The Family Court Welfare Worker’s Union Napo today said that CAFCASS is in meltdown. CAFCASS is the body charged with public and private law cases concerning children at risk and those who are the subject of family court proceedings after divorce and separation. The news that the organisation is in meltdown does not come as any surprise to those of us working in the field of family separation, some might say that meltdown might just be the best outcome for this body.
CAFCASS is under seige in just about every direction. Its work is scrutinised and found wanting by Ofsted, parents are complaining every day about the way in which they are treated by its staff. Now its Union is up in arms about its distribution of funding, complaining that it is too concentrated in the upper managerial levels. Something is badly wrong with this sprawling great institution that has such power in the lives of parents and children. And yet there is very little done to either highlight its mistakes or bring them to account.
CAFCASS stands for Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. It is a non-departmental public body for England and Wales which was set up to safeguard and promote the welfare of children involved in family court proceedings. It was formed in 2001 and is accountable to Parliament through the Department for Children Schools and Families, it is independent of the courts, social services, education and health authorities and all similar agencies. CAFCASS is charged with looking after the interests of children involved in family proceedings, working with children and their families it then acts as an advisor to the courts on what it considers to be the child’s best interests. If my experience, as an observer and advocate for parents involved in the family court process is anything to go by, CAFCASS is not the best placed organisation to be doing such sensitive and life changing work with families.
When families separate there is an enormous upsurge of emotional distress and tension between parents. Children are often lost in the middle of this, struggling to cope with the upheaval and desperately hoping that one or both parents will come to their senses. The atmosphere around a separating family is often that of suspicion, fear, accusation and counter charge. It can be extraordinarily difficult to work with people under so much pressure. It takes sensitivity, caution and an absolute belief that away from the distress, the adults involved are perfectly ordinary, well intentioned and capable people. Putting aside judgement and opinion, working with separating parents is about engaging respectfully with each and being prepared to listen. It is about calibrating what is being said against what you are observing and it is about adding in the right support strategies at the right time. With patience, separating parents who are dug into deepest trenches of conflict and hatred can be helped to overcome their hurt and find ways of working together. One could be forgiven for thinking that the role of CAFCASS in safeguarding the best interests of children by working with children and their families might encompass some or all of these elements. Sadly it appears that this is often far from the reality.
A recent encounter with CAFCASS reminded me just how impenetrable this organisation can appear to be. There often seems to be an attitude of defensiveness displayed by staff working within the organisation, hardly surprising when they are under such constant attack and criticism personally and institutionally. But this defensiveness can at times extend to something akin to arrogance which is exemplified by an unwillingness to listen to how they may have got things wrong. It is as if their decision may not be questioned and if it is, then this is simply the result of some disgruntled parent who doesn’t like the decision that has been made.
Many parents do not like the decisions that are made by CAFASS, not least when the decision leads to a life changing event such as the permanent loss of a relationship with a child. Remember though that we are talking here about family separation and private law, not the cases involving children like baby P where physical harm by parents should rightly lead to the ending of their relationship.
In private law cases, parents who are separating can apply to the family courts for help to come to a decision about how arrangements for time with children should be made. In the vast majority of cases these parents are perfectly normal, are not a danger to their children and could, if helped properly, make their own arrangements. Unfortunately many parents get locked into a battle for control after separation, control over money, housing and, amongst other things, children. For these parents the belief is that the family courts are the only place where justice may prevail.
Over the past few years CAFCASS has been involved in efforts to overhaul its standards. Its National Standards which are being phased in, aim to ‘put children in the family justice system at the heart of the service.’ At the same time, the Children and Adoption Act 2006 has brought about a shift in the support that parents within the court system can expect. The court may now ‘make a contact activity in connection with that provision about contact. The activities that may so be required include, in particular – programmes, classes and counselling or guidance sessions of a kind that may assist a person as regard establishing, maintaining or improving contact with a child.’ Currently however those contact activities that parents are directed to within the court process are only those commissioned by CAFCASS.
Here then we have a body which is charged with advising and supporting parents and children who are in the family court system. A body which is aiming to reform its standard of delivery and which is commissioning support to parents that could improve not only outcomes for families, but outcomes for its own staff too. This body has an enormous amount of power over families, the support that is delivered to them and the outcomes for parent/child relationships. Worryingly however, we continue to hear the most appalling reports about CAFCASS, from parents, from Ofsted and now from its own union. Despite all efforts, CAFCASS continues to be surrounded by an atmosphere of fire fighting and failure, derided by many who come into contact with it. At this point in its existence, CAFCASS would appear to compare well to the old Child Support Agency, another institution involved in the messy lives of separating parents.
Once in your life, invited or otherwise, the Child Support Agency had the power to make it a misery, in pretty much the same way as CAFCASS currently has over parents in the family court system. Nowadays however, the Child Support Agency has undergone a transformation, moving from a much hated institution to one which is actively working to understand the complexities of family separation in order to better support parents.
The Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission as it is now called, offers support to parents who are separating, working hard to do this in a non judgemental and genuinely empathic way. Recognising the difficulties that parents face, the Child Maintenance Commission is committed to training all of its staff in understanding the real lives of separated parents. Acknowledging that wider support is essential to get its work with parents right, there is an ongoing active relationship with a large group of agencies also concerned with outcomes for separated families. Opening itself up to scrutiny, the Child Maintenance Commission feels very different to the Child Support Agency. No longer defensive about its failures, the Commission is having a different conversation around family separation. This different conversation is producing outcomes. An estimated 40,000 private agreements for payment of child maintenance last year, strong enforcement only where it is necessary, a redistribution of resources towards support and understanding of the difficulties that parents face rather than a focus upon punitive measures. Going forward, the Child Maintenance Commission feels like a modern organisation and one which is working with the real lives of the families it interacts with. A beleaguered CAFCASS would do well to look to the Child Maintenance Commission for support on how to achieve such a promising turnaround.
What CAFCASS appears to lack is the motivation to properly understand the lives of separating families in the UK. This failure to develop a stronger relationship with the people that CAFCASS are supposed to be serving goes against the grain of any success in business. The problem perhaps is that CAFCASS work with an interventionist model, one which sees the problems first and the person second. All CAFCASS staff are trained Social Workers and as such are used to working with family dysfunction first and foremost.
But separating parents who enter the family court system are not dysfunctional, they are people first and problem second. What gets in the way of their ability to make arrangements for care of their children is not that they are problem parents but people who are suffering. Scratch the surface of any separating couple’s conflict and you will find sorrow, grief and anger. These are the issues that CAFCASS need to address first, get this right and the need for further intervention is more readily addressed.
Instead of this empathic approach however what we get from many CAFCASS officers is an attitude that their diagnosis of the problem is correct and what parents feel about that is simply down to their level of dysfunction. This high handed and often distant approach to such sensitive work is at best a poor intervention and at worst a disastrous approach that ruins lives forever. In my most recent encounter with CAFCASS, I observed a manager patronising a mother who had lost contact with her children due to the ineptitude of one of her members of staff. Worse than that was the lack of transparent complaints procedure and the unwillingness of the manager to discuss with this mother why decisions about her children had been made. The final straw came when this manager attempted to say that hundreds of people had undertaken the CAFCASS commissioned Parenting Information Project delivered as part of its increased support to parents. This was supposed to be evidence that CAFCASS have improved their services to parents. When confronted with the fact that by June 2009 only 21 parents had undertaken the project and offered the link to the Hansard Citation* that proves this to be true, the manager dismissed this with a wave of the hand and the words ‘I would be very surprised if that was the case.’ Small wonder CAFCASS have such a hard time, this complete lack of respectful engagement with the people that they are supposed to be serving makes any kind of relationship between the organisation and its client group impossible.
Looking around at the services that interact with separating parents in the UK it is hard to see any other that is as unaccountable to its users as CAFCASS. The lack of transparent procedures and the examples of complete ineptitude that are reported every day by parents, paint a terrifying picture of an almost secret family police force. Without doubt there is appears to be a strange detachment between CAFCASS and the families it serves, the language used by its staff and the attitudes this reveals do not relate to any of the families that I regularly work with. The fact that the family courts rely so heavily on the advice given by CAFCASS officers when making decisions about children’s relationships with their parents is further evidence of the absolute power they hold. Coupled with the lack of information about how decisions are made and the unwillingness of staff to review cases there is a frightening air of arrogant superiority surrounding the organisation, one which leads this observer to feel very afraid for every parent entering the family court system.
Now that its union is raising concerns about the internal affairs of the organisation, perhaps it is time for CAFCASS to open its doors to the public it serves in order to begin listening more effectively. There is a wealth of expertise available to help this agency to better meet the needs of the families it works with. Failure to listen to as wide a range of opinion as possible will only serve to encourage a further retreat into an ivory tower of defensiveness. As we know from the events surrounding the Child Support Agency, acting in ways that are removed from and disdainful of the real lives of separated families eventually leads to downfall.
The family courts, long accused of being secret, are being opened up for public scrutiny. For an organisation which is being accused of being in meltdown by people internal to its processes, an open door and respectful engagement with learning from the outside world might just be the answer that CAFCASS needs.
*Susan Kramer (Richmond Park, Liberal Democrat):
Question: To ask the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families how many parents have attended a parenting course for separated parents under the provisions of the Children and Adoption Act 2006; and what assessment has been made of the effectiveness of such courses since December 2008.
Dawn Primarolo (Minister of State, Department for Children, Schools and Families; Bristol South, Labour)
Answer: As at the end June 2009, from national data collected by CAFCASS, 21 people had attended a Parenting programme under the provisions of the Children and Adoption Act 2006. It is too early to make any assessment of the effectiveness of this programme.
• Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 3 November 2009, c947W)