The impact on social workers of being named and shamed in court judgments and of the risks of unfair and undue criticism of social workers both in court and in the media was recently highlighted by Unison. I know from personal experience and many of my own staff that being attacked for your work can be devastating and can have a long-lasting impact.
Most social workers, myself included, are haunted at times by mistakes or near misses we have made during our careers. The learning from these comes when you first realise you’ve made a mistake.
The criticism in reviews, courts, judgments or in the media, often confuses accountability and transparency with hindsight bias. Seeing a child or a vulnerable adult through the eyes of someone who reconstructs the case primarily from documents long after the event, is totally different from seeing the child – or not seeing them – at the time, in their context. As the great Hungarian war photographer, Robert Capa, said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” The crucial learning for all of us who make mistakes is to get closer to our subject to minimise the risk of making the same mistake again.
Being criticised is part and parcel of the work we do where the stakes are so high. Immunity from criticism would be a massive backwards step to a time when professionals could operate just as they wished. Current enquiries into historic abuse show the dangers of that. But criticism is one thing. A feeding frenzy is different, and that is the risk I think we run at the moment.
So many of our cases are impossible to understand completely at the time. They are often a mass of contradictions and ambiguities with few facts. With the benefit of hindsight, what was taking place can be made to look crystal clear. But in most cases it wasn’t that clear. Ambiguity is of course hardest of all to deal with in court, especially in a trial, where the structure points participants towards either being right or wrong, guilty or innocent.
When we launched the Public Law Outline the messages to courts were clear, including that judges and magistrates should take steps in court to stop any gratuitous cross-examination of professionals where the cross-examination was being conducted on the basis of undermining credibility, rather than understanding how a professional came to a particular conclusion. We also said written statements would be accepted where no further purpose would be served by getting the professional witness to come to court, and expose him or her to the risk of gratuitous attack.
By and large, giving evidence in court is not as confrontational as it was, but sometimes it is and that is where the judge (by judge I mean anyone who is judging someone else) would benefit from approaching their role with one eye on what it might have been like at the time to be in the shoes of the person having a difficult assessment to make in real time, weeks months or years before.
I don’t say this with an intention of diluting accountability for social workers, but to put the emphasis on avoiding an undue sequence of events which destroy that social worker’s confidence. That can include a loss of reputation and standing within the local professional network, leading to a loss of confidence and low morale for years to come. There is an equal onus on employers to provide good supervision, support and challenge for their practitioners in a learning environment. Getting it wrong for one child or vulnerable adult is one too many, but feeding frenzies tend to disable whole professions as well as the individuals at the centre of the storm, and that is counter-productive for the thousands of vulnerable people depending on an important type of help.
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