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Social workers have to ‘carry the can’ for court decisions

  • 24 Jul 2017

Tusla staff say they are not shown respect in court and are publicly blamed, study finds

24th July 2017

Social workers feel they are left to “carry the can” for decisions made by courts and take the ultimate public blame when the system fails to protect children, according to a new study.

Tusla social workers told researchers they are not shown enough respect during legal cases, and proceedings are intimidating and too adversarial.

In Ireland, two-thirds of children in care are placed there voluntarily by parents and the remaining third are taken into care through applications made by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, at the District Court.

During proceedings, social workers give evidence and may be cross-examined by solicitors. Though the process is intended to be an inquiry, the study found social workers experienced it as being highly adversarial.

They reported feeling as though they were on trial. One social worker said Garda inspectors sat in on a case and were “shocked” at the dynamics in the court and the way the evidence was tested.

“They said murder cases would have been done and dusted within a week or two weeks and ours dragged on and on,” a social worker said.

Negative evidence

The study said data also suggested the adversarial model could leave social workers feeling they had to present an overwhelming volume of negative evidence about the parents to secure a court order. And this could make it difficult to work with parents afterwards.

The study, published in the Child and Family Social Work Journal, was undertaken by academics from the schools of law and of applied social studies at University College Cork. It involved interviews with 67 professionals, including social workers and managers in Tusla, court-appointed guardians, solicitors, judges and barristers.

Social workers raised fears about the risk certain court directions or decisions might expose children or social workers to. One social worker spoke about being refused an order and it being “detrimental to the kids”. She also said people never hear the good things social workers do.

“It’s when something goes wrong, it’s never the judge refused to make the interim care order or it’s never the guards didn’t follow through on something, it’s always the social work department messed up,” she said.

Carry the can

Authors Kenneth Burns, Conor O’Mahony, Caroline Shore and Aisling Parkes, said feeling they are left to carry the can for decisions made by courts and to take ultimate public blame compounded social workers’ perception that they do not receive the respect they are due.

Though some social workers identified positive aspects of the adversarial system, including that it meant the process was robust and not done on a “nod and a wink”, there were more negative perspectives, the study found.

The authors said this suggested social workers’ appreciation of the importance of testing evidence as a check on State power was “uneven at best”.

They said it was clear social workers perceived they had low status in the courts compared to other professionals. But other professionals who took part in the study were not over-critical of them, and judges were mindful of how hard it must be at the coalface of child protection.

“If a genuine lack of respect is present, it is at an unarticulated or perhaps even unconscious level,” authors said.