Ryan Wise, a social worker and practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence, replied via Twitter when he first heard about the Open Family Court project in the first couple of tweets I put out. He had some concerns about the impacts more transparency might have, and said so.
I asked him if he’d take a look at the launch blogpost, to which he very kindly responded by email, as follows:
“My interest stems from practice… I am keen to think more widely about how organisations can … improve to ensure the experience of children and families in the system is both proportionate and helpful. I am currently thinking about how to develop ideas of co-production into social work practice. I am therefore interested in this project… as I said on Twitter, I do have reservations about how greater transparency to courts in order to achieve accountability may lead to more problems but that is not to say I don’t appreciate the possible benefits. This is definitely is an area which needs greater discussion and debate and I would love to be a part of that.”
We ended up having a phone chat, and rather than writing a blogpost, I suggested we might post a quick overview of our conversation, which was illuminating for me and touches on important themes that I’ll want to draw out in the workshops.
These aren’t our exact words, but will hopefully give a sense of what was said. Ryan has seen it and agreed that it’s an accurate representation.
Ryan “There is so much anxiety and pressure in the child protection system that anything about extra scrutiny and openness can feel overwhelming. But improving what goes on within the system is important because it’s also clear that numbers of children in care are rising, so the stakes for families are very high.”
Louise “What do you think that social workers’ main questions might be about greater transparency around what goes on in family law?”
Ryan “‘What does transparency mean in practice?’ would be one question I’d ask. ‘What is more transparency trying to achieve?’ is another.”
Louise “Yes! These two questions are absolutely central to the project. Thanks for encapsulating them so neatly. I’ll use them in the workshops.”
Ryan “Being completely honest, there’s going to be an element of concern about where the scrutiny and accountability is going to land, if there’s more openness around what social workers do. The child protection system is complex, and it’s also flawed, and that’s increasingly because of perhaps not enough money going in at an earlier stage. So I think a major concern social workers might have is, are we laying ourselves open to lots of scrutiny at a late stage, when there are things many of us may well not agree with in the ways we’re often forced to work. Social workers can be left with no option but to do their best within a system which has many elements they may not agree with.
“We can’t always do the social work we know would really help, and that’s because of resource constraints. That means that the idea of hauling social workers over the coals for their recommendations to a court at the end of a process would worry me. Because social workers know the flaws. Social workers are working with what they have. It’s fair to say that I have concerns about the quality of some social work, but ultimately it’s the system that needs scrutiny, not the final threshold recommendations for a child who by the time we all very reluctantly end up in court, is in a situation where there are huge concerns for their safety.
“By contrast, having greater transparency around the culture and context of what goes on •overall• in the family courts would be useful in enabling better scrutiny of some norms that can be really destructive and can add to a ‘them and us’ mindset.”
Louise “Can you give me a couple of examples?”
Ryan “Yes. Something I’ve noticed is that the emotional impact on families of going to court can be completely disregarded by the professionals involved. The atmosphere in court can feel formal and even frosty. Sometimes even as a social worker you feel isolated, so for families the sense of being ‘on your own’ must be far worse. I sometimes wonder if lawyers have ever thought about how it feels for a parent who is terrified that they might lose their child, to have to listen to them chat on about the next fancy holiday they’re about to head off on. Or laugh and joke about the social occasion they were at together the night before. It can sound heartless and it’s completely disrespectful to someone who’s dealing with incredibly painful emotions.
“If family courts were more open and transparent in their workings, maybe this sort of thing wouldn’t happen so much because professionals would know they were more visible and so behaviour would improve. Also, some judges are good at talking to families, but I’ve noticed that others really aren’t, which isn’t great. Overall there can be a lot of anxiety and worry which simply isn’t addressed by the court.
“On the social work side, I think greater scrutiny could encourage practice which isn’t so formulaic and process driven. Of course we go to court sometimes because the risk is too high and so it becomes necessary, but what I’m more interested in are the times we go to court when we don’t know what else to do. We may think actually this parent may be able to do it, we just need x, y or z, or maybe more time, but in my experience, in this situation we still sometimes go to court because we feel we are encouraged to be risk averse and make defensive decisions.
“We go from child protection to initiating care proceedings because there’s a sense that “if something bad happens at least we can show we were in the court arena.” Greater scrutiny may encourage greater discussion about this slide towards court, and also encourage the kind of leadership which works to support social workers to hold more risk. If greater scrutiny can help us think more about our relationship with risk and improve our decision making, that would help children and families.
Reminder: Open Family Court Workshops
I’m planning a series of workshops to explore how transparency, scrutiny and accountability might be better achieved in the family law system.
If you’ve had experience of family law, whether as a family member or a professional, and would like to be involved (they will be held around the country) please get in touch with me on firstname.lastname@example.org.