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.