Cafcass is not only unfit for purpose, it harms the children it’s supposed to protect. Five years of reporting on family courts means I’ve heard plenty of complaints about the failings of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service. I’ve always wondered, can things really be so bad? But, as it turns out, for too many families, they are.
Cafcass was set up in 2001 to be the voice of children in family court cases, and to look after their welfare. It employs mainly experienced social workers as “family court advisers” who advise judges in most cases where there are disputes about children, while its “children’s guardians” are appointed to represent minors’ interests in the most contested and entrenched cases.
I have heard from scores of parents who have been astonished and appalled at how Cafcass had dealt with their family. One mother showed me a family court adviser’s report stating there were no safeguarding concerns about her ex-partner having contact with their children, despite his multiple criminal convictions and cautions for battery and common assault. A father told me that an interview he had had with a Cafcass worker led to a complete breakdown of trust between himself and his ex-partner, and a total loss of confidence for him in how the family justice process would deal with his case.
Now, an excoriating new report into the family justice system commissioned by the Ministry of Justice has found fundamental failings by Cafcass that echo my observations, and many more. Read all 214 devastating pages, and it is hard to conclude anything but that Cafcass’s actions harm some of the very children the organisation exists to protect.
Cafcass social workers’ views are taken extremely seriously by family judges. But the MoJ’s report details evidence that Cafcass social workers’ recommendations about whether a child could safely see their abusive parent were often based on very short meetings, sometimes lasting no more than half an hour. Astonishingly, other professional associations said that Cafcass officers were “not sufficiently trained to assess risk” in domestic abuse cases. Their court reports were “too brief and superficial, and did not adequately identify or respond to the effects of domestic abuse on the child … ”
It isn’t just adults who are killed by domestic abusers – their children are sometimes murdered too. The ability for abusers to inflict harm continues well after parents separate, if the courts insist on contact. The mantra that children are entitled to a relationship with both their parents is now imbued throughout the family justice system – and, in theory, who could oppose it? But if Cafcass workers value that contact over children’s emotional wellbeing and physical safety, then, as a society, our priorities have become very twisted indeed.
Cafcass claims to put children’s “needs, wishes and feelings first, making sure that children’s voices are heard at the heart of the family court setting”. Yet the report found that Cafcass social workers “could ignore, dismiss, or sometimes misrepresent or manipulate children’s views”.
A therapist who gave evidence said that in several cases: “Cafcass workers and social workers have seemed to regard it as their role to persuade the child to agree to contact with their father, irrespective of the father’s behaviour (this includes cases where the father has been convicted of offences related to domestic abuse) and of the stated wishes of the child.” When you’re a child who is petrified of spending time with a parent who has abused you or your protective parent in what should be the safety of your own home, having your voice silenced or traduced by the professional who is specifically employed to safeguard your interests in the family court is a double betrayal.
Cafcass knows the criticisms in the report are dire but initially merely issued a defensive press release insisting it did “not agree” that the criticisms in the report reflected the way its staff worked. Despite its chief executive, Jacky Tiotto, partially apologising and saying Cafcass now had to learn from the “feedback”, it is tricky to learn from feedback you don’t agree with. For an organisation whose very existence is predicated on its expertise and ability to “independently advise the family courts about what is safe for children and in their best interests”, the extensive, detailed and consistent criticisms in this report pose an existential threat. And that’s because Cafcass cannot command legitimacy among parents and children who are vulnerable to harm, and who look to it for help, if it can’t accept that the poor experiences some have had with its officers count for something. When a domestic abuse victim goes to court seeking protection, their children deserve better than an organisation that barely knows their situation, ignores what they say, twists their words, and coerces them into contact with a parent they are scared of.