    When progression is afoot and implementation of new directions are a must, the onus on the reasons why the changes are needed tend to be forgotten

    The Children and Families should be at the top of the pyramid, however, this is how I tend to see the priorities these days in court,

    Judge,
    Lawyers,
    Guardian,
    Social Workers,
    Experts,
    Extended Families,
    Clerks,
    Photocopier,
    Laptops,
    Calender/Diary
    Filing Office,
    Parents,
    Children.

    It may seem harsh, it is very deflating, I would not be alone in my analogy of this, the whole list needs turning on its head and sharpish.

    • I’d reorder that – I think you are right about who is at the bottom, but I would move filing office and calendar up into the champions league positions. And definitely experts above social workers.

  6. Brilliant. You have expressed so clearly a feeling that has been building in me for months, but have not been able to express.

    David

    Sent from my iPhone

  7. I agree that the court process sometimes appears to treat people in a mechanised way and injustices occur. An underlying problem is the lack of social work skills in making assessments for courts that are focused on the crucial information that the court requires and presented in a clear and coherent way. The process requires social work reports with the necessary depth and breadth of understanding and that provide a succinct analysis of the child’s situation. At present the work of the courts is being made almost impossible because of poor social work practice before the case comes to court. Also, the problem of ‘drift’ in some cases is a serious concern because it makes it difficult to adequately meet children’s needs for stable and lasting relationships with caring adults.

    So, in principle, we should support policies which oppose ‘drift’ – but we should also resist authoritarian practices arising out of dysfunction within the child protection system. Michael Gove’s passionate speech about ‘The failure of child protection and the need for a fresh start’ in November 2012 has not prompted the necessary debate within the social work profession about how to get the balance right.

    Incidentally, social workers require a certain level of detachment and objectivity but that does not mean we do not have feelings. I was once deeply moved by the dignified way a father spoke in court against the adoption of his two children – but I still thought adoption was the right decision.

    • Ashamed to be British

      FORCED adoption is never the right decision, who are you, the courts, me or anyone else to say it is right to steal a child from a family?

      There are always alternatives to be found, with friends, family members or LTFC if the child is at risk from the parents, do you have any understanding what adoption does to a child mentally?

    • “””Incidentally, social workers require a certain level of detachment and objectivity but that does not mean we do not have feelings. I was once deeply moved by the dignified way a father spoke in court against the adoption of his two children – but I still thought adoption was the right decision.””””

      That surely is tantamount to torture, despite the dignity shown by the father your goal was probably still achieved, I cannot bear to witness those episodes in court and I have spoken on behalf of parents many times because the parents are too traumatised to speak a single word, to me that last comment is what is wrong in the courts, parents have to dig as deep as they can only to find it futile and pointless because the circus act that unfolds doesn’t make a difference, I think that sort of comment shows that compassion and even a heart is missing from the courts too, putting parents in that position has to stop, its cruel and inhumane, I think that when you say Adoption was right is that the ball was set in motion and no one was willing to take the all important step back and think over the situation again, Adoption is never the right decision no matter how much the authorities think it is, unless you see what comes out the other end of adoption you may just change your spots.

  8. Mr Suesspiciousminds. I am afraid you’re wrong about the NHS, they tick boxes as well. My local hospital gives out patient satisfaction surveys in A and E , plus even more complex survey’s if admitted.
    Please may we have customer satisfaction survey’s at the end of care proceedings?
    Or even more ambitiously something akin to trip advisor, that might alleviate the postcode/judge / local solicitor lottery.

  9. stella aka toni macleod

    was it not Re W [1993] (2FLR 625) that said:

    the local authorities duty should be to support and eventually reunite the family unless the risks are so high that the child’s welfare requires alternative provision

    so how in 21 years has the ethos changed when certainly the children’s act 1989 nor ECHR 8 UNCRC 7 OR UNCRC 9 have not changed ???

    that in my personal opinion is the problem no one has any empathy sympathy or basic human compassion any more

    its disgusting 😦

    stella xx

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