Quality improvement starts with understanding the big question (or questions) for each child we have to answer, if the outcome for the child is to be the best one possible. The big questions are often not framed within the court application, either by a local authority in public law or a parent or carer in private law. For example, after a parent has fought for being able to spend time with their child, the child themselves may neither want nor enjoy the experience. The rationally-judged outcome of a court case may not connect with the child’s experience, or hopes and ambition.
Best practice is to reduce the potential disconnect between the court and the child. A joint pilot project between Cafcass and ADCS in Sussex, is basing a section 7 report in a private law case on a child impact analysis and the professional evaluation of that impact. This focuses all concerned, particularly those with parental responsibility, on what it is like to be that child in the situation they are living in. Once the child’s quality of life – or lack of it – is clear, it becomes easier to see what needs to change and how that might be achieved. A child who is quite happy with their life is more likely than not to benefit from stability and not change, even if one or both parents want change. Similarly, a child who is hurt, unhappy or both, will probably want that misery to be brought to an end and to be helped out of that situation. The bigger and the more unwelcome the change, the more the child has to be worked with directly to understand whether to leave things as they or whether to make changes, is in the child’s long-term interest.
Basing our work on children’s experience also helps us to understand which children are naturally resilient; which are resilient but only as a negative adaption to stress; and which children need support because they feel their world is collapsing. Care plans and agreed ways forward in both public and private law cases should be clear on what steps are being taken to strengthen a child’s resilience.
Even though family court cases are about children, the way cases are conducted can too easily focus on peripheral issues, or spend too much time on the pre-occupations of parents and not the issues which matter most for children. This is understandable. We have family courts, not children’s courts. Children live in families and supporting their families means in general that they will feel supported. But in the end, the irreducible minimum standard in any public or private law case is that when it comes to its decision, the family court understands the child’s daily lived experience in sufficient depth to know what, if anything, needs to change and why. It is a relatively simple litmus test, but one we still need to work hard on to achieve in every case. This is not just because of the volume of new work, but because it is so easy to lose the focus on the child.
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