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Children’s Minister warned of effects of loss of independent social work expertise

ISW organisations seek meeting with Minister to discuss concerns

Officers of Nagalro, the Confederation of Independent Social Work Agencies and the British Association of Social Workers have written to the Children's Minister, Tim Loughton, to draw his attention to the harmful impact caused by the loss of ISW expertise in the family justice system. A reply to this letter has not yet been received. The full text of the letter is set out below.

"Dear Mr Loughton

"We are writing to draw your urgent attention to the harmful impact the rapid loss of independent social work (ISW) experts in the family court arena is having on vulnerable children. It is estimated that there are between 4,000 and 5,000 Independent Social Workers (ISWs) currently practising in England and Wales. Between 2.500 and 3,000 of them work in child protection and yet their position within the child protection system and their contribution to the work of the family courts has been outside the remit of both the Munro and the Family Justice Reviews. Consequently, the considerable professional resource offered by this large sector of highly qualified and experienced child protection practitioners, whose expertise is so badly needed, has been largely overlooked in discussions in relation to practice and policy development. Unfortunately, as a result of an accumulation of dis-incentivising factors there has been a steady haemorrhage of some of the best independent expert social workers who are being systematically forced out of the system at a time when they are most needed. This cannot be in the interests of vulnerable children and it appears out of tune with the government's commitment both to speeding up decision making processes and to retaining experienced social workers in front line child protection services.

"This is all the more counterproductive at a time when the recommendations of the Social Work Task Force and the Munro Review have highlighted the need to improve both the career progression for front line social workers and the scope for social workers to exercise much greater autonomy in the proper exercise of their professional judgement. The need is all the more pressing as family courts continue to operate under enormous pressures, with unacceptably long delays for the children and families concerned.

"This situation is of serious concern since, until this year, it has frequently been the holistic ISW expert's analysis that courts have turned to first when reaching decisions in complex family cases. The specific expertise that ISWs bring relates to their assessment of the capacity of parents and the risks to children. These are key issues for the judge to determine. It is the ISWs particular skills in these areas which enable them to put other expert's reports within a parenting context for the court.

"One key problem is that ISW expert evidence straddles the socio-legal interface between the DfE and the MoJ, with neither department taking responsibility for the budget or the wider practice and policy implications. Instead, the financial agenda has driven policy, with scant consideration of the implications for either the children involved or the lack of joined up thinking. The Justice Select Committee was highly critical of the results on the funding feud and lack of cross departmental co-ordination in their report on Family Legal Aid Reform published 7 July 2009.

"The net result has been that the messages from both the DfE and the MoJ have been immensely discouraging and dismissive of the value of highly trained and experienced welfare professionals. Many of the country's most experienced and highly regarded child protection social work experts are leaving this field when they could be proactively involved in mentoring and helping to 'grow' the next generation. Practitioners feel that the considerable ISW contribution to the child protection system is not only overlooked and undervalued but is being actively discouraged and disparaged. We hope that this is not the intention and have attached a briefing paper [ the briefing papwer has not been reproduced] which we hope will be helpful.

"We would like to meet you as a matter of urgency in order to clarify the government's thinking on these crucial issues and to explore the place of the ISW expert witness in child protection within the family courts and the wider child protection system.

"Yours sincerely
Ann Haigh, Chair, Nagalro, The Professional Association for Children's Guardians, Family Court Advisers and Independent Social Workers
Mark Willis, Chair, Confederation of Social Work Agencies
Hilton Dawson, CEO, British Association of Social Workers (BASW)"