Who Would Be a Social Worker? Damned if They Do, Damned if They Don’t

Who would be a social worker? Normally, they go about their job in a professional manner with very little praise, charged with the extremely difficult decision of whether to risk leaving a child at home, where they may suffer physical harm, or to remove them, risking emotional harm. In a judgment on a recent case, Mr Justice McFarlane described their dilemma as “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” take action.

Trying to find a happy medium between being over-cautious and not cautious enough is an uneviable task. The problem is that they do often get it spectacularly wrong. The well-publicised Victoria Climbie case was an extreme example of a lack of caution. Two cases reported this year have demonstrated how being excessively cautious can also have devastating results.

The first concerned a very young boy. When he was about 5 months old, he sustained four rib fractures while in the care of his parents. These injuries led the local authority to suspect non-accidental injury to the young lad, and to place his name on its Child Protection Register. Care proceedings followed about four months later. An interim care order was subsequently made and the child was placed with foster parents.

Some seven months later, as a result of the intervention of the NSPCC, the child was returned to his parents. Although the boy’s rib fractures had been initially diagnosed as resulting from inflicted, non-accidental injuries, the local authority accepted before the court that in fact he suffered from a rare condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. The rib fractures, accordingly, had an innocent explanation and were not the result of non-accidental injury.

The mother asserted that, as a result of her son being wrongly taken into care and separated from his parents, she had suffered psychological shock and upset. Her relationship with the boy’s father had ended. The allegation that she had harmed her son had resulted in her becoming depressed. She re-lived the experience regularly and had been referred for psychological counselling. Unfortunately she was unable to successfully sue the local authority as the court held that care professionals charged with questions of child protection and the investigation of child abuse must be free to exercise their professional functions without having at the back of their minds a fear of potential legal action by distressed parents. Fortunately, the child did not appear to have suffered while in care, unlike his mother.

The second, more recent, case concerned a nine-year old girl who was known to social services because of family problems. Low-level intervention was taking place. She was on the Child Protection Register in the category of “emotional harm”. A social services case conference took place and plans were made to continue the intervention. There was no suggestion at the meeting from the social workers, or any other professional attending the case conference, that the child should be removed from her parents’ care – either immediately or at all. However, within two hours of the case conference concluding, the social work team leader was giving evidence before a bench of lay justices in support of an application for an Emergency Protection Order (EPO). That application was made without any notice to the parents. The justices granted the EPO.

At the time, the mother and child were at a local hospital, to which the mother had taken the child for a check up because the child was complaining of abdominal pain. The child was removed from her mother and remained in foster care for the next 14 months. A central plank of the social services case was that this was a case of fabricated or induced illness (previously referred to a Munchausen’s Syndrome by Proxy).

The appellate court found that the child was not in imminent danger of harm that in any way justified her removal from parental care that afternoon. There was, even on the evidence available to the social workers and the justices, no grounds for applying for, let alone making, an EPO.

The problem is that every time one of these cases arises and social services are accused of being too heavy-handed, one finds a situation where they haven’t been hands-on enough. They have a difficult job to do. Approaching it with the utmost professionalism and care would seem to be the best way forward.

Stephen Gerlis is a district judge at Barnet County Court.