Children will be better protected during bitter contact disputes between separated parents when the Children and Adoption Bill becomes law, according to the government.
New measures to improve children’s safety were debated this week, as the Children and Adoption Bill progresses through parliament.
The bill aims to safeguard children’s welfare when their parents split. It will provide courts with more powers to promote and enforce child contact. The legislation gives courts power to order separated parents to attend parenting classes or meetings with counsellors. The idea is for parents to “take part in an activity that promotes contact with the child”.
Enforcement orders, where parents who break contact orders can be made to do community service, are introduced in the bill.
New powers will order one parent to pay compensation to another, if he or she loses money when contact orders are breached.
The bill also deals with inter-country adoptions. It will bring in law to restrict adoptions from countries where there are concerns about practice including issues such as child trafficking.
Officers at the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service are to carry out risk assessments where there are child protection concerns in contact cases, after the government accepted an amendment to the bill this week.
Education minister Lord Adonis called the move a “very constructive step forward in ensuring that issues of domestic violence and child abuse are properly addressed.”
The government will “provide the resources necessary” to fund the plan, he said.
Twenty nine children were killed by their fathers during child contact in England and Wales between 1994 and 2004, research by the charity Women’s Aid shows. Ten of the children died in the last two years.
Last month a report by government court inspectors also revealed “…consistent evidence that inappropriate assumptions about contact were made, rather than assessments about whether there was any risk associated with domestic abuse cases”.
During debate in the Lords, Baroness Pitkeathley, chair of Cafcass, said the organisation is enthusiastic about taking on risk assessments but was “concerned about resources.”
“We believe that it will help to focus our practice when under great pressure to broker agreements between warring parents. Sometimes the drive to reach an agreement about contact can mask underlying child protection concerns,” she said.
“At the moment, we have an inadequate statutory base for exploring those concerns. Making risk assessment mandatory will be an alert not just for Cafcass practitioners but for those agencies from which we ask checks—courts and judges and all agencies in the family justice system,” added Pitkeathley.
An amendment creating automatic contact rights for separated parents was defeated. Children’s charities had argued against the move.
NSPCC director and chief executive, Mary Marsh said. “The NSPCC strongly supports the principle of children maintaining contact with both parents after separation, providing that it is safe to do so.”
“Taking contact for granted undermines the principle that the welfare of the child must be paramount. And we already know in practice that the courts are granting contact without sufficient regard to the safety of the child,” she added.
While it is important for both parents to be involved in bringing up their offspring, the rights and needs of children – not adults – must indeed be paramount, Alan Coombe, policy officer at children’s charity Barnardo’s insisted.
“We need to move away from treating children as weapons when parents separate,” he said.
Pitkeathley emphasised during the Lords debate that only the most difficult contact disputes – 10 per cent of separated families – go to court.
This means “there are relatively high levels of allegations of domestic violence among the parents approaching the courts, which means that concerns over the safety of the children and/or the other parent may mean that direct contact cannot take place,” she said.
The Children and Adoption Bill will now progress to its third reading in the House of Lords and should go to the Commons next year. It was first published by the Department for Education and Skills in June.