New report defends independent social work experts in care cases

Research led by Oxford University refutes claims that assessment reports by independent social work experts have caused delays in care proceedings.

Claims were made during the Family Justice Review that independent social work expert (ISW) reports delayed cases and added little or no value. This resulted in the Review recommending in their interim report that the use of such reports should be restricted.

The Oxford University report, led by Dr Julia Brophy from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention, finds that ISW reports 'add considerable value in cases of high complexity', and in most cases these reports were delivered on time.

The Oxford research finds that ISW reports provide transparent, forensic, evidence-based assessments, and support better welfare decision-making for children and families in care proceedings. It also says ISW assessments provide detailed important information about the parents involved in care proceedings. This information includes their willingness and capacity to change, issues of current and likely future cooperation with health and social care agencies, whether they understand local authority concerns about their care of children, and whether they are capable of meeting their children’s needs, both now and in the future. 

It also argues that most reports are submitted to the lead solicitor on time and any risk of delays could be reduced if the social workers were appointed as experts at an earlier stage.Contrary to what critics have said, the research suggests that without access to independent social work experts, courts may be severely hampered in attempts to speed up proceedings.

The report warns that restricting access to independent social work experts will lead to 'poor decision-making', with more children being exposed to further risk of abuse or being removed unnecessarily from their families. It found that 'very few reports' (only seven out of 63 cases) were lodged with the lead solicitor later than the due date because of factors that were not related to the case; and almost all of these were no more than three days late.

Most reports were of high quality and many were 'excellent', says the report. However, the research did identify some layout problems in about a quarter of the reports in the sample.

Principal Investigator Dr Julia Brophy said: 'While strong views were expressed about the use of independent social work assessments, there was little hard evidence. Indeed, our research has found that these experts provide rigorously conducted and timely assessments which provide robust welfare evidence to assist the court in making life-changing decisions about the future care of children'.

The research was based on 65 cases concerning 121 children and 82 reports for courts in England and Wales. The sample was drawn from the records of three independent agencies providing ISWs.