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Expert’s Corner: Court reports should be succinct, accessible and evidence-based

ISW Gerry Mulcahy talks about going independent, writing reports for the courts and using Story Stem Assessment Protocol.

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Court reports should be as short as possible while offering a comprehensive overview of opinions in the field, an expert in parenting assessments has warned.

Independent Social Worker Gerry Mulcahy said that, in an ideal world, court reports should be succinct and to the point, lacking professional jargon and accessible and easy for any judge reading it to make sense of.

Mulcahy said he had once been in a session with president of the family courts division Sir James Munby who had suggested that social workers’ reports for the courts should be no longer than 5-10 pages long. Mulcahy said while this was ambitious, a report should be as short as possible.

However, he warned that courts are usually asking for an opinion or recommendation and while it can be tempting to ‘sit on the fence,’ the report should offer an answer to the question being asked from the courts with reasons, evidence and up-to-date thinking on the subject backing the opinion.

Social workers should provide not just their professional opinion, but offer a range of opinions in the field that apply. “Independent Social Workers are in a privileged position that they can reflect and explain to the court about the consensus and the range of acceptable opinions,” he said.

‘There wasn’t a blame culture back then’

Mulcahy went into social work in his 30s after a series of unskilled jobs during his 20s where he combined work and travel. At 30, he was keen to go back to education and train in ‘human services’, having an interest in people and politics. He qualified in social work wanting “to make a difference, having a political sense of injustice”.

Mulcahy’s first job was a social worker in the Kensal Neighbourhood Team of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea where he carried out casework with children and their families on the child protection register and children in care proceedings and held Approved Social Worker duties under the Mental Health Act 1983.

“Social workers were generic then, we worked with everyone, from children to older people or someone being discharged from a psychiatric unit and requiring care in the community. It was a small neighbourhood in North Kensington and, as well as being well-resourced, we were very protected. We were introduced to the work, there wasn’t a blame culture,” said Mulcahy.

He describes an incident during his first year in the profession when he was working with a family where domestic violence was an issue. The father took the two year old child to the 13th floor of a building and jumped off, killing them both. Mulcahy says there was no blame attributed to him, the department, the authority as there seemed to be an understanding that sadly, you cannot prevent all awful events and tragedies.

‘I have never seen such concentrated neglect down to heavy drinking’

Mulcahy had trained as an Approved Social Worker meaning he could be called upon along with a GP and psychiatrist, to ascertain whether someone required compulsory admission to hospital under the Mental Health Act. However, Mulcahy found the role too restrictive and focused on emergencies and he didn’t feel that social work was seen as central to the work with people with mental health problems with nursing and health agencies taking centre stage.

He had carried out observations of a child every week for a year and experiencing that, along with the needs he saw for children and families, compelled Mulcahy to lean more towards children’s welfare work where care proceedings offered social workers a better chance to influence children’s experiences in their families in a stronger way than in the mental health field.

During the 1990s and 2000s Mulcahy worked across three London boroughs: Kensington and Chelsea, Islington and Westminster. In Kensington and Chelsea, Mulcahy built strong links with the local nursery and toddler group from which children’s services were receiving a lot of referrals. He spent time with the nursery weekly talking to staff and parents about child protection and providing advice and information and also attended the school for an hour weekly where teachers or parents could talk to him about concerns or make referrals.

The London Borough of Islington was different in the sense that Mulcahy said he has never in his social work career experienced “such concentrated child neglect linked to heavy drinking”. While in Westminster, it may have been one of the top five wealthiest local authorities at the time, but that did not mean that resources were directed to social work practice. Whereas in neighbouring Kensington and Chelsea there had been a focus on looking after the less advantaged, Westminster Council priorities were keeping tax low and hanging pretty flower baskets from each lamppost”.

“We always complain but in comparison to outer London boroughs we were well resourced and had the options to put activities in place for children in school holidays or provide specialist psychological help for young people – the base level of resources was pretty good,” says Mulcahy.

Time to down-size

During the late 1990’s Mulcahy began lecturing in social work part-time and carried out some consultancy work for the London Boroughs of Camden and Lewisham. In Camden, Mulcahy was case mapping and evaluating the design for information sharing between agencies following the death of Victoria Climbie in 2000 who died following months of neglect and abuse by her great aunt Marie Therese Kouao and her partner Carl Manning who were subsequently found guilty of child cruelty and murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. In Lewisham, Mulcahy worked on a proposal for a residential unit for adolescents.

