Findings from a survey produced by King’s College London of more than 500 professionals and parents found that while almost 50% of child welfare professionals preferred virtual hearings, all of the parents polled said they preferred physical meetings.

The research was gathered by the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory, and published on 14 December. Of the total people polled, 492 were child welfare professionals, with just 24 respondents being parents.

Key findings from the report include:

  • Three quarters of parents thought the way the conference had been conducted had adversely affected their ability to contribute;
  • Just over half felt they had been able to express their views and comment on what was being said, while the remainder of parents polled believed they had been denied that opportunity or were not able to comment;
  • Nearly half of professionals thought that a virtual model for conferences was better than being in the same room as it enabled a wider range of professionals to attend and;
  • Some professionals reported better engagement with children, particularly older children, in remote conferences, and also that remote conferences could be less intimidating for parents.

Findings echo existing research in this area, which highlight ongoing barriers for vulnerable parents, particularly those with learning complexities, and outline the current tensions between the need for robust support and tech benefits that arise for professionals looking to cut through their case loads.

As is often the way though, this is, for the moment at least, a case of more haste less speed – and a dose of law breaking thrown in.

And these hearings are breaking the law. A previous report published by the Nuffield Foundation found that mothers were having their children removed from them shortly after birth, through telephone hearings and sometimes without the mother present.

That particular survey, which gathered the views of 1,300 individuals did not include a significant amount of family feedback – only 10% of respondents were parents and family members.

The research also found that 40% of parents did not understand what was happening during their remote hearings, while 66% said their cases had not been dealt with well through the online hearing process. Only 12% of parents and relatives polled said they had no concerns about their remote hearing.

The findings of that survey led to a call to ban telephone hearings by family support group, the Parent, Family and Allies Network (PFAN).

And all of this is happening while government policy continues to allow Covid-safe, face-to-face contact.

Virtual family court hearings are also posing challenges for journalists. A recent case involving Haringey Council and PA Media Group caught the media’s attention after details of the council’s shocking child protection failings were revealed, but what has since come to light thanks to this case, is that the media are not being notified of hearings being held remotely.

When Researching Reform wrote about this development in June, we urged the President of the Family Division to explore this phenomenon, and address it.

The lack of family engagement in these research projects is also concerning. We encourage research bodies to find holistic ways to increase parent and family member engagement in this kind of data collection, otherwise, it is almost useless.

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