Prejudice is opinion without evidence. If left unchecked, prejudice leads all too easily to outright discrimination and in our work to miscarriages of justice. It is why the active promotion of diversity values is so important in the family courts. Any bias, however small, can become prejudicial and can disadvantage one family member or another.
Take prejudice against immigrants. The evidence base on recent immigration is that immigrants make a net positive contribution to the UK economy and that we would be less skilled and productive without them. Often negative coverage or opinion of this group stems from prejudice without an evidence base. The same goes for whether gay couples or gay singletons can and should look after children in care. The evidence is that sexuality is rarely a determinative factor in whether placements succeed or break down. The sexuality of carers is, like age, not much use in assessing relative merit. In Cafcass, we are aware of 29 year old and 88 year old grandparents providing effective kinship care. This shows the value of having an open mind. Indeed, an open mind can open doors.
Using a strong evidence base to ground assessments and defend against prejudice
A stronger evidence base around diversity and without prejudice or bias can be helped by not over-emphasising the significance of our assessments and case analysis, but being modest and proportionate about our findings – and not generalising too much. For example, many assessments only have a short shelf life as so much can happen in the lives of the people involved, often unexpectedly. So it is rarely right to state or predict that a proposed carer’s relationships will be rock-solid for the rest of their lives or that a birth parent will never get their act together to look after their child. Without sitting on the fence, it is best to use phrases like ‘as things currently stand, their relationship is solid’, or ‘on the evidence to date, they will not be able to parent their child safely because of the way they behave when in the grip of the drugs they take’. Statements about family violence also benefit from some qualification, outlining the context and the chronology of violence. That may lead to an evidence-based prediction that future family violence is probable, but our conclusions must flow strictly from the evidence base and not go beyond that.
This is difficult because in our work in the family courts, there are very few clear and undeniable facts. Most such facts can and are disputed or qualified, hence the importance of professional assessment and opinion, and use of a diversity framework which takes into account individuality, strengths and the validity of different experiences and perspectives.
These are some of the reasons why diversity remains one of the five strategic objectives set out in the Cafcass Strategic Plan for 2015-2020. Equality and diversity are core values in Cafcass. The origins of our work lie in fighting inequality and discrimination, and in representing the poor and disadvantaged who were being unjustly treated – either within their families, within their communities or within wider society. Equality and diversity will continue to be core values until there is no need for them any more. I cannot see the evidence for that time coming, however far I look ahead at the moment.