I go to court a lot in my capacity as an advocate. Most commonly the hearing will be related to child protection proceedings and my job is to support parents who are trying their best to understand what is happening.
Imagine yourself sitting in a court room surrounded by at least thirty people in suits, most of whom you don`t know and you certainly don`t understand what their role is. You believe you are in trouble of some kind and worry about the judge and what they will think of you. Your learning disability means that it is really hard to follow the proceedings, the barristers are talking too fast and they are using big words like `redacted` and `Residence Order` and `interim` and `Special Guardianship` and you are thinking, “What on earth does that mean – I haven`t got a clue.”
It is a really scary time for any parent and particularly so for those who have a learning disability. It is why advocates are so important because they play such a vital role in assisting parents to understand what is going on and why and the changes they need to make in order to be the best parents they can possibly be.
Time and again in court, I have been personally thanked by judges for my contribution to the proceedings. Removing children in to care is one of the most serious decisions a judge can possibly make, with far reaching consequences for the child and their birth parents. Judges are extremely careful to ensure that anyone with a learning difficulty has received appropriate support and more often than not, too late in the proceedings the judge will be made aware that they haven`t. Child Protection proceedings can often be delayed for months while judges ensure that parents have had appropriate assessments so that paperwork and court hearings are especially geared for parents` particular levels of understanding. These delays hurt the children.
Why is it then that social workers and other professionals do not always make the same efforts on behalf of their clients? It makes me so cross! Here at Solihull Advocacy it is not unheard of to receive referrals for advocacy a few days before the baby is due to be born, or the day of the final hearing. It is much too late for us to work effectively with those parents and so the whole episode becomes a tragic, hand holding exercise as we sit with parents while babies are removed into foster placements. It saddens and disappoints me because many of those mums and dads would be doing so much better if only children`s services had introduced an advocate to the case much earlier.
This week, I went to a Residential Review at an assessment centre where parents live with their children for up to 12 weeks, sometimes longer. I commented that I hadn`t had sight of the report prior to the meeting which is pretty poor show and I was handed a 30 page report at the start. I was given little opportunity (e.g. would you like to spend five minutes with Helen before we start?) to properly go through the report with my client and the result was that she became upset, angry and defensive, none of which would help her case. It is just so thoughtless.
It is also common for social workers not to get back to our e-mails and telephone calls which is not only rude and unprofessional but also frustrating for advocates and very unhelpful and disrespectful to the people we support. Not to put too fine a point on it – it is BAD PRACTICE. Hey you there – social worker – we all have busy schedules you know! If I didn`t return calls or e mails then my manager would be asking me why?
If you are a social worker or any other professional working with parents who have a learning disability, do me a favour would you, keep me in the loop, the earlier the better!