Providing expert witness assessments during the pandemic

Kieran Darnell
Friday, July 17, 2020

Carter Brown provides expert witnesses to local authorities. Here, Kieran Darnell explains the measures it has taken to maintain services during the pandemic.

Expert witnesses provide an objective party to the family courts relating to children and young people across the country, as well as expert advice for fostering, adoption and special guardianship cases.

When Covid-19 lockdown took hold, it turned a face to face assessment service to a virtual assessment service overnight and affected the majority of cases that were already in progress, especially those that included an assessment of a child. With schools and contact centres closing, alongside visits to the home being considered dangerous in lieu of the pandemic, this resulted in little to no appropriate place to see a child.

The impact on delay to an assessment means a delay on the court being able to make decisions for children and families and in implementing recommendations for future work including therapeutic intervention and support, contact arrangements and ultimately the care plans for the children.

Our referral rates were also affected. At first, we saw 40 per cent decrease in requests for assessments, with a gradual build up over an eight-week period. However, we are now seeing an excess of our usual referred work. In June, we reached around 1,500 referrals, 15 per cent higher than our previous highest total in July 2019 and equates to around 10 more referrals a day than we were receiving pre Covid-19.

These changes and the social distancing restrictions we are facing meant every single person throughout the organisation needed to work flexibly and differently.

Our team of psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers would normally rely on face to face interaction as vital to their assessment process. Our psychometric tests, for example, are usually completed in person. Some of our psychologists split out their assessments of families, assessing adults and older children virtually or via social distancing initially. Decisions regarding older children could be considered in the meantime whilst restrictions were lifted and schools able to accommodate appointments with younger children.

Our social workers have hand delivered and collected assessment material to parents to review and use ahead of/during their virtual sessions and due to solicitors and local authority offices being closed, we have arranged meetings at hotels, hosting key workers, to enable safe face to face assessments to take place.

The increase in referrals does pose the question, what is to come? Is this just a catch up of the back logged cases impacted by Covid-19?

Lockdown has caused many vulnerable children to become invisible, and so many of us are wondering what the impact of reduced day-to-day provision such as schools, health and extra-curricular groups that provided a safeguarding blanket, will be? I worry that the increases we are already seeing only represent a tiny fraction of the impact and this represents the beginning of a very challenging time for the entire system and all those children and young people that depend on it.

Local authorities, children’s services, courts and families are going to require more support to ensure as a sector, we are capable of safeguarding children and young people across the country.

As a result, we have continued to innovate and continually consider how our services can be provided in the very near future. This has already led us to develop social work assessment that combines virtual reality insight tools with our usual assessment process. Virtual Reality has the power to make real change and by using technology we can provide carers, parents and professionals with a way to really understand and empathise with the experiences of children who have experienced trauma. Our VR programme uses a trauma informed approach that allows adults to experience negative experiences through the eyes of a child.

Technology will certainly play an important role for us as we move out of lockdown, and our team will need to continue to be innovative and adaptable to their changing environment and the needs of local authorities and family courts.

Kieran Darnell is service delivery director at Antser Group

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