What is the future for ISWs?

Posted on July 25th, 2013

Article in Community care 25.07.2013

Fears for independent social workers as 80% consider leaving the profession

Research by Community Care finds two ‘disastrous’ events have potentially sidelined hundreds of the most experienced social workers at a time when children’s services are ‘in crisis’

ISWs say they're working in conditions that are 'dangerous' to childrenISWs say they’re working in conditions that are ‘dangerous’ to children

Camilla Pemberton
Wednesday 24 July 2013 18:09

The controversial fee cap for expert witnesses has forced 80% of independent social workers to find alternative sources of work or consider leaving the profession altogether.

Research by Community Care found 80% of independent social workers (ISWs) have seen their family court work decrease, in some cases dramatically, since the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), formerly the Legal Services Commission, capped the fees paid to experts who give evidence in the family courts.

The unpopular move, which came into force in October 2010, hit independent social work experts the hardest, with their fees capped at £33 an hour in London and £30 outside the capital. Other expert witnesses, such as doctors and psychologists, are still paid around £70-£100 per hour.

Two ‘disastrous’ events for independent social workers

The family justice review (FJR) also recommended that expert witnesses should be used more sparingly in the family courts, while research by the family courts body Cafcass, published last month, found courts are now calling fewer experts. The fee cap and FJR have been disastrous for ISWs, one said, admitting, “it’s just not feasible for me to continue this work”.

Nearly all respondents (98%) said they are currently working on fewer than five LAA-funded cases, which marks a significant drop from their workloads before the fee cap and FJR. At that prior time, a third of respondents (33%) were working on between six and 10 cases, while more than a fifth (23%) held 15 or more cases.

ISW workloads before the fee reduction and family justice review:

Current ISW workloads, as revealed to Community Care

The nature of their family court work has also changed, with 63% of ISWs noting differences, including requests for quicker, shorter, less thorough reports and more kinship care assessments and special guardianship orders.

What independent social workers say:

“I recently gave up the contact/family assessment premises as I could not afford to pay overheads from the new rates. I have been repeatedly told by local families, courts and solicitors that this is a loss to family services in this area. I am very seriously considering stopping altogether and returning to local authority work, or to work outside the profession.”

“I have other sources of income so I am able to make a stand regarding this work. I make it clear that it will not work for 30 an hour and maintain my professional charge, sadly this means at times the work is withdrawn.”

“If the LAA seek to limit the time it takes to undertake an assessment I will almost certainly give up being a court appointed expert and look elsewhere for work, even if it means I leave social work altogether.”

“It has been ridiculous to impose such a harsh cut in fees to court professionals who were earning far less than expert witnesses from other professions. The result is that it has potentially sidelined 200-300 of the most qualified social workers in the country at a time when there is also a growing crisis developing in children’s services.”

The survey by Community Care, of 152 ISWs, also found people are concerned about the impact of the FJR’s 26-week target for care cases. More than half (53%) said the deadline had affected their work, with many asked to file reports to much tighter timescales.

Nearly 70% are refusing to work on cases with restricted hours, complaining the hours allocated for assessments are “unrealistic and simply too dangerous for children and the ISW”.

Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), said the findings reflect the experiences of BASW members acting as expert witnesses and “could not come at a worse time for children”, considering care applications continue to rise to unprecedented rates, while Cafcass and local authority teams are stretched beyond capacity.

Mansuri said: “Julia Brophy’s invaluable research has clearly demonstrated the vital contribution ISWs make to complex proceedings – so rather than squeezing them out the Ministry of Justice should be doing everything in its power to ensure the work is economically viable so we do not lose their input altogether.”

Concerns over ‘risky’ 26-week care case target

BASW also remains extremely concerned about the 26-week target, which Mansuri described as “risky to sound decision making for children in the current climate”, adding that the focus “should not ultimately be on speed, but on quality”.

Phil King, co-director of the Independent Social Work Association, said the reduction in expert social work evidence could put children in danger. He said: “The public rightly expect that children who have suffered will be afforded high levels of safety and care when their cases come before the courts.

“The public expect that judges, who make the most fundamental decisions, will be afforded the best available evidence to allow them to make safe and just decisions for their future.

“Sadly, this is no longer the case and mistakes will inevitably be made leading to children either being placed in dangerous situations or adopted when they could be well cared for by a family member.”

