A recent article by a mother in a private law case talked about how ‘messy and multi-layered’ family life is today, including after separation or divorce which just adds another layer of personal and interpersonal complexity.
She argued that court orders are too rigid to support the reality of busy lives today. This is a timely challenge to those of us working in this area professionally. The law and court practice inevitably lags behind social trends and the diverse ways people live their lives today.
Legislation has a universality about it that struggles to cater for diversity. Another example is in the field of assessment. Research soon to be published by Michael Rutter in relation to mental health issues, shows that discrete mental health diagnoses are an organised way of classifying mental health problems, but an artificial classification. It is the overlap between categories that matters most, and the fluidity across categories.
The same goes for the assessment of vulnerable children. Abuse and neglect are rarely separate categories without any overlap. They are catch-all terms which only make sense when the impact of certain parental behaviours on a child is understood.
Other frequently turned-to terms also lack much meaning when applied to the individual. ‘Significant harm’ in care proceedings covers just about every serious incident happening to a child – it is too wide as a threshold.
It would be better to think of three thresholds for families on the edge of care: a threshold for intervention, a threshold for removal of a child and a threshold for permanent placement outside the immediate family.
‘Permanence’ is another phrase which carries with it the danger of slack usage and application. Permanence can mean different things to different children. It can mean a few years to some and a lifetime to others. Likewise, with who children live with and spend time with.
Court applications tend to polarise a child’s arrangement with or between two parents. In reality, a child’s network may include others – relatives or friends – with equal or greater emotional significance. The law and formal processes are essentially reductive, reducing a child’s – or parent’s – world into a rigid and classifiable framework.
All of us have to be careful not to over define and over categorise anyone, to accept that any assessment can only be a snapshot of how someone – or a family – is today, and that it is almost impossible to predict how life will be for that individual or family in a few years’ time. Our practice can still be authoritative and accurate, but it must also be humble.