Putting children and young people first in the family courts

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The complexities of accurately reporting family proceedings

Anthony Douglas

Recent reporting of a Tower Hamlets case involving a child who was supposedly placed in a family in a way which breached guidelines about cultural matching, was soon shown to be largely untrue. However, the subsequent clarifications and rebuttals did not cancel out the initial negative impact of the front page story. This is not the first time that a damaging front page story in a national newspaper has turned out to be inaccurate.

In family cases, everyone holds strong views but often very different views. Everyone’s behaviour makes sense to themselves even if it doesn’t to anyone else. Courts are charged with carrying out a balancing exercise between differing and often opposing perspectives, including the child’s. There are court rules in place around disclosure to prevent the reporting of detail which would lead to the identification of the family and to preserve the confidentiality of the case. But these rules often cannot prevent distortion and half-truths. They mean that it can be difficult to access the full story, in all its complexity. The real story is usually less interesting and more layered than the fake news.

The children we work with view the transparency agenda with suspicion, partly for this reason. Children naturally shy away from publicity. There is also the issue of how that child might feel later in life seeing a misrepresentation of their case. While our policy on transparency is to be as open about our work as we can be, as the organisation charged with speaking up for children in the family courts, Cafcass is duty bound to reflect their caution. We welcome responsible and balanced journalism that gets to the truth of the issues that matter to children and families. The journalists we value, of who there are many, are not afraid to pursue the truth of a situation, even if it is uncomfortable for us. Their work isn’t guided by agendas, hearsay, perception or prejudice, and so the end product is evidence based.

We are often challenged. Given what is at stake for the children and families involved in our work, challenges should be expected. We will continue to say as much as we can within the court rules we have to live by and taking account of the views of the children we work with, which must be respected.

This year, we are extending the way we capture service user feedback to add a small number of in-depth qualitative interviews with parents whose experience of our own service and that of the family courts is something we can learn from. We will then see where we can apply that learning to our everyday practice in future.

Transparency matters but caution is inevitable given the way in which a distorted and one-sided view of a complex family system may be broadcast loudly in the press and media, including social media.

Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 00:00

5 Comments :

Calder Hughes said...
Mr Douglas, I recently viewed the FNF video of your participation in their recent Parental Alienation Workshop. You seem to have such a good grasp and acute awareness of the difficulties our children are facing. I have to salute you for your perception and cander. Please can you try to filter your views down to the thousands of FCA's you have who, often, wield immense power in the Family Court. You suggested that "fixing" alienation is going to take about ten years. This is too long sir. Too many will suffer in that time. I strongly believe that your own conscience would not allow you to sit by and put this issue on the back burner for so long. Regards Calder
November 2, 2017 09:25
Cafcass said...
Dear Philip, in public law cases the court should have a clear indication of the guardian’s position by the case management hearing. The Public Law Outline sets out the documents that are to be filed with the court by the local authority when an application is made. The move away from Family Support workers was made with the number of applications continuing to rise and savings needing to be made. We recognised that we needed to move towards a model whereby all of our frontline staff are fully qualified Family Court Advisers, able to produce a case analysis for the court. Whilst Cafcass doesn’t formally record instances where a judge refers malpractice by an FCA to Cafcass, judges are able to raise concerns with operational managers. Senior operational managers liaise closely with local judges, especially the Designated Family Judge.
October 24, 2017 11:41
Philip Measures said...
And what about ensuring that every Case in Public Law Proceedings where a child is not left with the previous custodial parent has a detailed Parental Assessment at the very outset of Proceedings? The 26 week timescale is an extremely tight one and is heavily weighted against parents. CAFCASS and the Judiciary have of recent years supported a 'more for less' philosophy - I say that it is 'much less for much less.' Why did they get rid of their Family Support Workers who developed real skills and expertise in ascertaing chidren's Wishes and Feelings? Sadly, I neither see CAFCASS as being independent nor operating in the best interests of many children and young people. CAFCASS even fails to record complaints against them by Judges - one can only ask why?
October 23, 2017 08:02
Anthony Ives said...
And while you are discussing transparency please answer a question which I have put to Cafcass and they have REFUSED to answer: Are Cafcass officers supposed to READ the reports provided by the police to ensure that parents aren't lying? Should they listen to the advice of a Judge? They are out there playing God with people's lives and getting it wrong!!!
October 3, 2017 05:03
Cafcass said...
Hi Anthony, when reporting to court, information from police (such as past convictions or offending behaviour) should be scrutinised for relevance and reported accordingly by the Cafcass officer. However, it is for the court, and not Cafcass, to determine the truth of any allegations made by the parties and to make a decision on the arrangements for the child.
October 3, 2017 11:23

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