Neville Hall, Cafcass Assistant Director, wrote for Family Matters (featured in edition 39, January 2017) about Cafcass’ initial safeguarding work ahead of first hearings in private law cases and managing these in line with CAP guidance to improve outcomes
All private law applications for child arrangement orders in England are referred to Cafcass to conduct initial work ahead of the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA). This is with the exception of some specific issue or prohibited steps orders. Directed by the Child Arrangements Programme (CAP) Practice Direction 12B, our role at this stage is to identify and make the court aware of any risk and serious welfare concerns affecting a child or vulnerable adult. The professional task in work to first hearing is to distinguish between cases with serious concerns requiring further intervention and those where, though children may still be vulnerable following a relationship breakdown, safe and early resolution is possible with the right support.
Our Central Intake Team (CIT) screens the C100 (or other) application on receipt and enters the case onto our electronic case management system. Screening includes review of the case papers for any urgent child protection issues that may require a referral to the local authority. Cafcass must then make routine safeguarding checks about the adult parties named in the application with the police and relevant local authorities. Local authority checks are requested directly with the relevant authorities for confirmation of whether the family is known to them.
Police National Computer (PNC) checks (‘level 1’) are carried out by our dedicated unit, which is based at our National Business Centre (NBC). The checks provide basic information about arrests and convictions, which will be scrutinised for relevance and reported to court accordingly. Where we determine, based on the initial return, that it is necessary to obtain further information from the police to fully inform the court’s decision, we will request what is known as level 2 enhanced police checks through the unit. This seeks disclosure of information held on local forces’ databases, including local intelligence, and call out logs – often highly relevant in cases where domestic abuse is alleged.
Once this work is complete, a Cafcass local early intervention team (EIT) then picks up the case. A Family Court Adviser (FCA) will conduct risk identification telephone interviews with the adult parties and write the safeguarding letter to court.
In accordance with the CAP, these interviews are predominantly confined to safety issues. Interview plan guidance provides FCAs with a telephone script and structure for their enquiries. This guide helps them to remain focused on collecting information about possible safeguarding concerns and ensures all relevant issues are explored during the interview. Areas for discussion include, but are not limited to; the child’s situation, relevance of information from the checks and any concerns around domestic abuse, alcohol or substance misuse and mental health. Recent developments from our child exploitation strategy includes consideration of areas such as child sexual exploitation (CSE), radicalisation and child trafficking. The outcome of these enquiries supports our case analysis and advice to the court in the safeguarding letter.
Parties will not be invited to talk about wider issues, for example current contact arrangements. If parents raise these during the call the FCA will advise that these need to be raised at the FHDRA. This is so that a full discussion can take place at a time when the any identified safeguarding concerns can be taken into account. However, the CAP does make provision for the FCA to explore the outcome of the Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM) and narrowing of issues within the Parenting Plan.
We will interview all adult parties where possible. In cases where the FCA has been unable to contact an adult party, or there is any other missing information such as from checks, they will inform the court so that further enquiries can be directed as necessary. No direct work is undertaken with the children at this stage. As part of the screening process, FCAs will also establish whether parties require any reasonable adjustments for the interview.
A summary and analysis of the available safeguarding information and any issues arising from this is then provided to court in a safeguarding letter (previously known as a schedule 2 letter), sent prior to the FHDRA. It is our practice to send the safeguarding letter to the parties, as well as the court. However, if there are risk issues around this, the FCA will alert the court so it can determine how this information can be shared safely.
For the avoidance of delay, best practice is for Cafcass EIT and court managers to work together to ensure FHDRAs are listed on days where a FCA can attend. Here they can speak to parties separately prior to the hearing if required, unless it has been established during the screening process that it is safe to see them together. The benefit is they can clarify any issues and wherever possible conduct early dispute resolution to see whether agreement can be reached or the issues narrowed. The Parenting Plan is often used as a framework and parents are encourage to use the plan to focus on the needs of the child.
Based on the safeguarding letter and any dispute resolution work, the FCA will then advise the court on how it may progress the case. When reaching a decision the court, in accordance with CAP, should first consider alternative ways of working with the parties (accepting that cases with safeguarding concerns or specific issues may require further professional and judicial intervention). In many instances and with the early identification of any issues, cases can be resolved safely at first hearing by consent or with further support from local programmes, such as supported or supervised contact centres or the Separated Parent Information Programme. A small scale FHDRA study conducted by Cafcass last year found 33 cases where the FCA at court advised the case could safely move to final hearing, with the court taking this course of action in 10 of these cases. With rising demand placing greater stress on the system, it’s ever important we work together with the judiciary in the spirit of CAP guidance to identify which cases need our further involvement and which can be safely diverted from court.