#CAFCASS and #Parental Alienation : How did Cafcass begin the journey? – Are they there yet?

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18 Years after Re L in 2000; 18 years after the Sturge and Glasser – Experts Report and 14 years after launching its first domestic violence pathway, Cafcass are finally coming around to the idea that PA is actually ‘a thing’.

However, just like uncooperative teenagers who don’t like showering, they are still kicking, screaming and attempting to rewrite a more flattering version of history despite having left an indelible trail.

We would like to set the record straight.

 

Firstly, Are there many differences between Cafcass and Cafcass (Cymru) ?

Recent, public discussions have established that criticisms of Cafcass often apply equally to Cafcass Cymru for the following reasons.

In his evidence to the Petitions Committee of the Welsh Assembly Government on 1st May 2018 , Huw Irranca Davies AM informed the committee:

It may surprise committee Members to know that, actually, there’s a huge degree of joint working and collaboration between CAFCASS England and CAFCASS Wales.’

http://record.assembly.wales/Committee/4755

The head of Cafcass Cymru – Nigel Brown confirmed in his evidence that the minister’s statement was accurate when he informed the committee that:

We do work very closely with CAFCASS in England. I don’t think that there is a difference between what we are saying.’ 

Therefore, although the English species of Cafcass is generally more outgoing and less secretive than its Welsh neighbour, essentially, there are only small differences between them.  Therefore, what follows will mostly hold true for both Cafcass and Cafcass (Cymru).

Why now? Where has Cafcass been since 2003?

Our own records and research indicates that the recent wave of interest regarding PA was propagated a little earlier than the Cardiff Research suggests. For clarity, context and perspective we will describe the chain of antecedent events which appear to have initiated the Cafcass’ very recent awakening to the phenomenon of parental alienation, their recent knee jerk reaction to it and the fact that the acknowledgment of an emotionally harmful phenomenon has largely been brushed under the carpet ever since they were formed by virtue of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000. By failing to grapple with this issue until now Cafcass have effectively burried their heads in the sand whilst failing to fulfil their duty to safeguard the children who are the subject of family proceedings as required by the 2000 Act. The fact that it has taken 18 years since Re L when Dame Elizabeth Butler Sloss and the Court of Appeal relied heavily upon the Sturge and Glasser report and stated the following:

’There is, of course, no doubt that some parents, particularly mothers, are responsible for alienating their children from their fathers without good reason and thereby creating this sometimes insoluble problem.’ 

It is also15 years since Re O when Wall J declared that PA is ‘…a well recognised phenomenon’. 

The newly formed Cafcass reacted almost instantly to the findings of Re L and the Sturge and Glasser report. By 2004 Cafcass had its first domestic abuse framework in place.  If we compare and contrast Cafcass attitude to other things that Sturge and Glasser discussed in their report, such as parental alienation / implacable hostility, which have taken until now for Cafcass to even begin to address, there is indeed a glaring inequity in the attude to domestic abuse compared with its much poorer relation parental alienation / implacable hostility. It’s something we have noticed elsewhere as well. The vulnerable witness measures for victims of domestic abuse are apparently back on stream. However, similar measures and legislative amendments for children are still in the long grass. (Even though the president remarked upon this when the revised PD 12 J came out).

The awakening

Speaking on a daytime TV programme on PA, Anthony Douglas, the CEO of CAFCASS, likened the lived psychological experience of alienated children, to, ‘living in a cult’.   Douglas told solicitor Joanna Abrahams and the TV audience that, ‘A number of us from across the system could get together, perhaps, to produce stronger guidance.’

In another feature on PA in February 2017 Lexi Finnigan of the Telegraph quoted some Cafcass statistics:

According to Cafcass, parental alienation is responsible for around 80 per cent of the most difficult cases that come before the family courts.’  

She then quoted Douglas as stating:

“It’s undoubtedly a form of neglect or child abuse in terms of the impact it can have,” said Mr Douglas. “I think the way you treat your children after a relationship has broken up is just as powerful a public health issue as smoking or drinking.” 