In 2006, Mulcahy became a manager and senior social worker with the Family Assessment Service, at the Anna Freud Centre. “I worked with a multi-disciplinary team on assignments for the family courts when they wanted a second or expert opinion on a case,” he explains.

Mulcahy turned to independent social work in 2014. Having worked across three local authorities, had a stint lecturing and worked as a manager with practice responsibilities at the Anna Freud Centre, he decided it was time to ‘down-size’ and do other things with his time while still contributing to social work through consultancy work part-time.

His professional work now mainly centres on seeing children and parents and producing records or court reports around:

  • parenting capacity and risk
  • children's attachment and care needs
  • parent child and sibling relationships
  • couple conflict and domestic violence
  • impact of mental health and personality difficulties on parenting
  • learning difficulties and parenting
  • substance abuse and parenting
  • permanency and contact plans
  • parent support needs and change capacity

“In the last two years I have worked on several child sexual abuse cases and the rest have been around neglect and parental competence and whether or not an intervention, be it social or psychological, educational, or support can bring parenting up to an adequate level,” explains Mulcahy.

‘The results of Story Stem Assessment Protocol work are extraordinary’

Attachment theory comes into much of the work that Mulcahy undertakes and he describes it as the “best theory we have” with the findings replicated in children across the world. John Bowlby first coined the term in the 1960s as a result of his studies involving the developmental psychology of children from various backgrounds. Attachment theory states that a secure enough attachment relationship with at least one primary carer is critical to personal development.

“It doesn’t tell you everything, it is a central part of the thinking and understanding around the child and family’s circumstances, but it is not the be all and end all,”

“There are large numbers in the population who have an insecure attachment, it doesn’t mean you cannot be a good enough parent – we are all flawed as parents,” says Mulcahy. “Sometimes there is the assumption that if the parent has a disorganised attachment then their child, without other compensating factors, will develop an insecure attachment. But some children of parents with an insecure attachment do no develop an insecure attachment. Some studies show up to 20% may not carry the transmission effect.”

“It is sensible to give your child affection, and to react sensibly and with enough sensitivity, and reliably, to what the child needs - most people know that without calling it attachment theory,” he added.

Mulcahy loves carrying out the Story Stem Assessment Protocol work with children where he works with children aged four to eight and they set out that they are going to develop the child’s story. “The procedure involves using Duplo dolls, animals and props. The child is given a series of ordinary family scenarios, say a drink is spilled, and then asked to “show and tell” what happens next in their story. I’ve had children replicate to an unbelievable extent reports about domestic violence that happened 18 months earlier, it is quite extraordinary. Giving the children the opportunity through play doesn’t place the child in the positon of ‘shopping’ directly their mum or dad. It allows the child to represent their experience of family through play and the standardised rating system is highly reliable for measuring attachment,” he adds.

‘Keeping in touch with the latest thinking is vital’

In his consultancy work, Mulcahy also works with parents with mental health problems and while he has not recently had cases involving parents with schizophrenia or psychoses, there have been cases involving parents with a personality disorder. Often, when two parents separate and are unable to resolve the issues it ends up in court. The court will request an expert opinion and one of the challenges for the ISW is to get to what the issues are really about, says Mulcahy. Parenting difficulties are not separate from mental health difficulties in terms of nurturing and sustaining relationships whether that is with children, adults or other professionals. Often when the relationship between the parent and the social worker has broken down, it will emerge that other relationships have broken down between the parent and the school or the parent and a helping professional.

The techniques Mulcahy uses with most parents no matter what the difficulties they are experiencing be it learning difficulties, domestic violence, substance misuse or mental health problems is to go back to basics and show the person respect, listen to them and offer them help to tell their story. “I’m an old fashioned social worker and I take the history of the person combined with their current environment, to try and understand that person,” said Mulcahy. “I take their history, their schooling, childhood, relationships and drill down to what has led to this situation.”

He also uses the parent development interview which he says is a “very good tool to use when assessing parents’ capacity for sensitive/competent enough care”. Mulcahy says it assesses to what extent the parent has the ability for “reflective functioning”. This is the capacity to recognise and respond to their child’s separate mind and states.

As well as his independent work, Mulcahy has researched and published on outcomes for children after care proceedings and relationship based social work and also researched the assessment needs of parents and children's experience of their assessment in care proceedings.

“I am interested in how we can promote good outcomes for children and families experiencing difficulties including child maltreatment, neglect and loss,” says Mulcahy. “I am always interested in research and writing and as an ISW, keeping in touch with the latest thinking, development and research is vitally important,” concludes Mulcahy.

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