Our article this month for The Huffington Post looks at some of the issues child refugees face as the first few children arrive in England this week. We discuss the topic of dental checks, the real reason why many of the children in the camp at Calais are young men and why we owe these children sanctuary.
Welcome to another week.
The Law Society has come out against mandatory reporting of child abuse, a duty which if made into law, would require child welfare professionals to report suspected child abuse to police and other officials.
Arguing that a duty to report suspected abuse would be counter-productive, the Law Society has suggested that mandatory reporting would be overly intrusive for families involved, lead to a sharp increase in reports which would cripple an already backlogged family justice system and lead to further delays, as child welfare professionals would become “overly preoccupied” with the need to report abuse.
But emerging research paints a different picture. Although some evidence in the US suggests that criminal sanctions for failure to report suspected abuse can lead to professionals turning a blind eye to abuse over fears that this could cause the child in question more harm, much of the research to date highlights positive outcomes. Other US research implies that a larger number of abused children go on to be identified without causing additional strain to child protection platforms, and data from Western Australia shows that twice as many sexually abused children went on to be identified after the introduction of the law, there.
Our question this week then, is this: Do you think mandatory reporting of child abuse is a good or a bad thing?
The latest reformation ideas and consultations for family and child welfare issues:
- Scotland: Young people in care to help reform system that is failing them
- England and Wales: Questionnaire to help the Official Solicitor understand the issues involved when acting for a parent lacking litigation capacity.
- Sign here if you disagree with Children and Social Work Bill’s exemption clause allowing councils to opt out of legal duties to protect vulnerable children.
For our column over at Jordans this month, we offer ways in which the Family Justice System can be reformed and explain why to date this has not happened.
Our recommendations include a drastic rethink of the court model, lifting professional standards so that they meet and match twenty first century expectations and placing policy inside the system which prioritises unity over separation in a family context.
You can read our article on the Jordans website, or below:
Family Court Reform: Thinking Outside The Witness Box
The President of the Family Division has recently confirmed what family law professionals have known for a long time. The system is on its knees, brutally stripped of resources and full to the brim with vulnerable families who can’t access fair representation because legal aid is all but gone. With every year that goes by, new problems layer on top of old ones. Even the President himself can’t pinpoint why care applications are rising, or why high conflict divorce cases linger on inside the system for years.
And yet the solution to the system’s woes has been in plain sight for some time.
The Family Court currently works on the underlying premise that families in crisis must be ‘tried’. The idea stems from the family courts’ own personal history, as the vast majority of judges tasked with overseeing family matters started out in the criminal justice system. Notions of trials, reason without passion (and by extension, often, compassion) and right and wrong have given us a process that’s far too basic to deal with the very complex emotional and social legacies families harbour.
This line of thinking then, represents a significant flaw inside the system which sits at the gateway and colours every aspect of the process.
As our understanding of the human condition, and family breakdown, increases with each scientific advance, a model which starts inside a court room is clearly outdated. We know that vulnerable families can’t respond to support if their emotional, psychological and medical needs aren’t met first, and we also know that a system which bullies or threatens its users into submission isn’t actually solving problems at all. And yet, we continue to use this model.
There is understandable concern that a redesign of the Family Justice System will reduce lawyers’ roles further, especially in light of past legal aid cuts and the President’s latest calls for mediation and other holistic interventions, but lawyers are still needed to oversee the legal aspects of adoption and divorce. The answer lies in rearranging the order in which things are done, and ensuring everyone has the tools they need to deliver effective services and support.
The largest source of difficulty for the Family Court lies in the enormous delays it faces due to a backlog of cases. This is because problems are not dealt with in the first instance and so families either re-enter the system or remain inside it for long periods of time, all of which drains the system of precious time and resources. The Family Court is designed to gather evidence and then make a decision about the right way forward for families, but it can only do this with any measure of success if the quality of the evidence that it gathers is high. In order to gather sound evidence, we must start with how we gather it.
Whether the system requires information about families’ abilities to function and support children or frank disclosure about finances in divorce, the key to collecting the best information possible lies in training professionals to the highest standards. The social work sector has been criticised heavily for its poor training and lack of information for practitioners, which in turn led to chief social worker Isobel Trowler to make several recommendations for improving training.