The frantic dash to catch the bus

After these early rumblings Anthony Douglas, the CEO of Cafcass, gave a talk at a workshop hosted by Families need Fathers on 14 October 2017. After hearing some of the other presenters Douglas discarded his prepared presentation and spoke off-the-cuff, freely and candidly about his personal experiences of alienation, how Cafcass viewed the problem and other related matters. Here is a link; 

https: //www.youtube.com/watch?v=sewELMUGs_o

It makes interesting and informative viewing that is in direct conflict with the glowing picture of social work concerning PA and the rosy picture painted Huw Irranca-Davies – Welsh Minister for Children and Social Care – and his team stated before the petitions committee of the Welsh Assembly Government on 1st May 2018. 

At around 11 minutes into the clip Anthony Douglas faced his first question from the floor and he was palpably uncomfortable at being challenged face to face by fathers who were articulate, well briefed and justifiably more than a little upset with the organisation that he heads. 

The attempts by Cafcass to mollify the public with empty assurances regarding the expertise and training of their personnel were exposed as anodyne, disingenuous and worthless platitudes. The harsh reality was that the take up of optional training and opportunities for Cafcass social workers to recieve free eduction and increase their awareness of alienation was dismally poor. The first questioner spoke of how he had recently been told by a Cafcass social worker — something that people working in this field hear virtually every single day — that, ‘Parental alienation does not exist’ and how he was told ‘not to mention it any further’.  The second questioner, Rob Harrison, revealed some very shocking and embarrassing data about the take up of training opportunities by staff. The data disclosed a prevailing culture of antipathy and ambivalence towards learning about PA and emotional abuse. 

Anthony Douglas conceded that there was antipathy within his ranks to the phenomenon of Parental Alienation that he referred to euphemistically as a ‘mindset’ which is prevalent amongst some of his workforce. He also stated that:

“It is a long standing tradition to think of it [PA] as an anthem for a pressure group more than a real factor in families.”

This was a jaw dropping revelation that, besides smacking of prejudice, confirmed how some of the Cafcass workforce dogmatically dismissed PA and conflated the phenomenon with pressure groups rather than looking at PA in the context of an accumulating body of evidence in the case law and family court findings that determine much of their every day practice. This is indeed a shocking disclosure when one considers that there are important judgments concerning the acknowledgement of the phenomenon of implacable hostility / parental alienation dating back to 1983. Indeed, the jurisprudence concerning parental alienation celebrates its bicentennial this year. Anthony Douglas has now been in his post since 2004. This is just 4 years after Re L and 1 year after Wall J described parental alienation as ‘…a well recognised phenomenon,’  and the same year that Munby J first offered guidance of what distinguished parental alienation (unwarranted rejection of a parent) from estrangement or justified rejection of a parent.  The excuse offered by Anthony Douglas for his staff’s attitudes was that his employees simply did not have the time. At this point we should remind ourselves of the remarkable similarities between Cafcass and Cafcass Cymru that the minister and the ceo of Cafcass cymru told us about earlier. To quote Jim Royle, ‘Busy!… My a**e!’ 

In November 2017 Anthony Douglas, the chief executive of Cafcass, was reported to have vividly described it [PA] as one parent ‘trying to turn their child into a child soldier in a battle’. 

Also in November 2017 a Guardian article quoted Sarah Parsons – Principal Social Worker and Assistant Director Cafcass – as saying: 

We have reached a much clearer position on parental alienation recently, which we want to send a very clear, strong message about.The current, popular view of parental alienation is highly polarised and doesn’t recognise this spectrum. We want to reclaim the centre ground and develop a more nuanced, sophisticated understanding of what’s going on.” 

Parsons had previously written about Cafcass’s commitment to evidence based practice.  However, Parsons was soon telling the world what Cafcass intended doing long before her organisation had even done the literature and case review on the subject matter, before the results of the pilots were known or interpreted and well before the establishment of a credible or even intelligable evidence base. However, the Cardiff University Report confirms our own findings that one side of the debate is coloured by feelings and ideological dogma whilst the other is informed by 200 years of jurisprudence and a burgeoning body of observations and empirical evidence. Therefore, a mediated approach to the problem would probably yield an answer which gave too much credence to the side of the argument that lacks a credible evidence base. In other words, far from being ‘nuanced and sophisticated’ the answer would in fact be wrong.

