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Edinburgh social workers face contempt charge in parental access case

Two Edinburgh City Council social workers could be charged with contempt of court for allegedly defying a court ruling to allow a mother greater access to her estranged children. If found guilty, they could face fines or up to three months in jail, as well as being struck off for misconduct by the Scottish Social Services Council.

Earlier this year the mother began a legal challenge over the decision to restrict access to her two children, who had been placed in care for their own protection. Sheriff Katherine Mackie ruled in May that the mother was entitled to see her children more often than a children’s panel had decided.

It is alleged the two social workers handling the case stepped in after the youngsters seemed distressed following further visits from their mother. They decided to suspend a further scheduled meeting while an urgent review was carried out by the children’s panel. Sheriff Mackie has now ordered the pair to appear at a hearing at Edinburgh Sheriff Court over allegations that they were “wilfully in contempt” of the ruling.

The two social workers are understood not to have acted alone and had sought advice from senior lawyers. A council spokesperson said: “We are offering every support to two experienced child protection managers who are due to appear at Edinburgh Sheriff Court in relation to contempt of court allegations.”

Ruth Stark, SASW Manager, described the case as “highly unusual” since social workers nearly always complied with the orders of the court. “Social workers are there to advise the court and if the court makes an order, the social workers are required to follow that. It is really only in cases of life or limb that they would go against such a decision,” she said.

“Sometimes social workers feel under pressure to take a decision because of the perception that we don't act quickly enough. It’s a very fine line and this is a wake-up call for social workers because their decisions and actions affect people’s lives.”

Separately, Edinburgh City Council has called for a meeting with Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill and Children and Young People Minister Aileen Campbell in a bid to speed up the handling of child access cases. The council said it was worried that the need to await approval from courts and children’s panels before acting was leading to delays in stepping in to prevent children from harm.

Children and Families Committee Chair Paul Godzik said that staff had recently raised “serious concerns”. He said: “There are potentially very significant implications for child protection in Scotland; therefore we have written to the Scottish Government with our concerns.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We agree on the need for faster decision making for children at risk and have been working with Edinburgh City Council and others on this matter.”