The second stage of Dr Julia Brophy’s research into the work of ISWs in the family courts will be published on 5 September.

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Power Relationships in Schools

Posted on July 5th, 2013

When does power enter into a relationship between two people?  Is it when they first meet with one person having more desire than another to form the relationship initially?  The school teacher Mr Jeremy Forrest established a relationship with a pupil, who openly stated she had a crush on Mr Forrest.  At that point she might have wanted the relationship with Mr Forrest more than he did with her, we don’t know.  The fact that he was her teacher and she his pupil starts to tip the balance in one person’s favour.  The school teacher/pupil relationship is always a mismatch of power and Mr Forrest abused that power by engaging in a relationship with a pupil he taught.  However, consider further the power dynamics of pupil/school teacher relationships which for centuries been the bastion of self-government.  In this case there were pupils clearly raising the alarm to their teachers about another teacher’s relationship with a pupil; these teachers were accountable adults ‘in charge’ of their pupil’s educational development and responsible for safeguarding them.  These teachers decided to speak to Mr Forrest, who denied his relationship with his pupil and this created another power imbalance. Who to believe, a colleague, denying the relationship or the pupils raising concerns about the conduct of a male teacher with a female pupil he taught.  Mr Forrest’s status as an adult in authority overrode the credibility of the pupils in the school.  The power dynamics in the school again worked in his favour.

Mr Forrest was an adult, twice the age of his student, with a degree education, demonstrating he has the ability to think through complex problems and offer a solution.  Instead of thinking how he could avoid the situation with his female pupil who he knew had feelings for him Mr Forrest used his knowledge to arrange meetings with his pupil and eventually to leave the UK and travel with her to France.  The thinking, planning and the financial cost of organising the travel and subsequent overnight stays in hotels were beyond the capacity of a 15 year old girl.  Mr Forrest’s education had not enabled him to view ‘right from wrong’, but rather seems to have plunged him into believing himself to be some kind of romantic character, certainly not a predator.

Did Mr Forrest really have the power to convince all these other adults that his behaviour was acceptable?  Surely a colleague could have suggested that she sit with the 14 year old pupil, holding her hand on the turbulent fight from America rather than allowing a 30 year old man to comfort a vulnerable girl.

Mr Forrest is an adult, he was an adult when he held the hand of a child and he was an adult when he started a sexual relationship with a child, the power bestowed through his adulthood led him not to protect.  The choice Mr Forrest made as an adult was to abuse a child over a significant period of time in an environment where most relationships are usually known by several people, leading me back to the point about other teachers ignoring the warnings pupils raised.

Mr Forrest reportedly mouthed the words ‘I love you’ to his pupil across the Court without stopping to think he was interacting emotionally with a child, so continuing to block out the fact he was an adult teacher and she a child pupil who had been exploited.

Mr Forrest is now ensconced in prison.  His future for the next few years decided.  But what about the girl, returning to school, a place where her identity will be fully exposed.  Where it is likely that male teachers will be conscious of her company in private and male pupils may target her knowing that she has been sexually active by her own admission with Mr Forrest.  Other boys and girls may refer to her with ridicule or aversion indirectly or directly.  The outcome is that this young person is likely to be seen as ‘a problem’ in the hierarchal environment of a school, further betraying the unequal power imbalance within relationships that is active in schools. This is without even considering that the action of one male teacher could lead this young female pupil into more relationships with men in power positions, be it physical, emotional or status.  This young person will need assistance to manage relationships in school and outside.  She needs to be offered help to build trust and confirm boundaries so she is able to grow into a strong young woman, achieving her goals. Where will she get this support – in her school?  The very place where her uneven, power imbalance relationship began and was allowed to flourish.

In this case there are more people guilty of an abuse of power than just Mr Forrest, who inappropriately crossed a line.  Others enabled this abuse to occur and they need to look at the part they played in the systematic failure to protect a young, vulnerable female child from an abusive adult.  School pupils sought to protect a fellow child pupil from an abusive teacher, only to not be believed by his adult colleagues.

Certainly training is required for the teaching staff, but there is also a need for attitudes to change, so safer, more open environments can be established. Transparency in power relationships enables people to challenge situations that don’t seem right without disturbing the equilibrium.

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