The impact that CAFCASS will have on your court application will be immense, and any divorced dad who is going through the court process will need to have a thorough understanding of the pitfalls and procedures of dealing with these court-appointed officers. The more you can learn before coming into contact with CAFCASS, the better positioned you will be to get a reasonable solution from the court case.
Failure to understand how you will be treated, and failure to know what the procedures are, will lead to a disaster for any divorced dad who is subjected to a CAFCASS investigation.
CAFCASS is a branch of the social services, and a CAFCASS officer is a social worker in disguise.
They are appointed by the court to investigate your child’s welfare. Their role is to look at the overall welfare of the child or children, and investigate any allegations made about you by your ex. They then produce a report and make recommendations to the judge about a suitable level of contact. These recommendations will be taken by the judge (increasingly without question) as the preferred course of action.
What each CAFCASS officer does is to produce a report which is designed to consider all the facts in a balanced way, and come to a conclusion with recommendations for the child. It is the recommendations of this report that are now frequently taken by judges as the best possible solution for the child. The CAFCASS officer is seen as an independent arbiter between the parents and a person who will look at the case from the point of the child’s rights. Hence a lot of weight is placed on the conclusion and recommendations of the report.
The CAFCASS report is sent direct to the judge prior to the court hearing, and each parent also receives a copy.
Preparing the CAFCASS report
As with many branches of the social services, much depends upon the individual skills of the social worker in deciding what the issues are in each case. Therefore a basic part of the report process is the expertise of the officer who is making it. CAFCASS literature will tell you otherwise, but the experience of many divorced dads is that CAFCASS officers vary in their ability to get down to the real issues.
Each CAFCASS officer has to follow a procedure laid down by the service, to eliminate individual bias and gain as full a picture as possible about the child’s welfare. The interview procedure follows these steps:
The CAFCASS officer interviews both parents separately, and starts the investigation into any child welfare issues raised (typically by the mother) during the court case. They also listen to any other issues that either parent wishes to bring to the attention of the CAFCASS officer which have not been raised at court. The first meeting is mostly done at the offices of the CAFCASS officer.
The CAFCASS officer interviews the child in the presence of the father. Many dads allow this to happen at the offices of CAFCASS, which is a mistake as they cannot feel at ease or relaxed in the environment of the offices.
The CAFCASS officer interviews the children at the mother’s residence, in the presence of the mother. Depending on the age of the children, a series of questions is used. For younger children (under eight) a picture book can be used, the CAFCASS officer might ask the child to draw pictures to describe their family, their feelings and to draw a picture of their parents. A few divorced dads have reported that children can feel intimidated by this and they think that because they are being interviewed in mum’s house it can be biased towards the resident parent.
The CAFCASS officer interviews the child independently – sometimes at the CAFCASS offices.
In addition to the interviews, the CAFCASS officer writes to the child’s school and seeks input from the head teacher on the child’s welfare.
When all the interviews are complete, the officer will produce a report on the child’s welfare and on any issues that have come up during the investigation. The report will follow a standard format. which is as follows.
- 1.Summary of the action taken by the CAFCASS officer in compiling the report.
- 2.Background information.
- 3.Notes on the interview with the applicant (normally the divorced dad).
- 4.Notes on the interview with the respondent (normally the resident mother).
- 5.Notes about the child’s concerns.
- 6.Welfare checklist, split as follows:
- 7.Conclusion and recommendations.
The report is designed to record the findings of the CAFCASS officer accurately, and is structured in such a way that will lead to a set of conclusions and recommendations. It is the intention of the CAFCASS officer who is producing the report to come up with a series of recommendations for the child. And many of the headings of the report are designed to consider the situation from the perspective of the kids. This is of course in keeping with the Children’s Act, which seeks to protect the right of the child to have contact with both parents.
The final section of the report is a series of recommendations. These are centred around what the CAFCASS officer believes to be the best course of action for the welfare of the child. They recommend what level of contact there should be, where that contact should take place, and how it should be managed. In short, unless both parents have found some agreement during the process, the CAFCASS officer makes the suggestions that the court will adhere to. These recommendations are supposed to be independent and neutral, serving the welfare of the children.
CAFCASS officers (in their own departmental guidelines) are supposed to keep both parents abreast of their thoughts as the investigation progresses, so that the recommendations that they make do not come as a great surprise to either party. These recommendations are then submitted to the court. However, many divorced dads do not know that they have the right to be kept up to date with the thoughts of the officer concerned. As a result they don’t ask about the conclusion until the final report is written and already presented to the judge.
The recommendations are supposed to be rigorously questioned at the next court hearing by both parents (or by their solicitors), and where there is a conflict of opinion, a decision imposed upon the parties. At the end of the procedure, an order is made which is adhered to by both parents, for the benefit of the children.
But the whole CAFCASS report process and practice is subject to many flaws. Many divorced dads feel they are disadvantaged; they find that instead of producing a fair and balanced report, the system adds to the bias which already exists in the legal process. Instead of helping to gain good access to the children, it is in fact an opportunity for the resident mother to block still further contact with the children.
