Between the family and the state

Social Workers, Children and the Law
February 24, 1995

The relationship between social work practice in child care and the use of the law, which this book addresses, is not a simple one, and has been the focus of much public debate during the past decade. Key inquiries and a report on the legal content of social work training in the 1980s argued that social workers were uncertain about their legal powers and the authority vested in them by the statutes. This led on the one hand to too much respect for parental rights (in the cases of Jasmine Beckford, Kimberley Carlile and Tyra Henry) and on the other, too little (in the events at Cleveland), and either to the failure to take difficult decisions or an over-zealousness in doing so.

These concerns, and a recognition of the difficulty of making sense of childcare law as it then was, contributed to the wholesale reform contained in the Children Act 1989. In this, ultimate responsibility for taking an increased range of decisions concerning children's welfare is vested clearly with the courts. However, perhaps ironically in view of the weight of criticism directed against them, social workers are given a central role in formulating the evidence and advising the courts on the decisions to be made. The balance and relationship between the more explicit legalism of the Act and the reflective, interpretive approach which constitutes a professional judgement must still therefore be negotiated. For example, a boy of two and a half, living with his mother who suffers from a psychiatric illness, is found to be undernourished and failing to reach his normal milestones. Whether or not to have recourse to the courts, or what legal powers to invoke in attempting to work with the family, is still largely a matter for professional social work judgement, despite the fact that the agencies of the law (courts, police and lawyers) have a crucial role in deciding how the problem is defined and acted upon.

So this book, which looks at the ways in which social workers negotiate the boundary between the responsibilities of the state and those of the family towards children, undoubtedly addresses an area of importance.

It draws upon a study of 180 childcare cases collected in two social work offices between 1975-77 and over a short period in 1982-83. It analyses them in an attempt to understand the forms of reasoning which social workers employ when using law in their work with children and families. Four patterns of response, which the author describes as "action themes", emerge in the negotiations which social workers undertake with their clients: "enlisting the law", "explaining the law", "organising the law" and "avoiding the law". The latter pattern for example is discernible when the social worker considers the law is likely to support the client's position, say in removing her child from care, rather than the social worker's view that the child should remain in care. In such a situation, the social worker is likely, according to the study, in discussions with the client, to disguise her legal rights. These responses in turn partly reflect what is seen to be the legal ethos (ie attitudes towards the use of and understanding of the law) which operate in the particular social work office.

The author stresses, however, that these alignments are not in themselves critical to his account: more important is the attempt to illustrate how negotiations round the law work, and features of the case and the organizational settings which influence them.

Those chapters which analyse the case situations along these different alignments make absorbing and often disturbing reading, particularly in highlighting the differential powers of social workers and clients. In one case, for example, the social workers effectively blocked a father's attempt to remove his child from care by disguising his legal right to do so, while in similar circumstances, a father with financial resources was successful in obtaining custody.

The book argues forcefully that despite major changes in the law, the issues around these negotiations remain the same. But the analysis in the last chapter is not persuasive enough to overcome the dated feel of the book. It is useful to highlight the fact that social workers have constantly to interpret the law in making social work judgements: but the book then, in commenting that social workers still are ignorant of the law, perpetuates the simplistic notion that the difficulty lies in knowledge of statutes rather than using these to formulate professional judgements.

Kate Wilson is a senior lecturer in social work, University of York.

Social Workers, Children and the Law

Author - Clive Grace
ISBN - 0 19 8259 X
Publisher - Clarendon Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 241pp

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