RE: Family Justice
I know that supporting children is a matter close to your heart which is why I wrote to you recently to thank you for your support in the last Parliament for Suella Fernandes’s proposed Bill on Family Justice reform.
I have now come across something deeply troubling which I would like to draw your attention to.
In February 2016 a petition to the Government calling for the criminalisation of Parental Alienation raised some 12,000 signatures, passing the bar for a Government Response. In response the Government went to some lengths to argue that there was no need to criminalise this as suitable laws already existed. They went on in their response to say:
“Where the court is dealing with a dispute about child arrangements, it must consider the ascertainable the wishes and feelings of the child concerned, commensurate with that child’s age and level of understanding. The court may also ask the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) to prepare a welfare report….
“Cafcass practitioners understand and recognise the potential for implacable hostility by a party in high conflict cases involving child arrangements following divorce or separation. Practitioners, who are professionally qualified social workers with a minimum of three years’ post qualifying experience, are aware of the potential for children to be influenced by parental views and are alert to this possibility throughout the progress of a case. Cafcass has various tools available to assist practitioners in being able to assess the presence of implacable hostility. These include a tool for use in direct work with the family and a learning module, as well as access to resources and new research via their in-house library service.”
From my own case I know that the Cafcass practitioner assigned had little to no experience of implacable hostility or parental alienation and produced a deeply flawed report which has since been discredited.
I contrasted my experience with the Government response and decided to take a look at the actual situation. With that in mind I firstly contacted Cafcass directly who, frankly, told me to go away. With that door closed I instigated a number of Freedom of Information requests, most of which have been answered by Cafcass, and the results are horrendous!
Tools: There is a single “tool” for identifying “implacable hostility”. It is a single page word document with 10 questions on it. I have obtained a copy. Cafcass do not provide any elearning or training on the use of this “tool”
eLearning modules: I have obtained a complete list of all of the courses and modules available to Cafcass employees. There are none that deal with either implacable hostility or parental alienation.
Knowledge Bites: Cafcass do have something that they refer to as “Knowledge Bites”. These are, broadly, 1 or 2 page PDFs, written by Jo Wood their librarian, on a variety of subjects. I have copies of all of them. There are 2 that deal with the issues: one is called “Coached Children” and the other is called “Post Separation Control”, both authored in 2013. That’s it.
But it gets worse.
Cafcass have over 1,700 employees across the UK. I have obtained numbers of employees and the breakdowns of job classifications and geographic areas. Of these 1,700 employees over 1,400 of them are practitioners responsible for working with children and producing these reports for the Family Courts. It is these 1,400 Cafcass employees that the Government is referring to in their response.
Completion rates for eLearning: I have obtained the numbers of employees that have accessed or completed each eLearning module and Knowledge Bite that Cafcass make available.
These are shown in the following table. You will note I am sure the discrepancy between the number of Cafcass employees who have completed any training on coached or emotionally abused children, or indeed the training on assessing the quality of service provided to children, against the numbers who have completed their expenses training.
|Type of learning||Employees who have completed|
|Coached Children||Knowledge Bite PDF||28|
|Post Separation Control||Knowledge Bite PDF||9|
|Quality for Children (Part 1)||eLearning module||7|
|Quality for Children (Part 2)||eLearning module||7|
|Expenses Reimbursement Policy||eLearning module||1,314|
I would ask you to consider the amount of investment that Cafcass have put into each of these items. A full eLearning module typically consists of many many screens and information points and takes a learner anything between 10 minutes and an hour to complete. A 2 page PDF on the other hand requires less investment and a cursory glance. One could take the investment as an indication of priorities, regardless of the horrifying lack of engagement with the things that actually matter to the children that they are purporting to support.
Cafcass Library: As you saw from the Government’s response they say “as well as access to resources and new research via their in-house library service.”
The Cafcass library seems to consist of the Cafcass Librarian, Jo Wood, and 2 support staff, although in an article on Cafcass’s own website Jo Wood says she “single-handedly” responds to requests to the Library so I’m not sure how much support she actually gets. Jo Wood, as nice as she is, is the first to admit that she has no qualifications in social work, in child protection, in child psychology, or in any other field of relevance beyond being a qualified Librarian. She has a Masters in History and an interest in sports psychology, and yet is responsible for curating the research and producing these important training resources.
Measuring outcomes: I wanted to see how effective Cafcass are at monitoring their own performance and use of the tools available. Despite a multi-million pound investment in new IT systems specifically brought in to assist with management reporting they are unable to provide any data beyond numbers of cases and speed of closure. (Last year they dealt with some 40,000 cases taking approx 12 weeks for each case). It is worthwhile noting that it is almost always a Non-Resident Parent who brings these cases to the Courts and to Cafcass having had contact blocked or obstructed by the Resident Parent, or requiring specific issue orders to allow them to know about their children’s health or education.
The standard answer that Cafcass provide to anyone who asks about outcomes is that these, if any, are recorded within individual case files and that it would be too expensive to go into each case file to collate reports or to perform any sort of data analysis.
They cannot even say what they do measure within each case file as they say they do not have a standardised system and that in any event, each case file would have to be checked individually to ascertain what they were measuring.
I am happy to provide you with the FOI requests and the responses and data that I have obtained, or to talk you or anyone else relevant through the findings and responses.
Cafcass are producing reports for the Courts on the basis that their Practitioners are trained and competent, and the Courts are relying on these reports to make decisions in the best interests of the child, often working solely off the recommendations made by the Practitioner assigned.
There is a danger here for future Governments that, when these children grow up and discover that these reports were prepared by untrained “experts” and that the Courts relied upon these to make decisions on their futures and their relationships with their parents, that these children will seek financial redress and compensation. Hillsborough only this week has shown that, given enough of a sense of injustice, people will pursue cases for years, and in some cases seek criminal proceedings when a duty of care has been breached.
I would ask you to raise this with the Ministry of Justice as a matter of urgency, and, if you think this is appropriate, to raise it with your fellow MPs who have an interest in supporting children.
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.