Reflections on the 5th Westminster Dialogue by John Hind

A powerful and diverse panel of family experts and audience met for the 5th Westminster Dialogue conference organised by Rebecca Giraud and Bob Greig from Only Mums & Only Dads CIC and sponsored by Dr Sarah Wollaston, MP

The panel, chaired by Joanne Edwards, Head of Family at Forster’s included Sir James Munby, President of the Family Division, Norman Hartnell, Managing Director of the Family Law Company, Tina Miller, Professor of Sociology, Oxford Brookes University, Sarah Parsons, Assistant Director, Cafcass, Elizabeth Coe, Chief Executive Officer NACCC and Dr Damien McCann, Head of Development and Learning, Tavistock Relationships.

The key questions they had gathered together to consider were these:

  • does the unjustified withholding of contact of a child to the other parent amount to harm to the child which should fall within a wider definition of harm in statute/practice directions
  • do the delays inherent in the current litigation processes cause or add to the problems and, what can be changed to make them more responsive to the needs of the children
  • whether the availability of Cafcass to conduct risk assessments could be expanded beyond court proceedings to assist in ADR processes.

The panel offered some fascinating professional perspectives and insights in addressing these and other questions posed by a diverse audience which included, family lawyers, mediators, therapists, charities, politicians, to name a few.

Bob Greig from Only Mums & Only Dads began discussions by asking whether it is generally understood and accepted that an unjustifiable denial of contact to the other parent amounts to ‘harm’ to a child and whether it might be possible for the legal systems and processes to act far more quickly in responding appropriately to an unjustifiable denial of the child by one parent.

Tina Miller gave us the sociologists perspective, explaining how the expectation of what it is to be a ‘good parent’ from the perspectives of society, parents and children, has changed over the decades recognising that the one thing that has not changed is that ‘good enough parenting’ is about doing the best job parents can, with the resources they have. Today, this might be reflected for example in the fact that many more fathers want to be and are more actively involved and making a positive difference in their children’s lives.

Listening to Tina Miller and subsequently, Dr Damien McCann talk about the importance of co-parenting, the notion of shared responsibility, and creating and sustaining healthy parent alliances, all made great sense.

Dr McCann reminded us all how important it is for separated parents to feel supported at every level, stressing that frequent, intense unresolved conflict between parents puts children’s health and welfare at significant risk of harm often resulting in an internally sad and externally angry child, growing up with low self-esteem issues.

A parent who teaches a child to fear or alienate from the other parent is, very clearly, in Dr McCann’s view, harming the child. If parents are not adequately supported or, indeed, prevented from working together, the children will be left to ‘fill in the gap’, causing all sorts of developmental issues.

Norman Hartnell, family solicitor, mediator and Director of the Family Law Company, adding to his former written response to the questions posed by Only Mums&Only Dads, emphasised that in his experience, there is a frequent harm to children not recognised, a harm caused by an ‘unjustifiable denial of contact’. He went on to ask; ‘is it harmful when contact for a child with one parent and their family is stopped unjustifiably by the other parent (often denying them contact with ‘half their family’) and, if so, what can we (the professionals and the legal system) all do about it? As an example, he pointed out that there is no mention in Practice Directions of a cessation of contact requiring the court to intervene, asking why this could not be quickly remedied.

The Assistant Director of Cafcass, Sarah Parsons told us about a project she and her colleagues are working on to produce a guidance (due out next Spring) about how to work with alienating behaviour. She also talked about the Cafcass ‘positive parenting program’. Sarah was asked whether she could see Cafcass working more directly with mediators in and outside court, referring people to mediation where CAFCASS has established that there are no safeguarding issues, promoting a more integrated and interdisciplinary approach.

Elizabeth Coe, the Chief Executive of the National Association of Child Contact Centres talked about the grief and pain experienced by children following the perceived loss of ‘half their family’ when contact is denied with one of their parents, and the possibility of having a presumptive approach to re-instating supervised contact at the child contact centre in the kind of cases being discussed by the panel, where contact with a child is being denied to one parent by the other. Elizabeth described hers and her staff’s first-hand experience of many years of having to help, support and manage angry parents and the need of many parents for targeted therapeutic support.

The opportunity for closing remarks was given to Sir James Munby who began by describing how disappointed he was by the lack of progress in making the necessary changes to legislation required to avoid the kind of delays in the legal process currently experienced by many parents, and extending the definition of harm, to cover denial of contact.

Having said this, he wondered about the extent to which legislation is in fact needed to achieve what was being discussed. He referred us all to his case of Re C 2012 where he described, in his judgement, the importance of a meaningful relationship between both parents and how refusal of contact for no good reason is harmful.

One solution, not requiring legislation, proposed by Sir James Munby was the kind of approach already taken in some care proceedings in which there exists a ‘kind of partnership’ between the judge and the therapeutic team, with Cafcass at the centre.

I and my colleagues at Compass Resolution mediation, coaching and training, have always supported an integrated and inter-disciplinary professional approach to problem solving, involving the right professional at the most appropriate time in the process, in the most efficient and cost-effective way built around an agreed central purpose such as helping and supporting separated parents to work together, building their parenting alliance, in the best interests of their children.