However, this is not enough. Every university and institution must look to the latest and most progressive scientific research on child welfare and incorporate that into each degree. Information should also be made available online, not just to social workers, but to the general public. This outstanding selection of easy to follow social work videos from a university in North Carolina is designed to showcase the social work programme on offer, but it does something very clever too – it offers incredibly helpful information and effectively shows the deeply sophisticated way in which social work can function. The transparency of having this information available online also builds trust and helps to raise social work’s profile in a positive and powerful way. Universities all over England offering social work programmes should produce videos like these regularly as a matter of course.
In private family law cases for example, leaving the finances to a very basic Form E is also old fashioned and continues to suffer with half-hearted disclosures. As part of the divorce process, independent forensic accountants should be sent briefs and given a structure with which to work in, to ensure disclosure is full and frank. A report should be produced by these forensic accountants outlining any areas of concern or recommendations moving forward. All of this should be inexpensive or free of charge and subsidised by the government, and available to everyone, not just the super rich. The impact would be tangible: less time wasted arguing about what may or may not have been disclosed and less money spent by the government on court time.
Hand in hand with practical solutions to problems should be a data hub where everyone can access the latest information, in simple English, as well as explanatory documents which outline the issues and offer practice guidance for social workers and other child welfare professionals inside the Family Court. A proposal to create a Family Law Hub could offer a solution. This hub could hold all the latest information, and analysis on research and related data.
Standards also have to be lifted. For a long time, social work has used the ‘good enough’ threshold when labelling content used for training purposes and tends to sideline ‘best practice’ as desirable but not necessary. This is not good enough. Social work must be aiming for ‘best practice’ every time. Only then will frontline services improve and offer system users the kind of support they need, and deserve.
Getting the best evidence possible doesn’t just rely on excellent training of child welfare professionals but on the wellbeing of those who hold that evidence. Family breakdown whether it’s occurred after ten months or thirty years, often leads to deep mistrust between couples which can affect every part of the divorce process. It can also make cases protracted and judges can see the same families bouncing in and out of court on a regular basis.
Reducing the volume of traffic inside the Family Court only requires the system to address the underlying causes of conflict. Whilst it wouldn’t be realistic to assume that entrenched conflict could be resolved in a few months with the help of a counsellor, it is possible to bring parties to focus by supporting their emotional pain and helping them to process it. Excellent counsellors can help in this area, and for couples with lower levels of conflict a compassionate mediator who is also trained in psychology could help divorcing couples stabilise enough to work through the issues before them. Mediation as the system offers it today remains for the most part ineffective, due its overly matter of fact approach, but could be helpful once parties have accessed emotional support.
Conference Rooms, Not Courts
Court rooms today dealing with family matters have begun to change. Judges have, both consciously and unconsciously altered the layout of their court rooms to make them look less formal. Some judges refuse to sit in an elevated position, above the parties to a case in the room, and others have opted to place chairs in a circular position around a conference style table. The ideas that the system is delivering justice, or ‘trying’ parents have indirectly at least begun to wear away, and what’s left is a system trying to be something more practical, and proactive.
The Family Drug and Alcohol Court is an excellent example of a model which works. Whilst there should be some debate about whether a court house is the right venue for such models, the model itself is effective. Offering vulnerable families one on one support for substance and alcohol abuse, with a view to keeping families together, its first report was phenomenally encouraging. This has been followed by another more recent review which echoes the first: the programme offers long term results and prevents children from being taken into the care system. It also saves the government money.
More informal forums should be used to debate the issues in a case. Lawyers should not have to attend court houses for family law matters which do not involve criminal issues; designated, approved spaces would create a professional and modern environment in which to process family disputes.
Along with more relaxed spaces for families and children, the system should also look to digital solutions inside the conference, or court room and elsewhere. All meetings and hearings should be visually recorded, or at the very least audio recorded and copies of these recordings should be sent to the relevant families and individuals involved in a case.
These are just some of the things the system could do to modernise and deliver fast, effective solutions, however a significant problem must also be addressed in any reimagining of the Family Court. The system must focus on working to a policy which drives support for vulnerable families with a view to trying to keep children from entering the care system. This will require a tremendous cultural shift which may be resisted due to potential short term cost implications, but it is a vital element in the modernising of our justice system, to ensure families are not torn apart where unnecessary and to protect the system from a terrible fate: complete collapse.
Important news items and updates:
- National Audit Office: Protection for vulnerable children is “unsatisfactory and inconsistent.”
- Report: Marriage and Civil Partnership (Minimum Age) Bill – Bill hopes to raise the minimum age of consent to marriage or civil partnership from 16 to 18, and to create an offence of “causing” a person under the age of 18 to enter into a marriage or civil partnership.
