After 20 years as a family lawyer, Sarah Woolrich was puzzled by the knots that families got themselves into: why couldn’t some separating parents see that their hostility played out in front of the children? Why did advising people make such a difference in some cases and no difference at all in others? Was there anything she could do that would change the outcome? In an insightful interview, Sarah speaks with us on the family justice system, social work, vulnerable children and the law.
How did your training as a psychotherapist help shape the way in which you practice law?
My aspiration was to be able to work with troubled parents as a therapist and hope that they would be able to care for future children in a way which they couldn’t care for their older children.
However, I learned that there is little investment in good long term psychotherapy for genuinely disadvantaged families; poverty and educational impoverishment seemed to be barriers to accessing anything other than short-term therapy.
I returned to the bar after 5 years of retraining and practice, having learned enough to know that really deep seated problems were unlikely to be solved within the lifetime of a single set of care proceedings.
I use what I learned most days, in making decisions about whether a psychological or psychiatric assessment is really necessary, in what to ask about attachment or sibling relationships. More broadly, it sheds light on family and group dynamics, helping me at least sometimes to stay out of the drama.
As a Thought Leader, what traits do you believe a barrister needs when dealing with cases involving vulnerable children?
The very words ‘vulnerable children’ raises a degree of anxiety. These cases call for clear thinking and straightforward communication. Children can detect phony or pompous from a long distance.
In family cases, barristers rarely meet the children they represent. The Advocates Gateway is an excellent online resource for all issues connected with fair hearings for vulnerable people. The family justice system is working to adopt and adapt some of tools and processes to make them suitable for family cases.
In regards to the above, how do you ensure your own personal beliefs and emotions, especially if they are conflicting views, do not overtake when in Court?
It would be a strange barrister involved in the field of family law who never showed any emotional response to an issue. However, it really does not help you or your client’s case if you become emotionally affected or overwhelmed. Heightened emotion blocks clear thinking.
The bar is alive to the stresses of working in a highly conflictual setting and managing complex cases; the work demands a high degree of emotional resilience. The initiative of ‘Wellbeing at the Bar’ has been developed to help chambers, clerks and barristers support better mental health.
The best support of course comes from other barristers who really understand the pressures. No amount of formal mentoring programmes or online resources are a real substitute for a handful of reliable professional friends to talk to when you think you could explode.
What are common misconceptions that people have towards social workers? In what way would it help if people were more aware of these mentioned factors?
The public is fed a relatively limited diet of the most shocking cases involving physical abuse or death of a child. Social workers are dealing with a high amount of cases involving neglected children. It is far more difficult to measure and evaluate the long term risks of missed appointments, poor home conditions, pervasive alcohol or drug issues than it is when a child is injured.
Economic forces and political choices have reduced effective support for families who struggle with drugs and alcohol, mental health problems, domestic violence and poor housing.
The average working life for social workers is under eight years, compared to 16 for a nurse and 25 for a doctor (Curtis et al, 2010). This is a huge investment by the individual and the training organisations in return for a low number of years of work. It is hard for local authorities to recruit and retain committed social workers.
With cyberbullying becoming more of an evident problem for children, do you expect any suitable legislation developments that should take place?
Do we need to criminalise any more children? They are taking what used to happen in the playground, onto the internet. My vote would go to initiatives to support family and teachers to identify and deal with bullying in all its forms .
The use of the net by adult stalkers and predators is of course an entirely different matter.
What further challenges do you face when representing for a child with mental health conditions?
Mental health problems are said to affect 10% of children. They affect a far higher percentage of the children who are the subject of care proceedings or who are at the heart of disputes between their parents.
The real challenge is in securing good quality, consistent support for them. Courts are often told that effective interventions for children can only begin when the proceedings are over, when a child knows where he or she is going to be living long term.
 www.rip.org.uk social work recruitment and retention.
 http://stopcyberbullying.org; NSPCC; kidscape for example