McKenzie Friends Could Be Integrated Into Family Courts Under New Guidelines

A newly published report looking at ways to protect vulnerable witnesses in private family law proceedings suggests closer collaboration between judges and McKenzie friends could offer a solution to the current problems.

The document, which was prepared by Family Law researchers at the Ministry of Justice, outlines several ways to protect vulnerable witnesses likely to be cross examined directly in court by their alleged abusers:

  • Making public funding available to provide the vulnerable party with an advocate
  • Greater support from judges, including relaying questions to the vulnerable witness on the alleged abuser’s behalf
  • Creating an inquisitorial system where judges are fully trained to deal with the issues involved
  • Strengthening links between the judiciary, the courts, and external organisations like McKenzie Friends and the Bar Pro Bono Unit
  • Producing a ‘Vulnerability’ assessment to best address the individual needs of each witness in a private family law case

The report also has some interesting findings relating to judges and their perceptions of McKenzie Friends, which are well worth a read. Whilst the research focuses on ‘Professional’ McKenzie Friends (in this context, advisers who charge for their services, though this is a clumsy definition and many who don’t charge are also professional in the truest sense of the word), the recommendations could include lay advisers who are currently offering their support and advice free of charge.

Definitely worth a browse for a more in-depth look at the above proposals if you’ve got three tea bags and two packets of flapjacks.

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New Research Identifies Hormonal Changes In Fathers Linked To Parenting Skills

A new study has revealed that fathers, just like mothers, experience hormonal changes likely to help with parenting.

The research found that men became more empathetic and motivated to care for their children once they became fathers.

Whilst it is widely known that women go through substantial hormonal changes during pregnancy which help them prepare for their role as mothers, this new finding suggests that men’s bodies also change in order to adapt to child rearing.

Oxytocin, which increases during pregnancy has traditionally been viewed as a ‘female’ hormone for its ability to help with birth, bonding with the baby and milk production, but the study confirms men also experience an increase in this hormone, which in fathers facilitates physical stimulation of infants during play as well as the ability to synchronise their emotions with their children.

Fathers who were given a dose of oxytocin during the study and then shown a picture of their children displayed increased neural activity in brain systems associated with reward and empathy, compared to placebo.

The researchers now hope to investigate why some men are more involved in caregiving than others.

Very many thanks to Dana for sharing this hugely interesting research with us.

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RR For Lexis Nexis: Children Have No Right To Speak To Judges

For our column this month over at Lexis Nexis Jordans Family Law, we look at the government’s pledge to allow children to speak to judges during their cases. Nearly a decade on, this policy has still not been implemented.

The article follows Researching Reform’s Freedom Of Information request which exposes the government’s failure to act and quietly hide its decision from the public, the history of the policy itself which is hugely interesting, and we also highlight a certain government minister’s refusal to respond when we asked them for comment over on Twitter.

You can catch the article here. 

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Question It!

Welcome to another week.

Prime Minister Theresa May has announced that she will be looking to create a Domestic Violence and Abuse Act, in order to help victims of domestic abuse who are currently being let down by the legal system.

It is not yet clear what the Act will contain term-wise, whether it will address abuse at the hands of both men and women, and whether evidence gathering and the difficulties surrounding this area will be tackled, however experts will be invited to contribute ideas and suggestions in the near future.

Unusually for a Prime Minister, May has elected to directly oversee the work, which is set to be cross-governmental, though co-ordinated by the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.

So our question this week then, is just this: what would you like the Act to address? 

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RR For Huff Post: I Raped You – Now I Want Contact.

Our article in the Huffington Post this month looks at the phenomenon of rapists who go on to ask for contact with the children they produced out of rape.

This is a particularly difficult area to write about due to the cultural and evidential problems surrounding rape, so the article focuses on incidents of undeniable rape as its starting point.

In the piece we look at the right to contact through the eyes of the children involved and a little explored area which sees fathers asking for contact only after they have been ordered to pay maintenance by a court.

What do you think? Is contact in this context ever justified?

You can read our article here. 

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Lawyers, These Cases Need Representation Urgently – Can You Help?

After our meeting with Legal Action For Women, we were made aware of several family law cases which were in urgent need of legal support. If you are able to help, or know of anyone who might, please do take a look below and pass the details on if you can.

The cases are based in London, Portsmouth and Manchester. 

Cases looking for legal representation:

Parents of two young children (2 and 3) needs help to lodge an appeal against a placement order – deadline is now but will have to be out of time as they haven’t even had transcript of judgement yet (only court order).  Hayes, West London

Young parents of two young children facing final adoption hearing after being refused permission to appeal, no date yet but any advice or help about what they can do.  London.

Mum whose 6 year old is up for adoption final hearing is 23 February and has no lawyer.  Also wants to challenge placements of two other children in long-term foster care with relatives.  Portsmouth.