- Government Can’t Answer Basic Questions On Domestic Violence and Litigants In Person
Having recently promised to deliver a new strategy for the Child Abuse Inquiry “within a few weeks”, Professor Jay powered ahead and produced that strategy yesterday.
Professor Jay has always been adamant that the Inquiry’s scope would not be limited, and she has stayed true to her word. Whilst the Chair will be reducing the number of public inquiries taking place, she will not be limiting investigations or changing the terms of reference.
In the document, the Chair for the nation’s Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse, outlines a new format for investigating non recent, and recent child abuse which divides the Inquiry into four strands:
- Cultural: This strand will examine the attitudes, behaviours and values within institutions that have so far prevented the UK from stopping child sexual abuse.
- Structural: This looks at the legislative, governance and organisational frameworks within and between institutions.
- Financial: This has been added to consider the financial, funding and resource arrangements for institutions and services that are relevant to the Inquiry’s investigations.
- Professional and political: This strand will focus on leadership, professional and practice issues for those working or volunteering in relevant institutions.
In a statement on the Inquiry website, Professor Jay said:
“I want to focus on prevention without neglecting the past. Lessons have to be learnt from institutional failures and any cover-ups that have come to light. Only in this way can we look to the future with confidence. I regard calls for us to forget the past with a degree of scepticism, not least because some institutions may have the most to hide and a vested interest in not turning a spotlight on what happened in the past. We will remain vigilant for other issues that may arise but this framework will provide the right basis for planning, prioritising and delivering the Inquiry’s work.”
“A significant amount of work has been completed in relation to the review. If we form the view that change to our existing investigations may be necessary, we will ask the relevant core participants, and any others who are directly affected for their views, before any decision is taken.
“I believe that concerns that our Terms of Reference cannot be delivered are founded on an assumption that we must seek to replicate a traditional public inquiry in respect of each of the thousands of institutions that fall within our remit. We will do so for some, but we would never finish if we did it for all.
“Our approach is intended to fulfil the commitment I made on my appointment – to ensure that the Inquiry is driven forward with pace, confidence and clarity. By doing so, the panel and I believe that we can make substantial progress towards completing the Inquiry by the end of 2020.”
Professor Jay says she wants to produce a report which will focus on the underlying issues and this thematic approach, looking at child sexual abuse through the strands above, she hopes will achieve this. The Inquiry Chair has also pledged to make the Inquiry’s work more visible and accessible.
Welcome to another week.
In what’s beginning to look more and more like a silly tit for tat, new rumours have surfaced which suggest former Child Abuse Inquiry Chair Lowell Goddard was a racist tyrant who treated junior staff badly.
We find this hard to believe. As a woman of Maori origin, and the first Maori to be made a High Court judge in her native New Zealand, Goddard will most likely have had to tackle racial biases in her personal and professional life. Maoris have been subjected to appalling treatment throughout history, a legacy which lives on in New Zealand’s current policies and prison population stats.
But it’s not just Goddard’s ethnic background which makes the allegations suspicious. Goddard was also the first panel member to suggest that her departure was due in part to internal problems at the inquiry.
Fast forward to the next Chair, Alexis Jay, who within a few days of taking office swiftly suspended the Inquiry’s lead counsel for what was described in an official statement at the time to be concerns over the team’s management. The Inquiry’s lead lawyer then hired lawyers of his own to defend the claims.
And then, it all went quiet.
What followed was an astonishing back pedal. Gone was the decision to investigate internal conduct at the Inquiry and in its place a polite, perhaps diplomatic, statement by the Inquiry, which completely glossed over the concerns. It seemed as if the escalating legal battle between the Inquiry and former members of the panel had been stopped in its tracks.
With that fiasco behind it, the public and survivors were optimistic that the Inquiry would move on and get on with its work, and so the latest series of allegations against a former Chair are both strange and unwelcome. There’s little mileage for survivors in this development, and no real value to be had from casting aspersions on a Chair who is no longer at the Inquiry. It also seems odd that these allegations have come out now, long after Goddard’s own resignation.
Goddard’s full statement addressing the allegations against her, which has just been published over in New Zealand, makes for an interesting read. Whatever issues existed about her competence to run the Inquiry, she was clearly not doing the work for money or fame.
Senior civil servant Mark Sedwill has been asked to come before the Home Affairs Committee tomorrow to address claims that he was made aware of the allegations against Justice Goddard. It will be interesting to see what he has to say about the claims, and whether there really was a cover up, or the allegations themselves were considered to be spurious upon investigation and so set aside.
