The text below is an Open Letter to Anthony Douglas, CEO of Cafcass, copied to Sarah Parsons Assistant Director, Principle Social Worker, and Head of L&D for Cafcass.
We met recently, at the Parental Alienation Workshop in London, and you may remember me from my question to you around your training on Parental Alienation.
I make no apology for putting you on the spot and for making you squirm. If it is any consolation for you I went easy on you, not wanting to embarrass you too much at an event that ultimately I was grateful you’d actually turned up to. It took some courage for you to attend, a point I made in my opening remarks, and I would like you to remember that, as the decisions ahead for you will require even greater courage and strength of will.
First I should give you a little background so that you understand where I, and to an extent my fellow research colleagues, came from.
I, like so many parents, found myself in a marriage that just wasn’t working. We had two very young children and through no fault of either of us, we grew apart as people and partners. At first the separation was as amicable as it could have been expected to be however once discussions around future finances started to unravel my ex started to withdraw my contact between me and my children. When matters reached a head the only option left to me was to make an application to the courts for contact orders, for specific issue orders, and eventually for a Prohibited Steps Order, all of which were granted.
During this time I met two of your FCAs, only at the court building, and only for a few minutes. I received a couple of standard letters but to be honest your FCAs had no involvement or impact on the case before the various Judges. I didn’t have a view on their effectiveness beyond those limited encounters. It seemed to me, at the time, that they had better things to do, more pressing cases, children who really needed them, and with hindsight I was left with the opinion that if it all went to b*ggery, that I and my children could rely on them to investigate and report thoroughly to the Court.
8 years passed and everything changed. My ex made an application to relocate internally within the UK and this led to a s7 report. I think I had a reasonable expectation that the FCA assigned to report would do so impartially, stay within their remit, and perform their duties in a robust and professional manner.
It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen. Your FCA left out any evidence (from other professionals that had themselves insisted that she consult with – schools, doctors etc) that disagreed with her views and pre-formed recommendation. Her report was late, very badly written, and made assessments and judgements outside of her experience or remit.
I was horrified. How could this happen? How could somebody trained and experienced handle something so badly?
I complained, only to be told that I could only question the validity of the report under cross-examination at court, that the FCA’s report had been “quality checked” by her line manager, and that she stood by the contents. Cafcass as an organisation distanced themselves from the content of the report itself saying that it was the subjective professional opinion of the individual FCA.
2 years later everything I said would happen has happened. Contact with my 2 children, who until the relocation were with me almost 50/50, is now sporadic at best and months pass between contact. My eldest has gone from a 95% school attendance rate to a 53% attendance rate and has recently been permanently excluded for behavioural problems. All of this was flagged to your FCA by me and by healthcare and education professionals as a likely consequence of a botched report and set of recommendations.
A SAR (subject access request) has now shown that your FCA received and ignored reports and assessments that contradicted her pre-formed viewpoint, a viewpoint that she expressed in a single line in an internal email exposed during the SAR: “it would, in my opinion, be draconian to prevent [ParentA] from relocating”.
I was angry, upset, frustrated, and in my efforts to prove to myself that I had done nothing wrong; that this was just the result of a single maverick FCA, that my children and I had just encountered a lone-wolf, I went looking for support and validation. What I found was the opposite. Far from your FCA being a maverick or a lone-wolf, the more I met people, the more groups I joined, the more examples I found of gross incompetence, of the same attitudes and approaches, of the same lack of professionalism.
I joined a group of people who, like me, had all come from a reasonable expectation of your organisation. It struck me that these people weren’t activists, they weren’t the lycra-wearing protest mob; instead they were the quiet ones, the reasonable ones, the ones that, like me, had never anticipated that there would be a need for them to challenge the system. I started to research what was known about your FCA’s training, about their qualifications, about their experience, and about their ability and capacity to do the job that they were being called upon to do by the Courts.
I found that the way had already been paved. Pathfinders had gone before me. People have been asking these questions of Cafcass for years, and in some cases decades. Each time the answer was the same: “it’s nothing to do with us.” or “Take it up with the FCA in court”.
The Ministry of Justice response to the petition for Parental Alienation to be recognised and dealt with under a specific law was the final straw for many of us. The MoJ made it clear that the law already existed and that it was the responsibility of a trained and experienced Cafcass FCA to report to the courts, a report that the Judiciary could and did rely upon. Cafcass responded to say that you recognised the potential for PA but that ultimately the decision lay with the Judge.
And here we are.
Today, more than ever, you and your organisation are under the spotlight. For years you have been able to sweep things under the carpet, to launch new “initiatives”, none of which have ever been scrutinised before you’ve rushed them out. You’ve been able to delay and fend off challenges with new tools, new pathways, and recent events show that you are attempting to do the same with your proposed High Conflict Tool.
There comes a point when you must take stock and realise that now, in all these years, you are no longer facing the dismissible wailing of a few wronged and isolated parents. Today you are facing the quiet ones, the determined ones. You like Yamamoto should be mumbling “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” because that is indeed what you have done. Today we are all focused on Cafcass and your dealings within Private Law. We haven’t even started on your organisation’s involvement in Public Law cases but that is coming and it will be more of the same.
