Putting children and young people first in the family courts


How do we better understand the cues and clues to assess emotional harm and ensure children’s recovery?

Anthony Douglas

The prevalence of emotional harm is rising faster than any other type of abuse*. This is as much about greater recognition and an understanding that emotional scarring takes the longest to heal.

Assessing emotional harm means entering the child’s inner world, as there may be no obvious signs. Invariably the harm will have been caused by one or more family members, so look no further, to begin with at least. Try to understand what may be causing a child to become more aggressive, tearful or withdrawn, to name but three of the countless signs of possible emotional harm. Think in terms of parental behaviour and its impact on the child, rather than the child having problems. Changing adult behaviours without dealing with the root cause is unlikely to be enough but it can be a start.


The child’s inner world

Entering and staying in the child’s inner world is important for all Cafcass practitioners, for the duration of their involvement. Each child is like a jigsaw or crossword puzzle to solve. Family members and professionals working together to understand the cues and clues, represents the best chance of solving the puzzle. This means our casework should be a co-production with the child and those who know the child best.

It is hard to assess how a child will respond to their emotional harm. Some become emotionally blunted – “I can’t feel” – until they have some emotional distance from the source of the harm. Others are blunted for life. Yet others turn it outward and are in turn abusive to others, often from a young age. Assessing the long-term consequences of emotional abuse is nearly always beyond the scope of our short-term intervention. But it is important to convey to the court and to those with responsibility for the child what can happen if the child is not actively helped as a matter of urgency. Compromising on a solution with no major emotional benefit to the child will usually not pass the court’s perpetual acid test about securing and promoting the child’s welfare.


Emotional labour

Difficult decisions have to be taken as a matter of routine. To do that, practitioners have to be strong and resilient. Courts have to be strong and resilient. Above all, the narrative about the welfare of the child has to be less about who the child lives with and spends time with, or one care plan versus another. Rather, it should be about identifying the care plan in a public or a private law case which best ensures the child’s emotional recovery and future wellbeing. It is resources for recovery, not assessment alone, that need prioritising and investing in to help the next generation of emotionally damaged children who have already been born.

Understanding emotional harm and vulnerability means understanding emotions like loneliness – “I just don’t feel connected any more”, shame, fear and despair, as well as hope and love. It means getting alongside children who feel these emotions on a regular basis, often overwhelmingly. It is why social work is ‘emotional labour’ and why all organisations employing social workers need to help them to recover during and between cases. This is if they are not to become emotionally blunted themselves, purely as a defence mechanism, in the same way that children shut down. It is why we invest time and resource in Cafcass trying to get the environment inside the organisation right for good social work practice in case after case. For the next child we work with, though they may be case number 96,345 this year, for the child in question, it is their one and only chance. *DfE rolling data; Cafcass rolling data; and NSPCC data in How safe are our children (2017)

Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 00:00


Kerrie said...
Staff need more training, it appears that staff may be rushed. It feels like reports are copy and paste without fact finding. No home vist, no consultation with childs school. I have me5 some outstanding officers but sadly some very poor who quickly come and go as their heart may not be child focussed.
July 11, 2017 07:48
Cafcass said...
We have a framework in place for identifying any areas of practice where further support is needed.
July 4, 2017 06:13
Phil Whitaker said...
How about the idea of commissioning independent research to establish your practitioners' degree of knowledge of PA, how to detect it, and what to do about it?
July 4, 2017 02:29
Cafcass said...
The knowledge bite is just one part of the learning and resources available to our practitioners, who receive information in many forms. It is also common for one member of a team to download the doc to share with his/her team, so the reference to 28 staff accessing this doesn't represent all staff training on emotional harm.
July 4, 2017 12:24
Phil Whitaker said...
That is Cafcass's stock response to anyone trying to alert them to the fact that they are failing thousands of children who are experiencing PA. It all sounds terribly reassuring when you read it. However, we know that, out of 1,400 Cafcass practitioners, only 28 have accessed the 'knowledge bite' about Coached Children, only 9 have accessed the 'knowledge bite' about Post-Separation Control, and only 7 the modules on Emotional Harm. This contrasts with 1,314 Cafcass practitioners out of 1,400 who have accessed the module about how to claim for their expenses. The experience of countless target parents throughout the country is that Cafcass practitioners have no knowledge of PA, nor how to detect it, and because of these failings they are condemning countless children to ongoing emotional abuse (and indeed abetting its perpetration). Cafcass can either keep trotting out this banal, complacent sort of response, or it can get serious about addressing the problem. If Cafcass is so certain that all its practitioners are up to the job, I would challenge the organisation to commission urgent independent research to evaluate a random sample of practitioners' knowledge of PA, hallmark presenting features, and how to detect it. This research should be conducted by experts in the field of PA (I wonder if the Family Separation Clinic in London would be interested in working with you on this). I confidently predict you will discover that the vast bulk of your practitioners have simply no idea about PA and how to detect it, let alone what to do about it. There are target parents around the country screaming at you to wake up and do something. How long are you going to keep ignoring it?
June 30, 2017 06:43
Shaun carter said...
Good afternoon From experience with being a victim of parental alienation, I find it difficult to believe that any of the staff at cafcass, actually read any of this , and looking at training records of elearning courses, again find it bewildering that only 199 employees have completed the course on parental alienation, out of 1407 employees. This in its self is alarming , any course that is required to complete the tasks given in protecting children should be compulsory, not by choice. Very disappointing indeed , and as for training employees, even more disappointing , I did notice that on training records that nearly 100% of employees completed online training for reimbursement, interesting facts. By trade I am a construction manager and at no time would I expect untrained employees complete tasks unsupervised without completing the basic of skilled training , had I done so I would have created a accident or worse a fatality. That is my duty of care to my employees and safeguarding the workplace. For cafcass it is a matter of safeguarding the children's welfare of parental alienation, and is recognised as a form of child abuse , with long term effects mentally and physically. I would strongly recommend that cafcass human resources department, implement a course that is mandatory to all employees, that is the duty and care of what is a child's right to have , when dealing with parental alienation syndrome. I hope in time things do change for what is considered working for the safeguarding of children, and then maybe if someone like myself and my children, would have more than two minutes of time by the representive of cafcass . all too common I'm afraid in today's society. One would not expect a reply as so many of my emails have fell on deaf ears, by the cafcass team. Kind regards
June 30, 2017 01:15
Phil Whitaker said...
An imperative step is for Cafcass to make comprehensive training in the recognition of parental alienation (PA) mandatory for all its practitioners. There is an epidemic of emotional abuse currently being perpetrated by alienating parents, and few Cafcass practitioners even know what PA is, let alone how to detect it. This leads not simply to a failure to protect the children involved. It actually leads to Cafcass unwittingly abetting this emotional abuse. Cafcass practitioners' failure to understand that the apparent 'wishes and feelings' of alienated children are the result of the coercive and controlling relationships they have with their alienating parents leads Cafcass to endorse these apparent 'wishes and feelings', which results in target parents being erased from the children's lives by the Courts. It is an utter scandal and disgrace, and is something that will come to haunt Cafcass in the future when enough of these poor children come to an age to understand how they were failed, and seek redress from the 'professionals' who were supposed to help them. Anthony Douglas needs to catalyse a sea-change within Cafcass immediately, with mandatory training for all practitioners to be delivered by experts in PA. This tide of emotional abuse must be stopped.
June 30, 2017 01:09
Cafcass said...
Cafcass understands and recognises the potential for alienation’ of a child from one parent in high conflict private law cases. Cafcass does not hold training specifically on the issue of parental alienation, but our practitioners do have access to a range of resources on the topic, including our ‘Impact of Parental Conflict’ tool. This provides a list of indicators to help practitioners identify the impact of parental conflict and the level of parental influence on a child’s wishes and feelings. Practitioners can also access the latest research through our library service, highlighted through ‘knowledge bites’ on areas of practice such as ‘Coached Children’, ‘Post-Separation Control: the impact on the child’ and ‘Emotional harm’. We also have a training module on ‘High Conflict Child Arrangements Disputes’, which explores the risk to contact and the key elements in high conflict contact disputes and the impact on children. All of our training revolves around being child centred, and taking into account risk factors, evidence-based assessments, and diversity issues. All practitioner recommendations are case specific and are based on their professional judgement of the child’s welfare.
June 30, 2017 04:15



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