Social workers carrying out assessments for private law proceedings should be accredited to tackle “significant weakness” in their knowledge and skills, particularly in relation to domestic abuse, experts have said.
The call came in a government-commissioned report assessing how the family courts respond to harm, particularly domestic abuse and child sexual abuse, in private proceedings, which was heavily critical of practice by Cafcass towards children and domestic abuse victims, though in a context of resource shortages for the organisation.
In relation to local authority social workers, the panel behind the report heard concerns practitioners were not familiar with private law procedures and did not have the necessary training to undertake domestic abuse risk assessments.
“The evidence set out in this report suggests that there is a significant weakness in the knowledge and skills of social workers who are undertaking risk assessments and other related direct work with children and their families where domestic abuse is alleged, suspected or known,” said the panel, which said this should be countered by improved training and accreditation.
In England, this should be through the national assessment and accreditation system (NAAS), while in Wales, practitioners should undertake dedicated training in domestic abuse and sexual violence to enable them to act as “champions” on these issues in this area.
Guidance on private law proceedings
Social workers can access expert guidance this topic from Community Care Inform Children, including on:
- Writing analytical section 7 reports
- Domestic abuse and child contact
- The law on private law proceedings
The content is available to everyone with a licence for Inform Children.
The programme for both training schemes should be reviewed by domestic abuse experts to help ensure the requisite knowledge and skills are sufficiently assessed, said the panel of family law, domestic abuse and social work leaders behind the report, including chief social worker for England, Isabelle Trowler, the architect of NAAS.
In its implementation plan in response to the report, which accepted many of its recommendations, the government said it would “work to understand how
the recommended accreditation scheme could work and what elements will be
required to ensure it can be successful implemented”.
Abuse ‘systematically minimised’
The report called for a fundamental overhaul of the way the family justice system managed cases to resolve disputes between parents and make decisions about children’s care and residence following separation, particularly where domestic abuse and child sexual abuse are involved.
The report identified four systemic problems – a pro-contact culture, an adversarial court system, significant under-resourcing and silo working between agencies – that resulted in abuse being systematically minimised, particularly to promote contact, children’ voices going unheard, often due to practitioners’ lack of time, and significant barriers to victims reporting abuse, particularly among people from black and minority ethnic groups.
Particular issues included abuse being described as ‘historic’ or as ‘mutual’ to enable contact, and victims not being believed by agencies – with the fear of disbelief being a significant barrier to reporting – and court orders enabling the ongoing control of children and adult victims by abusers.
“The evidence raised repeated concerns about the treatment of children and adult victims of domestic abuse in a considerable number of cases,” the report said. “Although we do not know how representative these concerns are, on the evidence available the panel concludes that family courts approach domestic abuse cases inconsistently, and in some cases with harmful effects.”
Besides the systemic problems raised, the report was also highly critical of of the quality of practice by local authority social workers and, in particular Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru, whose role it is to provide a safeguarding report to the court, following enquiries, to identify risks to the child and make recommendations.
In some cases, the courts may direct Cafcass to produce a more detailed report on the welfare of the child under section 7 of the Children Act 1989, a role that can also be carried out by a local authority when the child is known to children’s services.
While recognising that many of the issues faced by Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru were to do with funding, the panel reported stringent criticism of the limited weight given to children’s views and experiences by practitioners.
“A very strong theme from multiple submissions was that children’s views are frequently disregarded, primarily in cases where children are stating
that they do not want to spend time with an abusive parent,” the report said.
The panel said it “received evidence that Cafcass/Cymru could ignore, dismiss or sometimes misrepresent or manipulate children’s views”, particularly in relation to whether they wanted to see a particular parent, which meant that “children’s experience of abuse can be ignored, dismissed or minimised.”
The panel also received evidence that the safeguarding interviews that practitioners undertook with parents were inadequate in enabling victims to disclose domestic abuse because they were so short and often carried out over the phone.
“The limitations of the Cafcass safeguarding interview suggest that there are significant resourcing issues. In the English practitioner roundtable, participants said that Cafcass have limited resources and are under pressure to prioritise public law cases.
“As a result it was said, by a range of professionals, that Cafcass is ‘often impatient or quick’ to say that domestic abuse is not relevant to contact without giving reasons or making a proper assessment. Cafcass Cymru received slightly more favourable feedback on its performance in general from practitioners, however, that is not to say that there are no resourcing issues for them. The inadequate nature of the safeguarding interview also attracted criticism in the Welsh survivors’ focus groups.”
‘I am sorry to families and children’
In response to the report, Cafcass said that it felt the criticisms levelled by the panel did not reflect its current practice, and pointed to the systemic problems and underfunding identified by the report.
It said that its practitioners received specialist domestic abuse training and that fundamental to the recommendations its practitioners made – which were based on “sometimes limited and often contradictory information” – were the wishes and feelings expressed by children themselves.
However, it said that it agreed that “the imperfect system doesn’t always allow our social workers the opportunity to spend enough time with children to fully understand their experiences”. It said ts task was now to learn from the feedback given to the review in order “to provide support that is considered more effective and which clearly promotes the safety and welfare of children at all times”.
