Risk factor: should a five year-old-girl have contact with her family?

Resorting to the courts to decide child contact can risk making matters worse for all concerned. Pre-court agreements are generally preferable, but it is often adults – parents, relatives or representatives of corporate parents – who fight or negotiate over the details. It can be easy to miss the voice of the child.

This is where the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) comes into its own. Children’s guardians work with children and their families and advise the courts on what they consider to be in the children’s best interests.

Esmee, five, lived with her parents before being taken into care. She had three half-sisters who all lived with their maternal grandmother. Esmee could not be placed with them permanently – though she did spend a spell of time with them before being placed into foster care – because the grandmother was unable to cope with four girls.

The local authority believed there was no meaningful relationship between Esmee and her siblings because she was much younger than them. But this wasn’t the view of Paul Doherty, the appointed children’s guardian. “The council’s view was that it would be confusing for Esmee – she had not had contact with her siblings for about nine months,” he says.

“My view was that she had a meaningful relationship, that she had faced a period of disruption, and that one of the consistencies for her had been contact with her grandmother and older siblings. I felt that that should continue and form part of any placement plan.”

Not only was Esmee clear about wanting to see her siblings but they too were adamant that they wanted to stay in touch with their sister.

“The 12-year-old was particularly lucid in her views about this,” says Doherty.

However, the local authority was less convinced and wanted to go for indirect contact through letters. “I invited the team manager, who was the decision-maker, to meet the children before the final hearing to form her own view about the relationship between the children and the grandmother,” says Doherty.

“So we arranged a joint visit to the home – which I facilitated – and for each of the children to give their views about why they wanted to continue to see their sister and why they didn’t want it to be just letters.”

Doherty says the children explained the situation clearly. “They were animated about their relationship, how they saw her, how they liked to play, the things they liked to do, things that they remembered about her.” The team manager also visited, separately, the grandmother and Esmee.

The team manager was impressed by the strength of the children’s feelings and felt the information presented to her by social workers had underestimated the depth of their relationships.

“She felt that there was value in retaining that contact,” says Doherty. “She filed an interim statement before the final hearing supporting contact up to six times a year.”

Importantly, this meant that conflict in the courts was avoided. “It wasn’t a case of being blinkered and rigid and arguing it out in court with barristers in front of a judge,” says Doherty. “Some authorities can be rigid. But this council saw that there were legitimate reasons to have another look at this case.”

Throughout Esmee’s life, all the people who have cared for her have let her down. Refusing contact would mean that her grandmother and her siblings would also be letting her down. “Why make that happen?” asks Doherty. “For me this is an important psychological aspect to her development. She needed to have that connection, particularly with the people who will support and value her.”

Doherty says this case illustrates what children’s guardians do well. “It’s that sense of being able to influence an outcome that enhances a child’s future. It’s important to me that we listened to the children – not just Esmee, but her three older siblings too. “They were persuasive in their feelings and wishes for her future.”

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Graham Hopkins

This article appeared in the 23 August issue under the headline “A guardian steps in for the sisters”

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