Child Welfare Reporters: a question of competence?

As a psychologist, I have worked in England, Wales and Scotland. I work with children, parents and families, mainly around family breakdown. I provide therapeutic interventions, clinical supervision and am instructed to conduct assessments in family law cases. I also provide pro bono advice and support. It will be of no surprise then, that I have come across many Section 7 reports, and their Scottish counterpart, Child Welfare Reports.

As with all reports of this nature, there is variability in quality. From time to time I have had cause to be critical of a Section 7 report – an apparent lack of knowledge, the process and methods used, or the recommendations made. In the majority of cases though, I see reports where the skill, knowledge and understanding of the Family Court Adviser (FCA) is evident. Where there is an awareness of complexity and nuance; where children are front and centre; where the safeguarding lens is cast wide. A self-awareness too – of limits to competence, requesting additional expert input where necessary. Reports where recommendations are evidence based. Where the quality falls short of the required standard, there are clear mechanisms for raising concerns.

The same cannot be said for the Child Welfare Reports I have viewed. Despite clear instructions issued by the Scottish Government’s Working Group on Child Welfare Reporters 1, I have yet to see a report where the Child Welfare Reporter (CWR) gives any details of their qualifications or relevant training. Of major concern is the questioning of children. Often, the process of eliciting a child’s views is not recorded. While there is sometimes sensitive, child focused engagement, at other times, children are questioned in the company of a parent, sometimes having been privy to their parent’s discussions with the CWR. An understanding of leading questions, non-verbal communication and issues related to repeated questioning is often absent. Most significantly, I have noted possible re-traumatisation of those who have experienced abuse and inappropriate questioning of children with learning difficulties or neurodiverse presentations.

There is a lack of knowledge around child development, attachment, domestic abuse, family dynamics, and little understanding of what might constitute a risk of harm to a child. There is often a lack of curiosity and over reliance on what seems, at first glance, most apparent. And where there is clear indication of likely harm – at times this is not identified, and rarely is a referral made to safeguarding services.

I am not alone in these concerns; they are not new. They go back more than 30 years. “The lack of understanding of child development and family dynamics can result in an adult view rather than a child-centred one.” Such concerns, in addition to others around the interviewing of children, determining “genuine” views and potential “severe consequences on the child’s psychological state and social environment” led to recommendations for improvements and reform234 . Nearly 10 years later, these concerns have yet to be addressed.

In arriving at their recommendations to put before the Sheriff, I have yet to see a considered analysis by a CWR weighing likely risks for a child against the likely benefits. Recommendations on child arrangements, therapeutic interventions and family support lack evidence, or are absent from the recommendations altogether. Despite this – recommendations are implemented by Sheriffs in almost 90% of cases 5.

So why these differences between England and Wales, and Scotland?

I need to acknowledge first, that the sample of reports I see, is a biased sample. I work with complex cases. Yet the sample in England and Wales is no more or less complex to that in Scotland. However, it is also important to acknowledge, that the majority of cases now in private law proceedings are complex. Factors present often include parental and child mental ill health, neurodevelopmental difference, allegations or findings of domestic violence or child abuse, acrimony and inter-parental conflict, alleged interference in a child-parent relationship, reconfigured family structures and new relationships, substance misuse, child protection history and the involvement of statutory services. The cases now heard in private family law proceedings are not the same as the cases heard 40 years ago.

Around 40 years ago, solicitors in Scotland began to undertake bar reports, as they were then called, filling a gap arising from the inadequate funding of local authority social work departments to do this work. Today 90% of all Child Welfare Reports are written by solicitors. In England and Wales, all Section 7 assessments are undertaken by registered social workers.

While often referred to as “the eyes and ears of the court”, CWRs are required to draw conclusions and make recommendations; recommendations regarding child welfare.

Undoubtedly, solicitors aim to fulfil this important role with a desire to help children – completing assessments to the best of their ability. Overconfident solicitors sincerely believe they have the requisite expertise to fulfil this role. The reality is they do not know, what they do not know. In my opinion, the role is clearly outwith the competence of solicitors and sits firmly within the professional remit of regulated social workers.

We cannot leave the welfare and safety of children to chance. Every child, including children living in Scotland, deserves to be assured of a competent assessment of their welfare needs when the Court deems it appropriate to order one. This can only be effected by professionals with the core knowledge and experience to identify and evaluate the complex range of factors which impact on a child’s welfare and positive relationship with their parents. All Child Welfare Reporters should be social workers.

Dr Sue Whitcombe CPsychol
Counselling Psychologist

1 Instructions to Child Welfare Reporters: Edition 1. Scottish Government(2016)

2 Children in Divorce in the Sheriff Court. Susan Matheson (1987)

3 Child Welfare Hearings: A Scoping Study of the Commissioning, Preparation and Use of Bar Reports. Richard Whitecross (2011)

4 The Voice of the Child, International Family Law. A Dick (2008)

5 Child Welfare Hearings: A Scoping Study of the Commissioning, Preparation and Use of Bar Reports. Richard Whitecross (2011)

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