When parents separate, some conflict is likely but this will usually subside within one or two years for most people. Acrimonious separation, where the conflict does not subside, or which is at an intense level from the outset, can also exist and constitutes one in three separations.
We understand that cases where harmful conflict features are complex, requiring finely balanced assessment and decision-making, and that the impact of any final decision made by the courts can be life-changing for each parent and child involved.
Our role is to identify the level of harmful conflict and assess its impact on the child involved which will inform our recommendations to the court suitable options for intervention and support.
What is harmful conflict?
We recognise harmful conflict as conflict of any level which is detrimental to the child’s wellbeing. As with all forms of harm to children, conflict can vary in nature, intensity and impact.
Low-level conflict is generally issue-focused. While the parents may have clear differences or preferences, they are often able to negotiate a solution to the conflict.
Medium-level conflict typically includes greater levels of blaming and may include patterns of relating carried over from experiences in their own family.
High-level conflict is defined by Weeks & Treat (2001) as having a “chronic quality,” and a “high degree of emotional reactivity, blaming and vilification”. The distinctive feature is the refusal to submit to one another’s rules, requests, or demands (Johnstone, 2006).
The following behaviours or features are commonly accepted as being indicative of harmful conflict between parties: a high degree of anger or mistrust; verbal abuse; ongoing difficulties in communication and cooperation; loss of focus on the child; lengthy proceedings or repeat litigation.
While the intensity of conflict may vary, this will have different impact for each individual child depending on their individual characteristics, background, resilience and vulnerability, and their circumstances.
How do we deal with harmful conflict?
In our work, we try to help parents and the court understand the impact of the separation and adult behaviours on the child and what they need to recover. This requires the support of both parents, who sometimes need help to exercise their parental responsibility. It is important we amplify the child’s voice above the adult conflict.
The Cafcass Child Impact Assessment Framework has been developed to help our Family Court Advisers (FCAs) identify how children are experiencing parental separation and to assess the impact of different case factors on them, including harmful conflict.
The starting point of our assessments is always the identification of risk, which includes risk of emotional harm. We recognise that exposure to harmful conflict can be emotionally harmful to children and apply a systematic approach to assessment.
Where harmful conflict features in a case we are involved with, our practitioners will use their professional judgement to assess whether it is safe and in the best interests of the child to have contact with one or both parents. This will take into account risk factors, evidence-based assessments, diversity issues, and the child’s resilience and vulnerabilities. We then report our recommendations to the court for the judge to consider before they make their final decision about what contact the child will have with either parent.
At all stages of the case, where it is safe to do so, our practitioners will consider whether the level of family conflict can be reduced with an aim to working towards cooperative parenting.