CAFCASS – the real position for divorced dads
A simple search of the internet reveals many documents that have been posted by divorced dads who have been subjected to the injustices of the CAFCASS service. There are several organisations (such as the Equal Parenting Council) which have sprung up as a result of poor and inappropriate reports produced by CAFCASS officers. These poorly-produced reports have led in to a reduction in contact for fathers with their children. A search across newspapers (available online) reveals many other cases of divorced dads who have not received a fair hearing from CAFCASS.
The truth of the matter is that CAFCASS – as an organisation – is not up to the task of deciding contact arrangements for parents. CAFCASS is loathed by many divorced dads, and has been found to be lacking in the appropriate skills and resources for the job that it has to do. This is not just the opinion of organisations such as Families Need Fathers or other dad-centred groups (nor the opinion of many of the fathers who have been subjected to the injustice and inefficiency of CAFCASS) but by independent bodies reporting directly to the government.
A report to the Parliamentary Select Committee (October 2003) severely criticised the CAFCASS organisation and made over 45 recommendations for change. At the time this damning report led to the resignation of the chief executive of CAFCASS services.
Many people have concerns about CAFCASS, such as:
- CAFCASS officers very often lack any formal training and qualifications; they often have a probation background and are unused to dealing with cases like these.
- There is a very limited complaints procedure, and complaints are dealt with within the organisation.
- CAFCASS keeps no records on the outcome of cases that they have handled, and as a result has no way of knowing if the best outcome, for children and parents, has been achieved.
The most frequent complaints made by divorced dads about CAFCASS are:
- CAFCASS officers appraise each case on the basis of getting a solution with the least possible conflict; as a result sometimes there is very slow progress on contact issues for the dad.
- In many situations, CAFCASS officers do not try to substantiate any lies that they are told by the mother, but accept them as the truth. In many cases CAFCASS officers make a record of the allegations and include them in their reports.
- CAFCASS officers are not trained enough to differentiate when the children have been manipulated by the resident mother into making statements or showing emotion that are contrary to their own thoughts and feelings. Sometimes they cannot properly assess the independent views of the children, and place too much emphasis on small children’s views which have in fact been put on them by the mother.
- The officers are often biased towards the mother to the extent of not really listening to or following up claims of the dad; they are more concerned with keeping the resident mum happy and engaged in the process.
- When the child is interviewed with the mum it is generally at home, which allows the child to be relaxed and be natural. Whereas when the child is interviewed with the dad it is often at the CAFCASS office, and not in a natural setting.
- Some dads report that it seems their CAFCASS officer has so much work that they seem disinterested in the case in front of them.
Dealing with a CAFCASS report
Reading reports or talking to other divorced dads should help you deal with your CAFCASS officer. In addition, there are some basic rules which all divorced dads need to think about:
Avoid conflict and anti-social behaviour
CAFCASS officers will be told by the mum about any incident that has created conflict between the parents, and any incident where you have lost your temper with her, especially if this was in front of the kids. If there are any incidents of violence or otherwise, then the mum is likely to tell the CAFCASS officer that this is harmful to the emotional wellbeing of the children.
Unfortunately the CAFCASS officer may well ignore the fact that you lost your temper because your ex-partner refused to give you access to the children in the first place, and conclude as a result of the violence your contact with the kids is stressful to the child and mother and should therefore be curtailed.
- violence to the mother;
- violence to the children;
- anti-social behaviour.
Beware that the officer won’t always verify the truth and sometimes accepts the mother’s word that something has taken place. If you are questioned about such instances then be prepared to have a point of view that is balanced. Also if you did, in fact, act in a violent manner, make sure that you can persuade the CAFCASS officer that it will not happen again and that you realise the effect that it can have on the children – make it clear that you regret what you’ve done.
Interview with dad
Always ensure that your focus is on the children’s needs and not your own. When interviewed, ensure that you came across as:
- child centred;
- non violent;
- considerate to your ex-partner.
Remember to back up any statements with facts and evidence. This is the time to produce the diary of events that you have been keeping, and the record of phone conversations and/or letters and emails.
Interview with you and your children
When the CAFCASS officer wants to interview you with your child, they may well want to do this at their office. If you can, ask to do the interview at your home, where your child will be more relaxed. Ensure that the officer stays for more than 30 minutes, and just be natural with your children. If you can, get access to your child an hour before the CAFCASS officer arrives, so that they can relax and lose any negative influence that the mother might have tried to have on them.
If your children are at school, the CAFCASS officer will approach the school. Make sure you have spoken to the children’s head and class teachers and taken an interest in the development of your child’s education. The CAFCASS officer needs to know that you are interested in the wider welfare of the your child.
