Aggressive cross-examinations, a lack of privacy and tense confrontations with angry parents are all part of the process – let us share our experience at CMR North Child Protection Center
Court can be a big or a small part of the job as a social worker, but it is always part of the job at some stage; each trip to court filled with waiting, nervous tension and more waiting. Most of it is hidden from the world by the confidentiality rules of family law.
Each day in court begins with everyone crowding into a hall with poor ventilation and no seating. First, we wait for the presiding officer to arrive and get proceedings under way, then we wait for the clerks who either ignore you, misplace your file or forget you are present. Then the lawyers and clients want to negotiate with other role-players, and then finally comes the waiting for your case to be heard.
There is no clear timetable for cases, so you could be done in two minutes, or wait around several hours before being heard. This is just one of the many things that make a day at court so unpredictable, time-consuming and ultimately frustrating.
It is not just the social workers in this corridor; the families are all here, waiting around endlessly too. They are waiting to have a magistrate take their child away, waiting for access to be refused, waiting for the worst to happen. Standing there in front of them are the social workers, the people who are inflicting this on them, adding tension to the already stuffy atmosphere.
The clients usually end up hating us, undermining any relationship, which has been so carefully built up. Running around among this crowd are lawyers from both sides – arguing, negotiating, and doing their best to fit the shades of grey of social work into the black and white world of law.
And still we wait thinking about all the work you need to do but can’t. No matter what is happening in your other cases, everything stands still while you are in court. Without access to a room of our own with adequate privacy, even simple phone calls prove difficult, and anything more complex, such as case notes or referrals, is never going to happen.
Eventually you wind up in the courtroom in front of a judge. Earlier in the day you don’t have any idea which presiding officer will be in front of you, and this can really make or break your case. It is worrying how much a magistrate’s personality can actually impact a case, and it’s hard to know if you and the child at the center of the case will win or lose this judicial lottery.
I try and remember it’s not personal. When the lawyers verbally assault me during cross-examination, they are just doing their job; when magistrates shout at me, they are just doing theirs.
At the end of the day there is a child, or sometimes several children, whose future depends on this spectacle. That is the worst part, and the most stressful part. We as social workers try our best, but if the court doesn’t agree for whatever reason it has real and serious consequences. These are the cases where you can easily be haunted by the personal doubt of “did I do enough?”
Is there anything that can make this better? Simple things like giving the social workers some office space, maybe even with a computer hooked up to our case database, or just some privacy to allow work to be done would help. This separation can also reduce the tension with parents.
On a deeper level, a complete overhaul of how the courts work would make a significant difference, replacing the combative nature of common law with an inquisitorial system that is not acting as referee between two sides. This, however, is a huge change to our legal system and not without controversy.