Social Workers, beware – no jargon, use plain language

Social worker - beware no jargonOne of the great qualities that a social care worker should possess is the ability to communicate clearly. This skill also needs to be transferrable in any written work that the social care worker produces. The need for clear oral and written communication was recently highlighted in a reported care case {Derbyshire County Council v SH [2015] EWFC B102}. In this case the Judge was highly critical of the social workers and named them personally in the judgement.

The subjects of these proceedings were 2 girls born in 2011 and 2012, having been removed from their mother’s care due to exposure of domestic violence. The care plan proposed was either for adoption or a special guardianship order for the grandmother who was initially believed to the paternal grandmother of the eldest child. It was subsequently proved with the use of a paternity DNA test that she was not a biological relation. The assessment of the grandmother as a special guardian was negative; the Local Authority and the Guardian did not support placement with the grandmother long term. The court granted final orders approving a care plan for adoption. The grandmother appealed and the Judge ordered an Independent Social Worker to report on the grandmother as a long term carer for both children. The report was negative.

The family court Judge heavily criticised the Independent Social Worker for using “opaque” language in the court report. The Judge noted that the family involved would struggle to understand the report and that it “might just as well have been written in a foreign language.” The Judge described the grandmother as a “simple soul” who speaks in plain language and who struggled to understand the court process and the information presented about her.

The Judge dedicated a large part of the judgement on the presentation and analysis of the evidence by the social workers. The Judge considered the language used to be unhelpful and suggested alternatives. When the social worker reported that “I asked her to convey a narrative about her observations in respect of the mother and father’s relationship”, the Judge asked “What would be wrong in saying I asked her to tell me.” The Judge also questioned the multiple use of the word “interplay” and suggested that the words “impact” or “effect” would have been more understandable. The Judge clarified that expert reports are not just written solely for the benefit for professionals, advocates and the Judge but also need to be understood by the parents and other litigants.

The Judge was not only critical of the written report but also expressed concerns about the social worker’s ability to discuss the issues with the grandmother so that she could understand and feel able to express herself. The Judge accepted the grandmother’s evidence that she did not always understand what the ISW was saying.

The Judge also raised concerns about the lack of analysis and in particular the lack of independent analysis by the local authority social worker whom the Judge said had not carried out a proper assessment and had only based her conclusions on discussions with the grandmother during contact visits with the children. The Judge also noted that the local authority social worker’s case notes were not contemporaneous and were in fact written up after her cross examination at an earlier hearing.

The Judge ruled that the grandmother should be given the opportunity to care for the children.

The-quality-of-assessment-for-children-in-need-of-helpThis case raises a number of practice issues for social care workers, placing emphasis on the fact that they should ensure that their written reports are clear of complex language and jargon. The issue of workers using jargon, unclear language and trying to “over professionalise” written assessments was also identified by Ofsted in their report ‘The quality of assessment for children in need of help’, a thematic survey published on 04 August 2015.

Using complex language can result in workers not being able to clearly communicate the contents of their assessment or any findings. This is of course essential so that family members or service users can clearly understand the contents of the report which may then assist with their level of co-operation with any action plan or recommendations suggested by the social care workers. It is also important to use analysis and move beyond hypothesis, as this demonstrates far more clearly the social care worker’s expertise.

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