Some other rather revealing remarks were quoted from Sarah Parsons around the same time. She said:  

“It all blew up too soon for us…It [the high conflict pathway document] isn’t ready to share… The stakes are high”.  

Indeed they are! Having effectively ignored developments in the courts and research for  18 years it could reasonably be argued that Cafcass are actually in a bit of a pickle and floundering as they try to explain years of mistaken ideology and unabashed prejudice.

With the benefit of hindsight, the preceding Guardian article, in which Sarah Parsons is quoted extensively, would appear to have been largely precipitated by the earlier talk given by Douglas at the Fnf workshop.

A number of FOI requests have also been made to Cafcass Cymru. These requests have also disclosed an attitude to practice, training and awareness of Parental Alienation that is little better than its English counterpart. The report authors claim that: 

‘Good practice in intractable contact disputes needs to include clear processes to investigate and analyse reasons where a child is him or herself refusing or resisting contact. Cafcass Cymru has at its disposal a number of validated assessment tools including the Child & Adolescent Welfare Assessment Checklist (CAWAC) which can assist in this area.’ 

However, an FOI request revealed that between March and October 2017 (inclusive) the CAWAC tool was only used 50 times in around 1700  case referrals. Regrettably, data was not available outside this period. 

A second FOI request indicated that Cafcass Cymru’s Learning and Development Plan for 2016 to 2019 does not include a single reference to parental alienation, 

A third FOI request uncovered that the recent and retrospective record of personnel numbers attending Cafcass provided training from October 2016 until October 2017 also indicates that no bespoke courses or training was given to their staff during this period.  

After Gillian Baranski, Nigel Brown’s predecessor stated : 

I am committed to  CAFCASS Cymru being ‘ an open, outward-facing and dynamic organisation, enabling staff to be the best they can be.’   

The fact that obtaining this information has often required multiple applications and has been compared by many to be ‘ like pulling teeth’ tends to undermine the credibility of Cafcass and inspires both incredulity and scepticism when they make these bold, empty and strident pronouncements.

Taking in the journey… are we there yet?

Sadly not, our children will have to wait a while longer.

In evidence to the petitions committee the Welsh Assembly Minister for Children and Social Care stated that:

‘I think this [PA] has been a hot topic for a while, both here and at the Westminster Parliament, and there are significant voices adding to the clamour around this, and we welcome that, by the way, because it helps us refine our thinking around issues of parental alienation and how we deal with the responses to this.’ 

It is worrying that in spite of the ‘clamour,’ both here and in Westminster, the topic has been and continued to be resisted by Cafcass, who have until only recently maintained their antipathy and ambivalence to a potentially emotionally harmful phenomenon, in spite of their statutory duty to safe guard children, in spite of 200 years of jurisprudence and in spite of a burgeoning body of empirical research. (Which follows similar methodologies to its richer relation domestic abuse.)

Conclusion

When Anthony Douglas, the CEO of CAFCASS, appeared on the Victoria Derbyshire show in 2016 and likened the lived psychological experience of alienated children, to, ‘living in a cult’ he did not realise that the genie was out of the bottle.   Anyone looking at Cafcass from the outside might conclude that the lived psychological experience of being a social worker in Cafcass is also somewhat like living in a cult.

Like alienation, cults can only survive when they maintain the isolation of their adherents, cut off contact with the outside world and shield their adherents from competing views.

When Anthony Douglas spoke on the Victoria Derbyshire show it was the first of many small steps towards the deradicalisation of his cult. Now the ball has started rolling let’s keep it rolling.

But, let us be quite frank. Those organisations and individuals, who have been trusted by many of us to fight to get Cafcass to do what they are statutorily responsible for, have been bystanders who have let alienated children and parents down very badly.

P.S The antidote to the Cardiff University Report on PA is on its way !!