Seeing children: an overview of what we have done to see children during the pandemic
In March, when the national lockdown began, Cafcass became fully remote, closing all offices and committing to see children and their families virtually, through the use of video and telephone contact. Whilst we have a duty to safeguard children and to promote their welfare in proceedings about them, we are not a primary safeguarding agency with a duty to protect children from the immediate risk of or from actual harm – that is a statutory function discharged by local authorities and the NSPCC. At the same time, we became a remote operator, so of course, did the courts who also had to establish a means of enabling virtual hearings. None of this was easy and quickly became harder because with the exception of a two week lull in demand, the work continued to arrive and by the end of April, we were seeing something of normal volumes of applications to the family court – between 250 and 300 applications every day of every week.
Over the last eight months, we have learned huge amounts about what works and what doesn’t. We have seen Presidential guidance on what might be heard remotely in the courts and we ourselves are still trying to find the right balance between remote and face to face contact. During the early summer months, we surveyed over 100 families and children about their experiences of our remote work. At the same time, we also asked our staff – over 2000 employees, how they were finding remote working during the Pandemic. There were some interesting results. Some children definitely prefer contact remotely, whether because they can be comfortable at home and the relationship feels less intimidating or because the absence of travelling time has meant the family court advisers are able to spend more time with them in more conversations. Some families also preferred this sort of contact, though many said that they preferred us to see the children and their family life in person. Our staff also had mixed views for some of the same reasons, but for many of them, they expressed real worry about the quality of their work and the lack of face to face working.
We have learned that there are gains and losses but having started to reopen our offices for the purpose of seeing children, we are sure that the majority of our work must be face to face. We know that nuance, body language, instinct and the combination of all our senses working together are compromised in the virtual world. Nothing is as sharp and relationships just are not the same on screen. We also know that for families and children living with the sorts of difficulty that require the family courts to help them, the significance and impact of the decisions to be made, more than merit full and proper social work assessment that is at its best in face to face encounters, using established and life changing relationships.
We are now (despite the many hardening local lockdowns and the prospect of another national lockdown), almost at the point of having opened all of our 33 offices. We are prioritising seeing children and their families in person. Our staff complete risk assessments when they need to make visits to families and our offices are Covid secure and safe. We are returning to court where this is required or ordered. We are as confident as it is possible to be in these times, that we will continue to prioritise seeing children in person provided Government guidance allows us to be able to travel to and be in an office. Our advisers see children in their family homes and sometimes in schools, but this is harder now, with shielded individuals, schools following tough regimes and many people self – isolating or still testing positive.