Our call to you is simple: reach out to us and we will help you. We have amongst our number: psychologists, researchers, trainers, learning and development specialists, lawyers, solicitors, mediators, GPs, nurses, CAMHS, corporate and commercial compliance officers, and business strategy leaders. We are connected and in dialogue with many of the people and organisations who can help you. We have a resource and an independence that we will make available to you, free of charge. You only have to reach out and ask.
Every journey starts with a single step. We’ll help you take it. We won’t blow smoke up your bum, or pander to your organisation’s deep-seated cultural issues: we’ll genuinely help you because helping you helps children.
This is an open offer. You and your team can reach us initially through our contact page
The ball is in your court now: Do you and Sarah Parsons have the courage to engage with us?
Voice of the Child
Family Law Research Team
Putting Children First in Family Law
27th November 2017
UPDATED: 11th December 2017
Today we have received a response to our open letter to Anthony Douglas and Sarah Parsons at Cafcass about their High Conflict Pathway. It reads as follows:
On behalf of Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive, Cafcass:
Dear [Voice of the Child],
Thank you for your email dated 27th November 2017 sent to the Cafcass Web Enquiries sharing your feedback and experiences. I have noted the points you have raised.
The High Conflict Practice Pathway (HCPP), which is under development, is a practice framework to help Cafcass practitioners systematically assess cases which feature adult behaviours associated with post separation child arrangements difficulties and identify the best way forward for each individual child and family. This includes but is not limited to parental alienation, which is best seen as a broad spectrum of behaviours with varying impact.
As detailed on our website we will be engaging a range of sector experts and family justice stakeholders around the content and effectiveness of the High Conflict Practice Pathway. This will include the judiciary, lawyers, academics, therapists, mediators, parental groups and children’s advocacy groups.
We recognise this is an important issue that a wide range of parties will want to comment on and share their own experiences. Therefore we will be proactively publishing a draft of the pathway on our website in February 2018 when you and other interested parties will have the opportunity to write to us with your views ahead of the pathway being finalised. While Cafcass is not legally obliged to carry out any formal consultation on the practice tools and guidance, we wish to consider a broad range of opinions and views. Following the review and feedback stage, we aim to roll out the pathway nationally in Spring 2018, alongside a full training programme.
Anthony Douglas CBE
Business Services Officer (Chief Executive & FJYPB)
We also know from a FOI request received this week that Cafcass have no intention of publicly consulting on the framework prior to publication. We know from their previous “feedback” requests that they use the “feedback” mechanism as a way of saying later that they widely “consulted”.
This is what they had to say in response to the details about consultation request:
Please provide a list of any and all external parties that you are consulting with on this
Cafcass responded to say: As the pathway is a Cafcass tool there will not be a formal consultation on the pathway. Cafcass are planning to contact a range of stakeholders, such as the judiciary, lawyers, academics, therapists, and men’s and women’s groups to set out clear information about the process for obtaining feedback. However no groups or external parties have been contacted yet in regards to their views on the pathway. Cafcass has not produced a consultation pack for the High Conflict Pathway as Cafcass is not having a formal consultation on the pathway.
It is interesting to note that Cafcass do not identify exactly who these stakeholders will be or what their areas of expertise will be. They simply say they’ll accept feedback – and the timeline is very wobbly too – we know that the last time they asked for feedback on something they didn’t announce their request (just issued it as a news item on their own website) and only allowed a very short window for feedback submissions, many of which they failed to act on.
We keep coming back to the same issues:
1. Cafcass aren’t capable of putting this framework together themselves
2. Cafcass are ignoring some fundamental questions around the appropriateness of the framework
3. Cafcass are rushing this out “to be seen to be doing something”
4. The training and monitoring will be done by their own people (and we know how that works out for them)
5. Cafcass don’t want any/much scrutiny prior to publication of this pathway
6. … the list goes on and on
How is any of this in the best interests of children?
How will this reunite children with their alienated parents?
How will this safeguard children from further alienation attempts?
When will Cafcass accept that this is most likely a mental health issue and not a “high conflict, two people arguing” issue?
When will Cafcass get the message that the genie is out of the bottle? Too many of us are watching them now and they cannot hide behind half-baked ideas and badly implemented tools anymore. The first time they wheel this pathway out in a court room they’re going to get nailed – either by the non-resident parent or by the resident parent, and they’re going to get nailed by the Judge too.
We’re already fielding requests from mainstream media about our exposes on their training, on Parental Alienation, and on our exposes of Anthony Douglas and Sarah Parsons – how long before a whistleblower within Cafcass speaks to Panorama or Dispatches and has an in-house recording to back them up? Will that be the tipping point for a Public Enquiry into Cafcass followed by a class action from alienated parents and children?
This nonsense must stop and it must stop immediately.
Poor leadership is no excuse.
In a Family Law system designed for combative parents there is no real allowance for the views of children and any understanding of how Family Law ultimately impacts on children most of all.
We speak for the children in Family Law so that, finally, the children have a voice.