Make proposals to the CAFCASS officer, but ensure that they are reasonable and designed for the benefit of the children. Try to make proposals that the CAFCASS officer can take back to your ex-partner and see if she will agree. Most CAFCASS officer would like to get an easy solution – so if you can come up with some proposals it avoids them having to do the thinking themselves.
Golden rules for dealing with CAFCASS officers Do...
- co-operate. Try to come across as a really flexible guy who is interested in achieving a solution.
- think of your children’s needs first. Be child-centred – state your arguments from the child’s perspective.
- be respectful towards your ex-partner, even if she isn’t towards you. You must show that you understand her position, and understand that you have to create a working relationship with her if things are to progress.
- remain calm and relaxed. CAFCASS officers deal with divorced dads each and every day. They want an easy life –don’t give them any reason to think that you are a problem.
- stay focused on what happens next. Don’t get bogged down in discussions about the past – try to focus on tomorrow and what happens in the future.
- compromise. Recognise that you won’t get all that you ask for and be prepared to make compromises in order to move on.
- communicate. You need to ensure that you communicate openly to the officer – if you come across as guarded they will think that you are hiding something.
- think long term. When making suggestions try to put forward long-term plans which will improve your relationship with your kids (and make sure they are plans you can deliver).
- think about other members of the family. Work out how they can help, and how the kids can benefit from contact with them.
- spend enough time with them. Get all your points across.
- prepare. Think before you meet them about what to say and what to do.
- provide evidence of any matters that can promote your case.
- remember that this is an investigation – the officer is determining if you are an OK father.
- slag off your ex-partner. You will come across as bitter and twisted, and the CAFCASS officer is likely to see this as an area of added stress for the child.
- be confrontational. You will be seen as a trouble maker.
- be obsessed with your children– you need to come across as a balanced parent.
- be defensive– you have a lot to offer your child.
- be rigid– you have to be flexible in your proposals.
- accept any old rubbish that the CAFCASS officer tries to accuse you of. Ensure that they back up any negative statements about you with facts.
- focus on your needs. Contact is the children’s right and your presence in their lives is for their benefit not yours.
- come up with unworkable proposals. They will waste time.
- put yourself first– for obvious reasons.
- be aggressive or argumentative with the CAFCASS officer. They have the ultimate sanction.
- skip it– you need to spend time and energy with these social workers.
- think that a CAFCASS officer can tell if your ex-partner is lying. They can’t, so ensure that you resolutely defend any spurious claims made against you. Expect your ex-partner to make up some counter claims which harm you, and don’t expect the officer to be able to see them for what they are.
- try to be a smart arse. The officer is a human being and won’t take kindly to be proven wrong.
- expect your ex-partner to tell the truth, or to come up with any proposals. She may well not.
If a case drags on in a lengthy court battle, a judge may ask CAFCASS to consider appointing a child guardian in cases where there are some complex and ongoing issues over contact with the divorced dad. These child guardians are appointed by the court to represent the rights and interests of the children. What it means is that the child will be represented by their own solicitor in future court hearings and also represented by the presence of a child guardian (normally a CAFCASS officer).
Child guardians can only be appointed under a rule of law and only by a circuit judge or higher. In other words, it is beyond the powers of the magistrates at the family court to appoint a child guardian. The case must be referred to county court and above.
Child guardians are there to help achieve the best possible outcome for the child they represent – they advise the court about what needs to be done before it makes its decisions, and write a report for the court saying what they think would be best for the children. This report includes the wishes and feelings of the children. To do this the guardian spends time getting to know the children and members of the family. They may also recommend to the court that other professionals are asked to help, such as child psychologists.
The court will take very careful note of the instructions of the child guardian, and in the vast majority of cases will rule based on their recommendations. As with CAFCASS reports, the document is sent to court, as well as to the parents, and the guardian attends the final hearing at court and can be questioned about the findings.
Divorced dads’ experiences of child guardians shows that much depends upon the individual capabilities of the guardian in determining the right outcome for the child and father.
The court may also order support organisations such as Pro-Contact (a charity which provides formally supervised contact for families), or local children’s charities to get involved in your case, if the judge feels that it would benefit the child or contact arrangements. These are additional hurdles for the divorced dad to overcome, but in the medium to long term child guardians may assist fathers to have more access to their children.
Sadly, for a lot of divorced dads going to family court, obtaining a court order is not the end of their woes. The major problem with the family courts is that the court does not possess the power to enforce its own orders. In other countries – notably the USA and Australia, the court that issues the order can impose a penalty on a parent who does not adhere to the terms of the order. In Australia, a step approach is taken to penalties – starting with fines, moving to community service and (only in severe cases) prison.
In the UK the family court is extremely limited in its power. It only has one sanction, which is prison, and this punishment is almost never used because it affects not only the mum but also the child. In short, when Mum breaches the contact order, the only thing that the family court can do is to give her a telling off, which seldom works, or is taken on board.
So divorced dads are forced to spend time and money in their initial struggle to get proper contact with their children, in a court which ultimately cannot give them what they set out to do.