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Following the Paper Trail All the Way to Hell!

July 13, 2012

With this blog I wanted to give an insight into the world of Social Work, an insight into the process of Social Work – how we do what we do, why we do what we do. Central to the process of modern social work is the paper trail, our case notes and other forms, to the extent it sometimes feels like all we do.

A few quick examples of the paper trail, but by no means all:

  • Case notes – everything we do should be written down, everything. Every phone call, every conversation with other staff relevant to a case, everything. If it’s not in the cases notes it didn’t happen – an idea I will come back too
  • Referral forms – every time we need a service for our clients it means a stack of forms to fill out, this is very frustrating when it is a HSE service, or indeed the childcare workers on our own team as it feels more about control than providing a service. Looking for private services outside the HSE mean a funding request, private procurement application with three quotes and the agencies own referral form – the result being that when an service is needed as soon as possible, as soon as possible turns into a six  weeks.
  • Standardized Business Forms. – The HSE in a well intentioned attempt to deal with the lack of consistency and clear standards across the country have introduced standardized process, and a dozen forms to back them up. While the aim is good (and discussed below) the reality means more paperwork with deadlines and stats (intake form in 24 hours, initial assessment in 20 days, and how many done in that time scale measured and monitored)
  • Court reports – never use “could” “would” or “should” unless you want to get an earful from the judge. Never copy and paste from the previous report (even if nothing has changed) unless you want an earful from the judge. Get them in 3 working days in advance, unless you want an earful from the judge (spotting a pattern here?). And certainly have them ready before every other professional so that they can copy and paste from your report!
  • Statistical returns – The numbers and the data have begun a big thing for the HSE but in all the wrong ways. Either way, we now have a load of forms to fill in showing how much of our targets we are hitting.


The simple fact is that every week there seems to be more and more paperwork; but like many things in Social Work isn’t a black and white issue.


Why so much paper work? If it’s not on paper it didn’t happen. You could have done an in depth productive and effective piece of work with a client, but if you don’t write it down it never happened. So the paper work provides on one side increased oversight and increased transparency. What you did and why becomes real, is there for all to see. It becomes easier to track decisions of Social Workers, to follow the history of a case, to understand what workers, what didn’t and what needs to be done. Given a long history of scandals and inquiries this can only be a good thing. However, this breeds a defensive reaction, a fear that everything must be written down, not to record the nuances of a case, but to protect the worker. Every little conversation with a Team Leader becomes an email or a joint case note. Every time a child or parent sneezes, it becomes a case note so that no one can say the Social Worker didn’t do their job. The recent reports into deaths of children in care highlighted the importance of this, they were solely based on reviews of the files, and any work not recorded was not seen. A Social Worker could have been criticized for not doing something that was in fact done. This defensive practice will only be made worse when registration is in full swing, as every Social Worker is open to personal liability in their cases. Getting the balance right between these two sides can be hard, and depends on so much beyond the control of the Social Worker. A well supported Social Worker on a high morale team will probably be less defensive and as a result more engaged with the work, and the reality is good cases notes make the work easier and make court reports and indeed giving evidence easier.


Coupled to much of the new and increasing paper work is stats and targets. This is an issue I looked at in a previous post (Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics…Social Work by Numbers) and since that time it feels like things have got worse. Stats are not being used to provide an insight into the work and understanding why or why not things happen, they are targets to hit regardless of quality and effectiveness. The pressure and the political game come from the top and roll all the way down the bureaucratic chain. Social Workers and Social Work teams have to struggle to keep the client, i.e. the child, at the centre of things instead of being about numbers on a graph. This is where effective leadership in managers shows, in Team Leaders, and more so in Principal Social Workers, as they try and maintain the right balance.


So, where does all of this leave the coal face Social Worker? More importantly where does this leave Social Work?


How the individual Social Worker handles this depends a lot on them and their personality and how organized and efficient they are in themselves. However, even the best will feel that pressure, that weight of responsibility that comes with the job and the undone case note. This is counter balanced by the pressure of the undone home visit, the visit you couldn’t do because you were so busy with the paperwork. Sometimes it feels like time management and efficiency at paperwork are more important than interpersonal skills! It can be stressful, it can be frustrating but I think most Social Workers understand the importance of good paperwork; good case notes and accept it as part of the job.


So what about Social Work as a practice? If we accept on the one side time with clients and building relationships and accept on the other hand the importance of proper paper work than an optimal balance must be found. The case notes and the direct work aren’t mutually exclusive with a proper caseload that allows time for both, but the reality is that most teams are so under resourced both in terms of workers and in terms of admin support that caseloads become too big to manage both competing elements of the work. This is dangerous for clients and for children as inevitably one of the two important parts will suffer. This is also dangerous for Social Work as new or potential Social Workers decide they want to work with people not paper and look elsewhere.


