Recognising the unique experience of children in our practice and policy
The history of private law in England and Wales is a chronology of the emancipation of children’s rights from when children were chattels to their current status as equal citizens. Two of our recent developments in Cafcass contribute to this continuing emancipation. The first is our new Child Impact Assessment Framework (CIAF), which was published on our website on 11th October. The second is the development of our approach for considering diversity issues in our cases and our casework.
The Child Impact Assessment Framework
We are already receiving positive response to the CIAF nationally and internationally, and feedback that this will be influential. For the first time, it collates existing and new guidance and resources under one robust frame of reference within which practitioners can assess the separate or combined intersection of domestic abuse, harmful conflict and parental alienation and its impact on individual children.
We have made the material publicly available to increase transparency around our practice and so that parents, children, young people and others in the sector who are interested can become more aware of child impact. We know from our work that child impact is unique to the individual child and that assumptions cannot be made. We also know that without help, some children and young people experience difficult or damaging lifelong consequences from a badly handled separation or divorce – although in truth it is normally the nature of the relationship breakdown that does the damage, not the legal separation or divorce.
Through our development work on this framework, we have shifted from using the term high conflict to using ‘harmful conflict’. Some conflict is high but for various reasons the impact on a child is low, and vice versa. The impact of harmful conflict is by definition damaging. And we now assess parental alienation in terms of a child refusing or being resistant to seeing one parent. This may be for justifiable reasons or it may be as a result of being subject to alienating behaviours by the other parent or in combination with other relatives, sometimes including siblings.
The reason we have put so much focus on our new assessment framework is that our recommendations to court have to be centred around the evidence base about child impact. This pushes us to develop an evidence base for every child. In other words, it means avoiding labelling adult behaviours and ‘blaming’ and instead focusing on the lasting impact on the child now and in the future and what we can do to improve this. We recognise the distress that can be experienced by parents going through the family courts, but we need to ensure unwavering focus on what the situation means for children.
Reflecting children’s diversity and individuality in case recording
Our work on diversity follows on from this. We have been using a double threshold of relevance and vulnerability for a diversity factor in our assessments and in our reports to court. In their recent inspection, Ofsted challenged us to be clearer when we said there were no relevant diversity factors for a child, about how we reached that decision and to always record that rationale on file. We have re-thought this and have decided to think of diversity as individuality and individual difference. So rather than practitioners reporting that there are ‘no diversity issues’ or ‘no relevant diversity issues’, the case file will reflect the uniqueness of the child and their family. Good child-focused practice will by its very nature always consider the uniqueness of each child we work with.