Thursday, 5 December 2013

The culture of social work (and the arrogance of the law).


None of us know the whole truth about the tragic case of the woman forced into a caesarian only to have her baby taken into care and put up for adoption. We will have seen the original story, the related comments from Christopher Booker and John Hemmings MP, assorted clarifications from within the system including Essex County Council and a selection of writings from legal bloggers explaining why those criticising the system are wrong (or even suggesting, without evidence, that the facts are so very different from those printed in the newspapers). Plus latterly the interviews with the woman herself.

Because I don't know the whole truth, if I comment as a non-professional (i.e. not a child protection social worker or a specialist lawyer) then what I say can - and will be - simply dismissed by the system's defenders. Indeed, the easiest option for such defenders of the system is to attack the writer's credibility. You know how this turns out when the author (who is no more able to assess the "facts" than others but believes, also without evidence, that they are more able in this regard) starts with this sort of line:

So who are Christopher Booker and John Hemming?

This is followed by criticism based on unconnected matters (Booker's views on climate change, for example) and selective quotations from cases where either Booker or Hemming - or both - had been involved or had made comment. This isn't to say that Booker or Hemming are right or wrong but to observe that using anecdote (and a selected quote, albeit from a judge, is just anecdote) to destroy credibility is a classic tactic in ad hominem attacks.

The problem here is that the writer in question is, for all his attempts at being right-on, essentially an insider to the system - a government lawyer:

I’m a barrister, and worked as a government lawyer for twelve years, advising ministers and government departments on a wide range of public law issues from tax to terrorism, from freedom of information to pensions, from discrimination to health and from defence to broadcasting. My career in government included stints at the Cabinet Office, where I advised on the EU Constitution negotiations, and at the Attorney General’s Office where I advised Lord Goldsmith on a wide variety of legal issues. I have advised nearly every government department, from the Home Office to Health and from the Treasury to the MoD.

I note with interest that the author is emphatically not a specialist in family law, social work or issues relating to mental health. Rather he is concerned to defend the system whereby social services, health and the courts were able (again whether this is right is not the question) to force a woman into a caesarian section, take her child into care and subsequently put that child up for adoption.  And when journalists, MPs or other lay people challenge or question the system it is imperative that it is defended - and especially that the cultural assumptions of, in this case, social work are not opened up for examination.

I've written before about the ideology of social work - the assumption of societal guilt, non-judgementalism and rejection of heterodox, or seemingly hetrodox, choices - but here it is the culture that is more important. In one respect this is a culture of self-protection, closing ranks and hiding in process and paper trails - things that are not surprising in a large bureaucratic organisation of any sort (and child protection systems such as closed courts make this much easier). However, there is a broader cultural factor - social work, like the law and medicine, presumes that only it is qualified to decide on a course of action and that any options from non-professionals are quite simply wrong.

Moreover, the culture is reinforced by the very familiar form of words in response to enquiries about specific cases: "(name of organisation - usually a local council) does not comment on individual cases". Thus the organisation can plead protection of privacy (for the subject of a case) in order to prevent any questioning of its decision-making. Indeed, in nearly all child protection cases, the actual decision-making process is not subject to any lay scrutiny and the secrecy of the courts inevitably leads to problems for reporters - such as Christopher Booker - in reporting concerns.

Even where there is a formal opportunity for lay enquiry within the system (such as is afforded to me as a local councillor), we are strongly advised that our remit is with the proper administration of the system not with the decision taken. A councillor is able to question whether the council has conducted the process correctly (and there are routes for action if this is not so) but, in essence, if the paperwork is correct, we are unable to challenge the basis of the decision.

Finally, the system of non-identification is used to protect the names of the decision-makers as well as the names of social services clients. This makes it more difficult to have adequate lay scrutiny at a departmental level and provides a strong incentive and opportunity to cover-up. Here in Bradford, the full Hamzah Khan serious case review is so redacted as to provide little practical value to us as councillors. We are forced to rely on the report summary  - and the assumptions it inevitably makes - rather than have the ability to review the actual data upon which that summary is based.

It may be (although I doubt it) that the actions taken in the Essex case were the only reasonable options available to the Council and other agencies. But so long as we cannot know (and 'we' does not have to mean full disclosure to the public merely disclosure to individuals or organisations that are not instruments in the decision-making itself), there will remain doubts about why certain decisions are made, the professional ideology of the decision-makers and the secretive organisational culture that engulfs social work.

Perhaps, rather than engage in ad hominem attacks on those struggling to expose possible flaws in our care systems, great legal minds - the full arrogance of the law - would be better directed to finding ways of allowing proper scrutiny of social services' decision-making and the operation of the family courts without unduly compromising the necessary protection of client identities.


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