Oh, and I haven’t even touched on the most annoying part of the paperwork, our decaying and outdated IT systems, which as the Standardized Business Processes are rolled out will come under increasing pressure and will move closer to outright collapse.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2012 15:38

    Well said.
    Yes, why pay strangers hundreds of euros per week to look after the same child that the natural family receive much less for?
    Fostering has become a business in Eire with children as the commodity and profit being the ultimate goal as in any business.
    Best Interests of the child is a slogan first used by Hitler and SS and why would any society use that slogan with Nazi energy signature on it? It is insane.
    In a hierarchical patriarchal society like Eire, of course children are still the chattels of the males with women and children pigeon holed together.
    As a former service user of HSE social work depts etc and a professional, I was horrified at what I experienced and learned.
    My solicitor explained that daily children are court ordered to be abused in order to comply with the law.
    He explained how it is done and how it is a crime to abuse adults in the manner described but not children.
    of course, rarely is it pointed out how HSE social workers and their legal teams breach article 6 of human rights on a daily basis.
    No one seems to know the law on this matter, or do know it but refuse to implement it by allowing service users to have copies of ALL REPORTS before the courts as outlined in case law Strasbourg 1997

    In the case of Nideröst-Huber v. Switzerland 27th January 1997 Case Number 104/1995/610/698.
    24. ….the concept of fair trial also implies in principle the right for the parties to a trial to have knowledge of and comment on all evidence adduced or observations filed

    In that case the Government argued that this rule applied to cases where,…. an authority had taken the initiative of submitting arguments or observations intended to advise or influence a court. …..The Court noted that even though the observations in issue ran to only one page they nevertheless constituted a reasoned opinion on the merits of the appeal, and explicitly called for it to be dismissed. As the Delegate of the Commission observed, they were therefore manifestly aimed at influencing the Federal Court’s decision.

    It is also of little consequence that the case concerned civil litigation, where the national authorities, as the Government rightly pointed out, enjoy greater latitude than in the criminal sphere … According to the Lobo Machado and Vermeulen judgments, on this point the requirements derived from the right to adversarial proceedings are the same in both civil and criminal cases

    Nor is the position altered when, in the opinion of the courts concerned, the observations do not present any fact or argument which has not already appeared in the impugned decision. Only the parties to a dispute may properly decide whether this is the case; it is for them to say whether or not a document calls for their comments. What is particularly at stake here is litigants’ confidence in the workings of justice, which is based on, inter alia, the knowledge that they have had the opportunity to express their views on every document in the file.

    — In case of Ocalan v Turkey 2003 (Application No. 46221/99) the Court reiterated that under the principle of equality and arms one of the features of a fair trial is that “each party must be afforded a reasonable opportunity to present his case under conditions which do not place him under a disadvantage vis a vis his or her opponent.”
    In the case of Lobo Machado v. Portugal, 22 January 1996; Regard being had, therefore, to what was at stake for the applicant in the proceedings in the Supreme Court and to the nature of the Deputy Attorney-General’s opinion, in which it was advocated that the appeal should be dismissed (see paragraph 14 above), the fact that it was impossible for Mr. Lobo Machado to obtain a copy of it and reply to it before judgment was given infringed his right to adversarial proceedings.

    That right means in principle the opportunity for the parties to a criminal or civil trial to have knowledge of and comment on all evidence adduced or observations filed, even by an independent member of the national legal service, with a view to influencing the court’s decision. The Court finds that this fact in itself amounts to a breach of Article 6 para. 1 (art. 6-1).
    Until the Applicant asked if a bench memorandum had been prepared the Applicant could not raise the issue.
    Before Lord Justice Wall on 23.03.2006 and LJ Thorpe on 20.09.2006 the Applicant had raised the same issue yet on both occasions the Lord Justices stated that they had looked at the documents themselves. I
    n fact when Lord Justice Wall was asked he shouted out ‘it’s none of your business.’
    Lord Justice Thorpe stated that in all the thousands of cases he had dealt with, no lawyer had ever asked him that question-

  2. anon permalink
    August 12, 2014 03:29

    i as a mother of a child in care agree with the above comment. my child was abused by a foster parent. when my child reported it to the social worker and team leader my child was threatened by the team leader. went to school the following day traumatised and broke down crying and when the teacher took her from the class to find out what was wrong my child stated “i was threatened by the hse” referring to the team leader. last year in another foster placement my child because of stress developed stomach trouble and lost so much weight she was anorexic. this was down to stress put on her from the invincible “social workers and nobody else. They have bullied my child to no end and have even gone so far as used her to threaten me on the phone on more than one occasion. this is since the introduction of tusla. how do social workers hope to gain a happy medium between parents children and them if they are going to go on like this. this new agency are worse than the hse

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