Last week’s report on the family resolution pilot projects – a government-led scheme to resolve contact disputes between separated parents – would not have made happy reading for ministers.
Just 62 sets of parents were referred by courts to the pilots, which ran in Brighton, inner London and Sunderland from September 2004 to August 2005. Only 29 completed their programme, and 18 dropped out before it even started.
The evaluation, by the University of East Anglia’s Centre for Research on the Child and the Family, finds that one of the reasons for the low referral and completion rates was a lack of local leadership and poor inter-agency working.
Outcomes for the pilot
Outcomes for the pilot were no better than those for in-court conciliation, which the researchers also studied, in terms of rates of agreement between parents, resulting levels of contact and satisfaction with the programme.
This is despite the fact that in-court conciliation typically involves a single short session with a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service officer, designed to forge an agreement before a court hearing.
The family resolution pilots, by contrast, comprised two group parenting classes, designed to help parents better understand their children’s needs and tackle conflict, and two or three sessions with Cafcass officers to thrash out arrangements for contact. On average, programmes took 13-and-a-half weeks from referral to completion, much longer than had been anticipated.
The researchers scotch the idea that the scheme could be rolled out nationally, saying “there is still a considerable amount of work to do in identifying the most effective methods of helping parents to reach agreement and to make contact work for children”.
Background to the pilot
The pilots were part of the government’s drive to promote the earlier and more harmonious resolution of disputes between separated parents over their children, without the need for contested court hearings.
This policy, laid out in the 2004 green paper Parental separation: children’s needs and parents’ responsibilities, also involved the promotion of mediation schemes, in-court conciliation and so-called collaborative law, in which solicitors are given incentives to keep cases out of court.
The defining feature of the resolution pilots was that they aimed to reduce parental conflict and improve relationships – and not just reach agreements.
Alan Critchley, Cafcass’s private law development manager, says: “We’ve known for quite a long time that in-court conciliation is good at getting contact going but what keeps it working is reducing conflict.”
Relate head of public policy Jenny North agrees, saying: “To succeed in mediation you need to put your emotional issues aside and work towards an agreement. In cases where the couple can’t be in the same room as each other you need to have a therapeutic intervention to address that.”
This was the purpose of the parent education classes run by Relate and the Parenting Education and Support Forum, which were designed to be mixed gender but with separated parents placed in different groups.
The first class focused on children’s needs, including videos of children talking about the impact of parental conflict on them, while the second concentrated on managing conflict.
The silver lining of the evaluation is that this was the area with the most positive outcome, when compared to in-court conciliation.
Over 85 per cent said the group sessions had helped them look at their situation differently and 70 per cent it would improve communication with their fellow parent.
In follow-up interviews with a sample of the parents involved, 37.5 per cent said relationships had improved and 45.3 per cent said contact problems had got better, compared to 24 per cent and 33 per cent respectively for in-court conciliation.
And those who had completed the programme were more likely to report improved relationships than those who had not.
However, the researchers say that given the limitations of the pilots these findings are “suggestive rather than conclusive” and much more work needs to be done on developing appropriate parent education programmes.
And they suggest that those that had the most success were among the less intractable cases.
North says that more than two sessions may have been necessary: “We feel that there would be more evidence of behavioural change if there were more sessions.”
Reasons for the low number of participants
The low number of referrals had a number of causes: the voluntary nature of the scheme, the exclusion of domestic violence cases, and the low volume of cases at Brighton and Sunderland.
But the evaluation says: “Difficulties in inter-agency working and the lack of local leadership probably did have a limiting effect on the referral process and throughput.”
It found that links between the parent classes and the parent planning stage, run by Cafcass, were not good. This meant Cafcass officers were not able to build on what had gone before and Relate staff facilitating the classes could not prepare parents for the next stage.
An added difficulty was the absence of a case manager overseeing all parts of the programme leading to some referrals getting lost between agencies.
Critchley says: “It was a complicated project. I think if there had been one person locally who could have acted as a focal point [that would have been good]. It was difficult to know who to go to with issues.”
No common protocol
Critchley also found that differences in policies on confidentiality between Relate and Cafcass hampered links between the two stages.
“We would need to work on a much more joined-up approach so relevant information from the group work can be taken forward to the planning stage. That was nobody’s fault – it was different agencies coming from a different position without a common protocol.”
North suggests the researchers overstated their criticisms of inter-agency working, saying: “In terms of communication with Cafcass by our administrative staff they were in daily contact. We are very good partners. I’m not quite sure where that came from.”
Lack of local leadership
There were no management committees to direct the pilots. In fact, in none of the three areas did all the relevant professional groups – Cafcass, judges, solicitors, Relate, the Parenting Education and Support Forum – all meet together.
The lack of local leadership meant “insufficient effort was made to engage local practitioners or to generate a sense of a shared enterprise”.
In particular, it says, some judges and lawyers were sceptical about the purpose of the pilots, seeing reaching agreements, not working on relationships, as paramount, which meant appropriate cases were not referred to the programme as a matter of course.
North says that it would be a “disaster” if negative publicity around the report puts the DfES off further piloting of similar programmes.
Such piloting seems necessary as, under the current Children and Adoption Bill, parents can be directed to take part in “contact activities”, including counselling, guidance and classes to manage violent behaviour, to promote contact.
North is enthusiastic about the bill so long as contact activities are well funded and on a large scale: “Let’s get as many contact activities as possible. Let’s not rely on one model across the country.”