The important role played by independent social workers (ISWs) in care proceedings should be safeguarded, concludes a new report which is based on the views of senior judges.
A senior Oxford University researcher and her team interviewed 23 senior judges sitting in 20 of 43 county courts across England and Wales and found that ISWs were highly valued – they are regarded as practitioners at the 'top of their field', able to provide high-quality assessments in care proceedings in tight timescales. Their 'experience, expertise and wisdom' in complex cases influences outcomes for children and helps courts move forward with speed and confidence, adds the report.
Authored by Dr Julia Brophy, from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford, the report was commissioned by the Confederation of Independent Social Work Agencies UK. The report says concerns that independent social work reports cause delay, duplicate existing assessments and add nothing new to proceedings were 'ill founded' and 'wrong'. This is contrary to the Family Justice Review of 2011, which accepted many of the criticisms of ISWs.
In interviews, judges said that the use of ISWs can avoid delay in proceedings: they have the specialist skills and expertise that local authorities were unable to provide – or could not provide within the timeframe required. In most cases, the ISW's role was seen as 'filling gaps' in evidence and being able to turn around high-quality assessments within tight timescales.
Some of the judges interviewed expressed concerns that the 26-week deadline for completion of cases, coupled with changes to the rules on the use of experts, should not result in a 'knee-jerk' reaction by the courts. The judges made it clear that cases required a proper assessment of need within a legal framework that ensured fairness and justice for children and parents, says the report.
Judges were concerned that attention to the timescale rather than careful scrutiny of the need and value of an expert ISW assessment may determine the court’s approach. Judges said the quality of ISW reports was mostly 'good or excellent', with some described as 'outstanding', says the research. Most reports by ISWs were described as robust, analytical and evidence-based, enabling judges to 'move forward with speed and confidence'.
Report author Dr Julia Brophy said: 'Contrary to the views expressed at the time of the Family Justice Review, there is evidence of much collegiate work between local authorities, other parties and the court to get the best evidence before the court as quickly as possible.
'Assessments by ISWs do not duplicate existing reports or routinely cause delay. Indeed, far from it, these experts were found to work within timeframes that local authorities often could not meet. Judges identified that ISWs also influence the outcome of cases. For example, judges said that children heading for adoption could sometimes be placed with another parent or extended family members. The judges interviewed stressed the need to be mindful of the complexity of cases, the need for robust assessments and of other alternatives to making orders placing children in care or leading to adoption outside of families. The research shows that ISWs are not used in a majority of cases, but they do provide important assessments in specific circumstances.'