Review: Overworked and underpaid

Review: Overworked and underpaid

Douglas Cusine is impressed by a ‘first-class’, enlightening and readable account by a child protection lawyer of an under-resourced and neglected area of the law.

This book gets off to a interesting and gripping start, and it continues that way. In the preface, we are told that in England and Wales, Child Protection Orders are dealt with by lay magistrates (not so, in Scotland). “My chances of persuading justices not to place [the] child for adoption are virtually non-existent.” Why, because, as the author says, they are in the main older, and white, and very often have little or no understanding of the sort of life some children have. However, she succeeds in the case of ‘Alice’ because of a series of incompetences on the part of the local authority, which did not impress the bench.

In the first chapter, the author explains that she came from a poor-ish background, but worked hard at school, went to university and became a lawyer, and why she wrote the book – to make readers aware of what miserable lives some children have and to take a critical look at the Child Protection System.

Before getting to that point, she tells us candidly of the problems faced by the inexperienced (we have all been there) but observes that in most cases and for most of the time, even the most skilled and experienced lawyers do not succeed in preventing children being removed from their parent(s). The reader cannot fail to want to read on. The book has no index; it does not need, and should not have one and so, the reader is not tempted to “dip in”.

We are told who are involved in child protection. We can skip that chapter if we already know, but it is a very concise, illuminating “bird’s eye” account.

The book gives a lot of detail about various cases in which the author has been involved. She comes over as a very able, sensible individual, but she does not miss the target. Any one involved in family cases will have come across the inexperienced social worker who tries to conceal the lack of experience with bluster, or the “long-in-the tooth” social worker who knows what is best for the child, some of whom seem to resent the court‘s involvement.

As she points out, a “competent lawyer always looks critically at the case put forward by the local authority, searching for what may be missing, or overstated”. We will have seen the expert, or skilled witness who does not like a view being challenged and while being positive in examination-in-chief becomes evasive in cross, e.g. “I cannot really comment on that”.

While the author concentrates on the cases, there are insights into her family life and her conversations with her friends, who ask, “How do you manage to deal with these awful cases?” The answer is not “Someone has to do it”. In my experience, family lawyers are, in the main, dedicated and like the author, cannot switch off and leave the horrors in the office. The author of this book, correctly states that thus is impossible and in one instance, she was still awake at 3am thinking about one of her many serious and tragic cases. Judges are not immune.

The author has the advantage of having worked for a local authority first, in the early 1990s, but latterly, as her son put it, it drove her “nuts”, and so her thoughts on that aspect cannot be dismissed on the basis of: “What would she know”. In her final chapter, she points to the fact that the NHS and other public services have been cut to the considerable detriment of those families and children who most need them.

Related to that, she laments the exodus of experienced and caring social workers and expresses a concern about the quality of some who are presently with the service. She finishes by pointing out that judges make decisions in cases without any research by which she means that the system would benefit from knowing about the children who have been through the system and what happened to them since and she believes, with justification, that judges would benefit from that.

This is a first-class book, very readable, packed full of information and virtually jargon-free – a great achievement. It deserves to be read by lay people who may not know anything about the Child Protection System, but about all, by everyone involved in that system in whatever capacity and jurisdiction.

In Harm’s Way: The Memoir of a Child Protection Lawyer by Teresa Thornhill. Published by Harper Collins, 304pp, £20.

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