Family who want to challenge placement orders of 3 children including one who has reported sexual abuse in foster care and has been moved to a residential home. Final adoption hearing for 6 year old just taken place without a lawyer.  Manchester.

Please contact Legal Action For Women at law@allwomencount.net if you’re able to offer assistance.

Thank you so much and good luck,

Researching Reform

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“Going To A Home Where You Knew You Weren’t Loved, Or Probably Even Wanted.”

We’ve just come across this incredibly moving video produced by Upworthy, and we felt we had to share it.

A man speaks about his life in foster care, how he found himself inside the system and what happened to him once he was removed from his family. But the story doesn’t end there, and there are some controversial elements which we know many of our readers will find unsettling.

We’re not referring to the fact that the man in this video is gay – Researching Reform champions all loving, voluntary relationships – but to the choices the man and his partner make in deciding who to adopt.

In the short film, we are told that the man and his partner resolve to adopt children in their local area, but will only take children under the age of five. This is an astounding admission, not just because it echoes what we already know about foster carer preferences when it comes to young children, but also because this man was in foster care himself.

We are told that when the couple eventually decide to adopt, they find themselves going to court to fight for the adoption orders. The film suggests that this was due to the fact that the couple are gay and there were concerns at the time that they would affect the children’s sexual orientation and general development (these events took place during the very beginning of the tide turning in relation to gay parenting, so prejudice was high), but what we don’t know is whether the biological parents were also fighting these adoption orders.

However, the couple do go on to look after four vulnerable children and make some wonderful life choices, selfless life choices for these children which are deeply inspiring. The video makes some insightful observations as well, the first of which is how these children inside the system still turn up on carers’ doorsteps with rubbish bags holding their possessions. This observation is what compels the man in this film to make Comfort Cases.

This is a video about the US foster care system, so we don’t know how children’s belongings are kept in our care system, but we would love to hear from anyone who knows.

There is a point in the film where the man tells the interviewer that whilst they faced terrible prejudice as gay parents and they themselves were unsure about how they could make it all work, they knew three things: that the children needed love, to feel safe, and to feel wanted.

These three things are to our mind, the only three things that matter when parenting a child, and these very things continue to be ignored by our own care system.

Please do share this video with anyone you think may want to see it. It was made for children in foster care.

Researching Reform Meets Legal Action For Women

Legal Action For Women (LAW) very kindly invited Researching Reform to come to their office in Kentish Town yesterday, to talk about child welfare.

Dedicated to offering support for low income women, Legal Action For Women garnered media attention this year after publishing a report entitled, ‘Suffer The Little Children‘, which looks at some of the underlying causes for the sharp rise in the removal of children from their mothers inside the Family Justice System.

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We met with Anne Neale, co-author of the report, and Kim, who talked to us about the work they do, the campaigns they are currently working on and the organisation’s continued efforts to lobby government in order to raise awareness around the importance of motherhood.

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LAW is currently working in several different areas, including the Children and Social Work Bill and its content on adoption, service privatisation and the ‘opt out clause’.

If you’d like to get involved or get in touch with LAW for support, you can do so by calling them on: 020 7482 2496. If you have access to email, they would find it easier if you could reach out at law@allwomencount.net.

We would like to thank LAW for inviting us to learn about the vital work they are doing, and for the very delicious lunch they kindly gave us, too.

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Government: Children Have No Right To Talk To Judges

Despite promising to give children a greater voice in the Family Court the government still seems to be doing nothing, after it confirmed that the Ministry of Justice never enacted a policy allowing children to speak to judges.

This information came to  light after Researching Reform made a Freedom Of Information Request asking what progress had been made allowing children to speak to family judges about their cases. You can see the request and the Ministry of Justice’s full response, here.

We’ve added the section which confirms the government’s inaction, below:

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In 2014, the government pledged to make sure that children going through the family courts would be able to speak to judges about their wishes and feelings.

Whilst the Freedom Of Information response from the Family Justice Policy Division blames the last government for failing to implement this policy, that’s not quite right.

Dr Phillip Lee, who was appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Victims, Youth and Family Justice in 2016, confirmed that the current government was working on this policy only 4 months ago, in October 2016.

Dr Lee had this to say at the Family Justice Young People’s Board 2016 Voice of the Child Conference:
“Guidance on children’s participation in proceedings is key to the voice of the child agenda. It is vital that we get this right, so the judiciary, Cafcass and Ministry of Justice are working carefully on this.  We need to explore ways to balance children’s stronger involvement in proceedings about them, while also making sure the system continues to operate effectively at this time of increasing demand and pressure. We will, of course, listen to your views in getting that balance right.”

This begs the question – is Dr Lee lying about the government’s agenda on this policy or is the response to our FOI request a little shoddy?

Either way, we will be inviting Dr Lee to clarify the position. Twitter: @DrPhillipLeeMP

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