Cafcass responds to the publication of the Report from the Ministry of Justice Expert Panel on Harm in the Family Courts

The publication of the report from the Ministry of Justice Expert Panel on Harm in the Family Courts makes a significant contribution to the necessary and continuing debate about how to improve services and support for children and families who have been affected by or who live with domestic abuse. It is now both critical and urgent that there is reform to the family justice system, its culture and its statutory framework, so that the combined efforts of all professionals are more effective in helping children and their families. Cafcass is committed to its role in reform through membership of the Family Justice Board, the Family Justice Implementation Group and a new internal learning and improvement board that will be established to oversee continuous development in professional practice. We also know we have more to do to improve our practice in response to feedback and we will do everything possible to continue to operate a service that prioritises children’s safety, their voices and their hopes for their futures.

The report has found that the family justice system is underfunded and needs investment in order to address the recommendations so that it can improve the ways in which it meets the needs of the children and families who rely on it. We agree that the imperfect system doesn’t always allow our social workers the opportunity to spend enough time with children to fully understand their experiences and hopes for the future. We often meet children at pivotal moments in their lives, when their future is being decided by the family court, and it is important that we have enough time to prioritise their voices and needs, taking full account of the circumstances of their families and those connected to them.

Cafcass was not invited to be a member of the Panel and we do not agree that the criticisms in the report reflect our current practice. But our task now is to learn from this feedback and to work collaboratively with families and specialist organisations to provide support that is considered more effective and which clearly promotes the safety and welfare of children at all times.

Social work is challenging and highly skilled work, which involves assessments of risk and uncertainty that have to take account of the need for children to grow up with and experience a positive family life with their parents, carers and family networks. Our practitioners undertake assessments in a diverse array of family circumstances, and carefully consider the potential for a range of factors to influence the reporting and interpretation of allegations of abusive behaviour– for example same sex couples, people with mental or physical health conditions, or the contribution of heritage or faith. The information available to practitioners and that informs their assessments and subsequent judgements is sometimes limited and often contradictory. Our job is to understand the impact on children and to make a recommendation to the family court about the risk of harm from conflict or abuse balanced against the benefits – where it is safe and in their best interests – of a relationship with both parents. Fundamental to any recommendations we make are the wishes and feelings expressed by children themselves.

We have a clear framework in place to help our social work practitioners to do this and to advise the courts on their findings. Our social work practitioners receive specialist training in assessing domestic abuse and have access to learning material and programmes developed in collaboration with organisations with specialist knowledge of domestic abuse.

We are clear that we have more to learn and we are committed to action as a result of the report’s findings. Our first step is to establish a learning and improvement board, involving external partners, who will oversee a learning review and action plan that will set out practice and service improvements for children experiencing domestic abuse or other forms of harm. We want to listen much harder to feedback from children and families about what we do well and where we need to improve.

We agree that there is a need for greater consistency among family justice professionals about how different factors are best balanced, and that joint training would be one way of achieving this. There is also a need for improved coordination not only between family justice professionals, but with specialist organisations providing therapeutic and other support that will address the causes as well as deal with the consequences of domestic abuse in all its forms. The challenge of domestic abuse cannot be dealt with only through a legal process and there is a need for complementary interventions and services to be more consistently available.

We continue to support the collation of meaningful data to help Cafcass and the family justice system improve its understanding about the needs of the children and families with whom we work. We will continue to play an active role to facilitate robust independent research that improves our understanding about how the system is operating and where reform is needed. A summary of our case data is available to researchers through the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory data platform at Swansea University which stores information securely and anonymously, and ensures access is granted only after a rigorous approvals process.

Cafcass Chief Executive, Jacky Tiotto said:

“The publication of the Harm Panel report adds greatly to our understanding of the experiences of children and families who live with domestic abuse and seek the help of the family court. Some of the testimony is difficult to read, but we know it will have been even more difficult to share and we are grateful to everyone – and especially the children and adults – who have contributed to this report. Our commitment is to learn from their experiences and to improve the help we give in response. I am sorry to the families and children who have reported that we have not been helpful to them and I hope that our developing family forum eventually provides a means through which we can listen, learn and repair together.

“Everyone here at Cafcass wants to make a positive and lasting difference to the lives and futures of the children we have the privilege to meet and to help. The feedback that we regularly hear tells us that we achieve this for many of the 140,000 children we support each year. But it matters to us to know each and every time when we haven’t been helpful. We will be working hard this year to prioritise listening, reflecting and improving our practice in response to feedback and we will do everything possible to continue to operate a service that prioritises children’s safety, their voices and their hopes for their futures.

“This report has found that the failings identified are systemic, and that reform of the family justice system is urgently needed to address them. We agree and are committed to working alongside our system partners to make this change a reality.”

The Family Justice Young People’s Board said:

“The Family Justice Young People’s Board welcomes any research that will improve practice and lead to better outcomes for children and young people.  Domestic abuse is one of the key priorities for the FJYPB this year and will be the basis for a number of webinars that we shall be running in the autumn. We think it is very important to consider the voice of the child within domestic abuse cases in the family court. Over the coming weeks we will looking at the report in detail,  we will offer comments on the key findings and we will consider how we can contribute to developments and changes in practice across agencies. We look forward to exploring how we can ensure that children and young people who have experienced domestic abuse are kept at the centre of practice.”

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