Putting children and young people first in the family courts

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Children’s mental wellbeing must always remain at the forefront of our work

Anthony DouglasIf we can, we want to improve children’s wellbeing and to understand how best this can be achieved for every child we work with. Sometimes, this is by changes to the legal framework in the child’s family or in the parameters of state care, but more usually it is about attempting to change, influence or regulate the relationships in the child’s world. Many children in family court cases have pre-existing mental health problems, or else the situation they find themselves in could precipitate mental health problems if left unchecked. Sound risk assessment includes screening for signals and triggers of mental health problems either for children or for the vulnerable adults around them. For example, in Cafcass Risk and Harm induction training, we look at the impact of domestic violence on children’s mental health, including post-traumatic stress, neuro-biological changes and depression. We also consider mental health issues for parents because children whose parents have mental health issues are at increased risk of developing this themselves. It is easy to confuse heightened emotion with mental health problems. The former can be a catalyst for change or action, the latter is invariably a block to improving wellbeing. But generally, we aim to lower the level of emotion so that those involved can think more rationally. In a partnership we have developed with the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships, mentalisation techniques are helping couples experiencing high conflict to reduce the level of emotion they feel to a more manageable level in order to re-start a communication process. Detecting a decline in mental health is difficult. It is often not visible and while it may feel very uncomfortable, it is not always apparent to the person experiencing the decline themselves. Isolation is the enemy of early detection and intervention as no one is there to see any signs of someone’s mental health deteriorating, nor to arrange help. For children, a simple breach of trust can have lifelong consequences in terms of anxiety, the ability to form and sustain attachments and sometimes aggression and violence because of the pain felt or the drive to seek revenge. While our cases are about where children should live, who should have parental responsibility and who they should spend time with, it is crucial that the mental health dimension of assessments, case analysis and care plans is kept to the fore. Cases are as much about emotion as practicalities and we have to include both in a standard Cafcass case analysis

Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 00:00

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