Cafcass publishes updated guidance on working with children through Covid-19
Cafcass has published updated guidance which outlines the arrangements that are currently being made for Family Court Advisers (FCAs) to see children and families, work in Cafcass offices and attend court. The Cafcass guidance has been updated to reflect the reduced ‘R’ rate and the Government’s roadmap out of lockdown. This guidance will continue to be reviewed and will be updated should there be any changes to the Government guidance.
Seeing children and families
The guidance explains that in recognition of the changing circumstances surrounding Covid-19, FCAs return to the previously held position that, in most circumstances, an in-person meeting with the child/ren should take place at least once during the course of proceedings.
In the period between January 2021 and February 2021, given the national lockdown in response to the new variant and exponentially rising infection rates, it was not the default position that an in-person meeting with the child/ren should take place at least once during the course of proceedings. It remained an option should an individual FCA consider such a meeting was essential, in the children’s best interests and could be undertaken safely both in terms of themselves and the children and family with whom they are working. In those circumstances, full risk assessments on the in – person visits were required. In addition, the guidance at that time was clear that our default until further notice was that in person working should be by exception and that remote visits should be conducted in preference.
Our position is now reverting to that which was in place before the January 2021 change to remote working, As previously, FCAs will now revert to in person visiting as our preferred means of engaging with children and they will continue to use their professional judgement as they assess the risks associated with in-person visits at this time. We advise that the risk assessment clearly shows the weighing and balancing of judgement in respect of the need to see a child in person versus the risk we present to them by in-person work and vice versa. We also advise that high workload volumes are taken into account, so that the children most in need of a visit are prioritised. The decision remains that of the FCA and should be written contemporaneously onto the casefile, explained clearly to the family and communicated to the court in all subsequent reports.
All of our offices are Covid-secure and if required remain open for in-person visits and for other work purposes, government guidance on social distancing must be followed when using this space.
The guidance explains that all open courts are Covid-secure and have risk assessments completed by HMCTS that Cafcass staff can access. It should be a matter of discussion between the FCA and the court on the most effective way that their participation can take place with an agreement reached in advance of a hearing.
The courts will have the facility to arrange for evidence to be given remotely. There is significant use of hybrid hearings where the parents or other family members attend in person together with their advocates, while the FCA, social workers and other experts attend remotely. There will be cases where it is necessary for the FCA to be present in court. The needs of the children Cafcass represents may require that a hearing in person takes place.
Cafcass Chief Executive Jacky Tiotto said:
“We are pleased that we are now in a position where we feel it is safe enough to update our guidance and return to our preferred practice of seeing children and their families in-person at least once during court proceedings. This is so important for children given the complex circumstances in which they find themselves with their families. We believe that their views, wishes, feelings and hopes for the future are best understood and shared in a trusted relationship between them and their Family Court Adviser. Whilst remote working is effective and there is absolutely a place for it as we move forward, we want to establish in person relationships to enable us to make good assessments about what is in children’s best interests.
“The Covid-19 crisis continues to have a devastating impact on all children, affecting education, their childhoods, their friendships and their families. Throughout the crisis we have been mindful of this and we have tried to make decisions in respect of our work with them that prioritises their safety and the advice we provide to the family court about their needs now and in the future.
“At Cafcass, we are continuing to try to manage record volumes of work, assure ourselves that the quality and effectiveness of what we do remains good or better and protect our colleagues and the children and families we are here to serve. We give daily attention to these things and I am more than grateful that I lead a group of such committed and experienced colleagues who help to make this possible.”