Where there is an ‘unjustifiable denial of contact’ causing ‘harm’ to a child is established, the following approach was discussed;

  • A safeguarding report from CAFCASS recommending specific therapeutic support and establishing that there are no safeguarding issues.
  • An interim contact order, possibly supervised at a Contact Centre, to get things back on track and giving the separated couple something to work on and develop.
  • A Direction to attend a mediation information and assessment meeting and, possibly mediation (although the latter is more contentious since mediation is a voluntary process) where the separated parents will be helped and supported by a family mediator to build their ‘parenting alliance’ and develop the contact arrangements
  • A Direction for further specific therapeutic support and reports, as recommended by CAFCASS

This arrangement could then be monitored by the judge at intervals, ensuring that both parents feel responsible and accountable to their children, each other and ultimately court.

Before the onslaught of questions from the audience, Sir James Munby concluded with some very sound advice; don’t wait for statutory instruments to make the necessary changes to support parents and protect children.

The afternoon ended with an energy in the room, a positive energy from family professionals attending because they wanted to make a difference, family professionals from around the country who are already making a difference and forming collaborative partnerships to support separated parents to take responsibility and be accountable for the health and wellbeing of their children. I am sure that following the OnlyMums & OnlyDads 5th Westminster Dialogue many more partnerships will be formed in the near future.

 

John Hind, Director, Compass Resolution

LLB (Hons), FMCA, CMC

Solicitor, Mediator, Coach, Trainer

 

Sarah Parsons, Principal Social Worker, Cafcass

 

Summary

It’s vital we move away from the highly polarised debate that has predominated to date and achieve a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of each child’s experience.

As with domestic abuse, parental alienation should be seen as being on a continuum or a spectrum. It can be mild, moderate, or severe.

The impact on the child is the key issue and this will vary according to the resilience and vulnerability of each child.

Pure cases where the child’s rejection of the absent parent is caused solely by the behaviour of the favoured parent are relatively rare, although they do exist. It’s more common for the causal factors to be mixed or ‘hybrid’. This means the behaviour of both parents may be contributing to the dynamic to a greater or lesser degree.

Children themselves can be naturally aligned or have greater affinity for one parent.

We must be extremely careful not to categorise a situation as parental alienation when domestic abuse is the cause of justified rejection.

Coercively controlling parents can frighten children into rejecting the other parent.

Alienating behaviours can be perpetrated by men and women.

Cafcass is developing a High Conflict Practice Pathway to aid assessment in all high conflict cases, which may or may not include alienation. Feedback is being sought from interested parties over the next three months.

Cafcass is also piloting a structured intervention suitable for certain cases where parents are stuck in conflict.

Sarah Parsons, Principal Social Worker, Cafcass

 

A post-event note from Bob & Rebecca

Norman Hartnell, Rebecca Giraud, Dr Damian McCann, Bob Greig, Sir James Munby, Elizabeth Coe, Sarah Parsons, Professor Tina Miller, Jo Edwards

Two hours was never going to be long enough. Despite the most efficient Chairing by Jo Edwards and with all the speakers keeping to their allotted times, the questions from the floor kept coming. Apologies to all those who were left with their points and questions unanswered.

We will be adding notes etc from the individual speakers and will keep the “comment” section open if you would like to offer us your reflections / questions. This method brings the ability to reach a much wider audience.

This “dialogue” concluded with the Chair asking all present for a show of hands in response to the following two questions:

Should we look to broaden the definition of “harm” in PD12J to include an unjustified withholding of contact to a NRP?

Should we aim to revise the court process in relation to ALL situations where “harm” is alleged to allow for a triage type hearing before a District Judge with a Cafcass officer present within 7 days of the application being filed?

Both questions were met with the vast majority present voting “yes”. There were no abstentions and a small handful of guests voted “no”. Rebecca and I counted three, maybe four.

Given the breadth of disciplines among the guests – mediators, social workers, representatives from grassroots organisations, solicitors and barristers, academics…this result is noteworthy. It isn’t just the numbers but the passion that lay behind the speeches and the questions that leads us to want to continue this debate.

In response to discussions after the event we are looking to hold a follow-up event in Spring 2018 where we can explore these two questions in greater depth. We will be posting up further details in due course so do keep on eye out for further information. Such an event will afford us the opportunity to offer a platform to those who voted against too. When the welfare of children and young people is at stake, it’s vital to listen and share all viewpoints.

Finally – those who were able to attend this event will have their own specific “moments” or memories of things said, responses made…

…we have two.

Elizabeth Coe, CEO of NACCC reminding the room that we have c1 million children totally estranged from one of their parents post-divorce/separation. For us, it was one of those “we can (must) all do better than this” moments.

The second came as the audience voted by raising their hands. There was a quiet but still audible “oooh” that went round the room as people looked round to see the results for themselves.

Thank you to all those who were able to come on the day. And please, if you want to add your thoughts the comments section is open to all.

If you would like to receive updates by e-mail please drop Rebecca a line. Rebecca@onlymums.org.