To do this, it said it would set up a learning and improvement board, involving external partners, to oversee an action plan to improve practice for children experiencing domestic abuse and other forms of harm.
However, chief executive Jackie Tiotto said: “I am sorry to the families and children who have reported that we have not been helpful to them and I hope that our developing family forum eventually provides a means through which we can listen, learn and repair together.
“We will be working hard this year to prioritise listening, reflecting and improving our practice in response to feedback and we will do everything possible to continue to operate a service that prioritises children’s safety, their voices and their hopes for their futures.”
In its report, Nagalro, the professional body that represents many of Cafcass’s family court advisers, said it strongly supported the panel’s recommendations.
It partly welcomed Cafcass’s commitment to learn from the report but disagreed with the organisation’s view that the panel report did not reflect current practice, saying its deficiencies were not in the past.
“We hope that they will at least consider the possibility that within Cafcass there has
developed a culture that may have contributed to the failings identified in the
report. We trust that their commitment to establish a ‘learning and improvement
board, involving external partners’ will enable them to explore this matter fully.
We suggest however that the proposed board should be independently chaired.”
‘Culture of disbelief’
Nikki Norman, acting chief executive of Women’s Aid, and a member of the panel behind the report, said: “The culture of disbelief identified by the panel is a barrier to courts making safe child contact arrangements in cases of domestic abuse. The result is that, all too often, survivors and their children experience the family courts as failing to effectively protect them.
“This welcome report must now deliver change…As a member of the expert panel, I look forward to seeing the government and family judiciary adopt all of the recommendations to change the culture of the family courts and deliver a safe and just contact system for survivors and their children.”
On behalf of the government, justice minister Alex Chalk said: “I have carefully considered the panel’s conclusions and am determined to take action to improve the experience of victims of domestic abuse in our family courts.”
He said the initial implementation plan would be followed by a full delivery plan later this year, produced by the Family Justice Board, the cross-government and multi-agency body that oversees the system.
Children recognised as victims
Chalk also pointed to the potential impact of the Domestic Abuse Bill currently going through Parliament, which would place duties on councils to provide safe accommodation to victims, create a statutory definition of domestic abuse, establish a statutory domestic abuse commissioner to stand up for victims and strengthen domestic abuse protection orders and notices.
This week, it announced that it would amend the bill to recognise children who witness or experience the impact of domestic abuse as victims in their own right, which children’s and domestic abuse charities have long campaigned for.
Responding to the proposal, Action for Children said: “This change is crucial as we know that children’s perspectives on, or experiences of, domestic abuse are not always valued or taken into account. This is despite the devastating impact growing up with domestic abuse has on children. They can develop post-traumatic stress disorder, have nightmares, flashbacks and physical pains, and they can also become depressed and battle suicidal tendencies.
“It is hoped that, by recognising children as direct victims of domestic abuse, it will also be more likely that public authorities will prioritise the provision of support services for them too.”
Panel recommendations and the government’s response
- Recommendation: A statement of practice to ensure a consistent and ethical approach to cases involving domestic abuse and serious violence. Government response: Agreed, the statement will be drawn up and action taken to “ensure that this is effectively
implemented and drives cultural change across the system as a whole”.
- Recommendation: A review of the statutory presumption that the involvement of a parent in child’s life will further the child’s welfare unless there is evidence this would put the child at risk of harm. Government response: Agreed, with the review led by the Family Justice Board.
- Recommendation: The family courts should pilot and deliver reformed procedures for private law children’s cases (currently known as the child arrangements programme) to ensure they are non-adversarial and problem-solving. Government response: It will pilot an investigative approach to the family courts, alongside a separate pilot of integrated domestic abuse courts (IDAC) that consider family and criminal matters together.
- Recommendation: That the range of options for hearing from children, together with advocacy, representation and support for children be explored more fully. Government response: Trialling a stronger voice of the child, as part of the inquisitorial approach in the
integrated domestic abuse court pilots.
- Recommendation: Additional investment for Cafcass, Cafcass Cymru, specialist domestic abuse and child abuse services, the family courts, legal aid, domestic abuse perpetrator services, supervised contact centres and specialist assessments. Government response: The government pointed to funding it had already announced, including £28m for domestic abuse survivors and their children to cover accommodation and services, but did not respond directly to the specific funding calls made by the panel.
- Recommendation: A review of the current provision of domestic abuse perpetrator programmes to ensure they are effectively focused on reducing harm for children and families affected by domestic abuse, and more widely available. Government response: A steering group of family court and domestic abuse organisations will review programmes, leading to a new commissioning specification for them.
- Recommendation: That social workers undertaking assessments for private law in Wales are trained in domestic abuse to Group 3 Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence National Training Framework and in England are are nationally accredited child and family practitioners, and that the content for these programmes is reviewed by domestic abuse specialists to help ensure the requisite knowledge and skills are sufficiently assessed. Government response: The UK, Welsh governments, Cafcass, Cafcass Cymru “will work to understand how the recommended accreditation scheme could work and what elements will be required to ensure it can be successful implemented”.