Cafcass’s behavioural programme for parents who are splitting up

A national Cafcass programme is increasing awareness of the effects on children of parents' behaviour during splits and divorce proceedings, reports Camilla Pemberton

(Pictured: Jill Valenti, director of Network Recruitment Solutions, at the company’s contact centre. Credit: Tom Parkes)

A national Cafcass programme is increasing awareness of the effects on children of parents’ behaviour during splits and divorce proceedings, reports Camilla Pemberton

Project details

Project name: Parenting Information Programme (PIP).

Aims and objectives: To help separating parents understand what effect the process has on their children and how to proceed more effectively as a family reducing the conflict.

Run by: Commissioned by Cafcass and run by a variety of independent providers nationwide.

Cost: £200 per parent. In 2010, the total cost so far has been £892,800. Project is funded annually by central government.

Number of service users: Since April 2010, 4,500 people have attended classes across England, compared with just 900 in 2009-10.

Timescale: Began in 2008 under the Department for Children, Schools and Families; rolling contract.

At a contact centre in south east London, two mothers are sharing personal experiences of painful divorce and the effect on their children. They do not know each other, but their honest, and strikingly similar, revelations are proving cathartic.

They are participating in a group discussion during a Parenting Information Programme (PIP) at the company NRS’s Contact Centre (NRSCC) in Lewisham. First approved in 2008 by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, PIPs are a form of mediation ordered when a court decides separating parents need to be alerted to the impact of family conflict on their children.

Those delivering the programme hope PIPs will be used more widely as a pre-cursor to ongoing mediation and help more contact disputes to be resolved out of court in thousands of cases – an approach which has already been championed by the Family Justice Review.

Delivered in two two-hour sessions, led by trained contact facilitators, PIPs comprise a mixture of exercises and group discussions. All have been designed by relationship counsellors at Relate to help parents reduce conflict and learn to communicate more effectively.

Anthony Douglas, chief executive of children’s guardians body Cafcass, says PIPs have already shown that, “with an element of compulsion and facilitation, warring parents can begin to see how they are behaving through the eyes of their children”.

From teenage parents who had one night stands, to married couples divorcing after decades together, participants present a range of different needs and challenges. Courts may also order grandparents, step-parents or new partners to attend if necessary. All orders, including to parents, are based upon an assessment of the family’s suitability, carried out by Cafcass children’s guardians.

Douglas says this screening process “helps to protect children and vulnerable adults where mediation is not safe enough and identifies those cases where an out of court resolution may be best for everyone, particularly children who suffer so acutely from ongoing parental conflict.”

In such cases, PIPs are “the way forward”, says Jill Valenti, director of NRSCC.

Although parents are asked if they are happy to attend, they are ultimately ordered by the court, so not all are thrilled to be there. Valenti reassures sceptical parents they will not be judged, taught or dictated to, but will be supported through an emotional time, and encouraged to think about how their child is reacting to family conflict.

“When parents are involved in relationship breakdowns, and are frightened about the change this will have on family life, it can be hard for them to see beyond contact arrangements for the following weekend, let alone the long-term future. They are not always able to see the effect this has on their children, but when they do it enables them to change things for the better. We get really positive feedback from parents and courts,” Valenti says.

Cafcass has seen a huge growth in referrals to PIPs over the last two years, the result of Cafcass services and individual providers, such as Valenti, publicising their efficacy to local courts. Although funding will always be a struggle – it is renewed on a rolling basis every year – Valenti says local judges now have “real faith in the programme.”

Douglas says: “The success of PIPs shows that more cases can be mediated, perhaps between an extra 5-10% of existing cases, which would make a real difference to the children involved. We hope that with the increased awareness of the courses’ success, up to 12,000 parents will have attended by March next year.”

Case study: ‘I didn’t realise how much kids pick up on’

The first PIP session at the NRS Contact Centre in Lewisham, south London, begins with a film – a short drama showing a family going through a divorce. It is followed by interviews with children whose parents are separating. The film is a visual tool to help parents recognise the traps so many of them fall into, and to launch discussions.

Each parent spots something familiar: the insults screamed at ex-partners over the heads of impressionable children; the wrangles over who has the children next week or who said what in court and things quickly become emotional.

“I didn’t realise how much children pick up on,” says one father. “I was so involved in the divorce and focused on hating my ex-wife.”

The second session is equally challenging. When parents are asked to consider questions such as: “How do you think your child will describe this process in 10 years’ time?” Each parent seems shocked as they reflect on their answers. “I just hope she doesn’t say she had an unhappy childhood,” says one. “I think she’ll say it’s all her fault,” admits another. “And she’ll say she never wants to get married or have children. She’s already saying that.”

As the mother begins to cry, the course facilitator passes her a box of tissues. The impact of separation and loss on each parent is clear too: a mother of one fled to a refuge when her arranged marriage broke down, while a father of two admitted to drinking heavily during his first Christmas without his wife and children. “Yes, I did that too,” another parent says, reassured that she is not alone in her guilt.

These small, intimate classes are clearly therapeutic, providing a safe and non-judgemental place for parents to discuss their thoughts and feelings. “It is a bit like counselling,” laughs one mum.

They are given tips for having difficult conversations with ex-partners; for dealing with particularly aggressive ex-partners; for looking after their own emotional health and for having ‘business-like’ conversations over contact arrangements. At all times, they are encouraged to recognise the negative impact of court processes and contact disputes on their children.

As the class adjourns for a coffee break, one parent approached and said: “This programme is terrific. It’s really helped me put my child first. But I feel like I’m just starting to heal, and then after four hours that’s it. I will definitely go on to mediation but I just wish it had been offered earlier, at the first solicitors’ appointment. We could have avoided so much heartache.”

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