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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Liability Chill in child protection

The notion of liability chill is not unknown in various endeavours. Essentially, an enterprise begins to behave in a protective fashion to protect itself from liability claims. Often, this can mean conservative practices. In child protection, it can mean an increase in children being brought into care. It can also mean a risk aversive approach to clinical practice. Rather than take a reasonable chance on a parent or family reunification, it can lead to being more intrusive or taking longer to consider the possibility of return to parental care.

Two unrelated cases - one on the USA and one in the UK - may well lead to liability chill but, if looked at for the clinical lessons that both offer - should not lead there at all. Yet, both cases can scare social workers.

In the first case in North Carolina (the case of Aubery Kina-Marie Littlejohn), the child protection agency and social workers are being sued for the failure to protect a 15 month child from the fatal abuse of a parent. The Republic notes that:

The new complaint filed in Swain County Superior Court names the county DSS as a defendant along with seven current and former social workers, including the former head of the agency, Tammy Cagle. 

The lawsuit goes a bot further and raises an issue that is resonate across North America, Australia and New Zealand - the nature of child protection involvement with Aboriginal populations. In this case, the allegation is that not enough is being done to protect children within these populations. This is a dangerous approach - on the one hand, children regardless of where they live deserve a vibrant and effective child protection service. Thus, no part of society should receive less service. Yet, there is the real concern that child protection might target populations deemed less able to care for their children (see the prior post on racial bias). The Aboriginal populations have received racially based interventions. Care must be taken to not return to those ways. If this case were to succeed, it has the potential to raise the idea that Aboriginal populations may need targeted services. They do not need to be ignored but neither do they need to be singled out.

The second case in the UK has seen a social worker, David Alexander Fry, struck off as a registered social worker. He was found to have failed in many areas of practice. What is worrisome is that the General Social Care Council (GSCC) felt that it was the social worker's job to raise concerns that his case load was too high to manage. Perhaps so, but where was the responsibility of the management to effectively supervise the worker and manage the volume of cases assigned.

This is not to take away from the rather serious clinical failings of the worker. As reports:

He also had a number of different team managers and received supervision only three times during that five-month period...“If the registrant was unable to keep up with his workload and record keeping, he should have done more to bring that to the attention of his managers, even allowing for the fact that those managers were constantly changing,” the committee said.
 That is bad management. A worker might well start to take cover and try to protect themselves in such a situation. Sure, good case management does that but so does "C.Y.A." case management. Clients suffer when that occurs. It is one thing to hold the worker accountable for poor social work - but do the same for poor supervision and management.

All of this is not to say that social workers should not be held accountable - like any profession they should be - but care should be taken to ensure that the liability is for the right thing.

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