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When parents decide it is no longer in their interests or the interests of their child to live together and separate, it is likely that there will be some conflict as everyone comes to terms with what has happened and develops a different way of being with each other. For most people, this conflict will usually reduce in intensity and frequency as they resolve their feelings about what happened. However, in some cases, the conflict between parents can be intense from the outset and not reduce over time.  

The role of your Family Court Adviser (FCA) in these circumstances is to understand the impact of parents’ unresolved conflict on the welfare of their child. This will inform your FCA’s advice and recommendations to the court about suitable arrangements for them and also options for intervention and support to resolve that ongoing conflict that is harmful to children. 

What is harmful conflict? 

Harmful conflict is distinct from domestic abuse. We define harmful conflict as conflict between parents or those adults important to the child that is detrimental to their welfare. Unlike domestic abuse, harmful conflict is the responsibility of both parents. As with all forms of harm to children, conflict can vary in nature, intensity, as well as the short-term and long-term impact on their emotional and mental wellbeing. 

We find the following parental attitudes or behaviours are indicative of harmful conflict between parents or adults that are important to a child:  

  • a high degree of mistrust; 

  • difficulty in managing thoughts and feelings of hurt and anger; 

  • the sense of a threat that things will get out of control;  

  • ongoing difficulties in communication and co-operating positively in the interests of the child;  

  • loss of focus on the child:

  • prolonged and repeat court proceedings.

Some of these behaviours can constitute domestic abuse and, depending on how they are expressed and conveyed to the child, ‘alienating behaviours’.

How we assess harmful conflict

Your FCA will try to help you and the court to understand the impact of the separation and adult behaviours on the child and what needs to happen to make things right for them. This requires the recognition and co-operation of both parents, who sometimes need help themselves to resolve their own feelings of loss, anger and distress about what has happened and how they feel they have been or are being treated by the other person. Your FCA will try to help you to explore the impact on your child and to refocus on the best interests of your child. Your FCA and the court are required by law to put your child’s best interests first.  

The Cafcass Child Impact Assessment Framework has been developed to help your FCA to identify how children are experiencing parental separation and to assess the impact of the situation on them, including harmful conflict. 

The starting point for your FCA’s assessment is always the identification of any issues that may cause harm or risk of harm to a child. This includes the risk of emotional harm, which can be disguised in behaviour and have a long-lasting impact on the child’s development. We know from our engagement with children and what they tell us that exposure to harmful conflict can be emotionally harmful to them and this can accumulate if it carries on throughout their childhood.  

Your FCA will use their professional judgement to assess what arrangements are in the best interests of your child. This will take into account any harm they may have experienced and an assessment of any risk of future harm. This assessment will include yours and their own understanding of your child’s resilience and vulnerabilities. Your FCA will want to find out about your child’s characteristics, their personality and all the things that make them unique. Your FCA will do this by seeing and engaging directly with your child and through talking with you and any other people who know your child well. Your FCA then reports their advice and recommendations to the court for the magistrates or judge to consider before they make their final decision about what arrangements will meet your child’s needs and safeguard their welfare in the long-term. 

Your FCAs will consider whether the level of family conflict can be reduced with an aim to working with you to achieve a co-operative parenting approach in your child’s best interests.