Dispute resolution week is a big week for Cafcass, because it highlights one of the mainstays of our practice. Just as World Mental Health Day and National Adoption Week shine the spotlight on important social issues, which otherwise might slip further under the radar, so Dispute Resolution Week reminds us that in the vast majority of public and private law cases we deal with, there are disputes, big or small, to resolve.
In our professional training, all Cafcass practitioners learn how to negotiate with parents, carers, courts and professionals. Just about every task we have to carry out needs the active co-operation and support of someone else to complete it successfully. Frequently, and inevitably, there are disagreements about what to do and how to do it. Compromise, or persuading someone about who is right or who is wrong, applies equally to profound dilemmas about who should look after a child, or who should have contact with that child. Often, our aim in casework is to interrupt a cycle of neglect or harm to a child and through that, to support the development of child-focused attitudes and behaviour.
Dispute resolution practice does involve taking risks. Few disputes are resolved by the practitioner standing back and speaking in a bland and uncommitted way. However brief our involvement, we have to enter into the emotion and psychology of a dispute in order to be able to influence it. Those involved have to feel we care, and that we understand. We also have to guard against persuading a parent, or a child for that matter, to do something they have not really thought through. A resolution in those circumstances is unlikely to be sustainable.
Resolving disputes positively can lower the anxiety and tension a child experiences, and free the child to begin to grow up normally again, or for the first time. Successful dispute resolution work can be uncomfortable and painful for practitioners because that’s how it is for the family participants. But it can move a stuck situation or a ‘stabilised bad’ situation on, and that is a priceless professional intervention on behalf of a child.