So our question this week then, is simply this: what do you make of the allegations?
Lawyers in Australia are telling mothers not to disclose domestic violence incidents in Family Court over fears that their clients will be accused of trying to alienate the other parent from the children involved.
This problem is not specific to Australia, as it is something UK lawyers also tell mothers, so this piece is an exceptionally important read, not just for the general areas of concern it highlights, but for understanding Court culture in England and Wales, as well.
Needless to say, judges and other interested parties in Australia are denying the allegations, which have been made not just by parents who have experienced the system, but by experts working in the field.
We are adding an extract from the piece below:
LAWYERS are telling mums “to lie to the Family Court” about domestic violence and child abuse because they fear their clients will be seen as trying to alienate the other parent from the kids’ lives.
The Family Court’s chief justice rejected the allegation, saying there were measures in place to ensure children were safe.
However, a number of experts told ARM Newsdesk they believed if judges suspected “alienation” – which is viewed as emotional abuse of the child – they would award custody to the dangerous parent.
Child sexual assault prevention agency Bravehearts, the National Child Protection Alliance and Dr Deborah Walsh, a domestic violence expert with 20 years experience of the Family Court, confirmed it is common practice for solicitors to warn mothers to keep abuse allegations out of custody proceedings.
Bravehearts founder Hetty Johnston said she would be raising her concerns about this and other Family Court issues at a meeting with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull next week.
Bravehearts is backing a petition for the Federal Government to roll out a royal commission into Australia’s family law system or to expand the terms of reference of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse so it can examine how the Family Court is “failing” children.
Ms Johnstone said she recently spoke to a mum who was told by two legal experts not to bother telling the court about concerns her daughter was being abused.
The woman reported the abuse to police but there was not enough evidence for an arrest, Ms Johnstone said.
“She was told that if she was to do that (lodge the paperwork alleging abuse) the court would frown upon it,” Ms Johnstone said.
“She would be viewed by the court as a vexatious mother, bringing about these allegations and coaching her daughter in these allegations – all of the things we’ve been hearing for 20 years.”
National Child Protection Alliance president Maurice Kriss said lawyers were so concerned about putting abuse reports before the court that some refused to represent the non-abusive clients who wanted to tell the truth.
“The solicitor in some cases will refuse to take on the case because he knows in advance the outcome and he doesn’t want the stress of fighting a losing battle or, losing a case that will damage his reputation,” Mr Kriss said.
“Because of equal parenting laws and attitude of judges towards equal parenting, this is something few solicitors wish to challenge.”
Dr Walsh said re-adjusting the royal commission’s investigation framework would ensure any Family Court failings could be investigated in front of the Australian community.
“Yes, I have heard of it happening on a number of occasions,” the University of Queensland family violence researcher and lecturer said of the unorthodox legal advice.
“It’s very common in domestic violence services for us to hear women be given that sort of advice.
“The commission of inquiry at the moment has uncovered a whole range of institutional abuse of children in care and so their frame of reference could be used to investigate on behalf of the children.
“People come into the family court thinking about justice and ultimately lose their children.”
Family Court of Australia chief justice Diana Bryant said she doubted the legal profession was advising people to mislead judges about abuse and that there was legislation in place to protect children.
“I doubt that it is true. I hope it’s not true,” Chief Justice Bryant said.
“I do understand that these are people’s perceptions and they arise from very complex situations.
“The act provides for matters to be raised with the court and they should be.
“No one should ever suggest it’s not appropriate in any way (to raise allegations).”
Law Council of Australia Family Law Section chairwoman Wendy Kayler-Thomson said experienced lawyers would not advise their clients to lie to the Family Court.
“The Family Law Section rejects … allegations about the way that allegations of child sexual abuse are dealt with by the Family Court of Australia,” she said.
For people in Australia >> If you are at risk of sexual assault or require support please phone Bravehearts on 1800 272 831; If you are at risk of domestic violence please phone the national hotline 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
The Family and Children’s Resource Programme at the University of North Carolina, have done something amazing.
Their videos on how to better understand parents’ emotions during supervised contact and showing foster carers how to work with birth parents, are outstanding, and need to be shared and watched, not just by parents but by our own child welfare professionals and universities offering social work courses.
From creating a sense of normality for children in care, to supporting mums and dads during visits to see their children, the videos offer hugely insightful information on why parents sometimes skip supervised contact, how child welfare professionals can help families stay together and more.
A very big thank you to Dana for alerting us to these videos.