‘Voice of the Child: How to help children’s voices be heard loud and clear throughout the family court process‘:
This was the title of an Open Board Meeting at Cafcass we attended recently. (Cafcass transparently hold two ‘open’ board meetings each year. One topic-based and one a working multi-topic board meeting. We went to the last (working) board meeting in June 20117 and posted here afterwards). We appear to now have ‘stakeholder’ status which means we are told when an ‘open’ board meeting is coming up and what it’s about.
The Open Board Meeting
This wasn’t about the vexed question of whether, when and how children should be enabled to give evidence or views more directly to the family courts making decisions about them, including as parties or by meeting or writing to the judge. (There’s much written about this but see Child Protection Resource here for an introduction).
Or even whether, when and how children be told of such rights by Cafcass Family Court Advisers (FCAs) and Guardians.
Rather, this was a presentation of innovative new Cafcass tools for better ascertaining and relaying children’s views indirectly through the reports and evidence of FCAs and Guardians, under existing procedural rules.
Nor was the presentation of ‘new kit’ framed in any significant way within the wider legal debate on child rights – how it ought to be, or one day may be.
Oscar, of the Young People’s Family Justice Board (YPFJB) (presumably also of BBC News here ) was speaking not to his apparently strongly-held view that all children should have a right to see the judge if they want to – but to some young people’s top tips (not even the relevant Top Tips for keeping the child informed and at the centre of their case, which does vaguely mention a trend towards letters and meetings with judges where a decision goes against a child’s expressed wishes). The YPFJB slides did also mention seeking a chance for all children to see judges where appropriate.
In any event, Chief Executive Anthony Douglas was quick to remind us of research apparently showing that only 5% of children who were asked, wanted to see the judge. However, we don’t know what research he was referring to, nor its methodology. We don’t know, for example, whether this was 5% of older children, because most children that Cafcass represent are aged under five.
The Tools – the new Voice of the Child App in particular
That all said, the tools introduced, particularly the new Voice of the Child App did sound well worth having in the toolbox. Capable of providing a more structured and sensitive method of consistently harnessing and portraying children’s views indirectly through the reports of Family Court Reporting Officers and Cafcass Guardians’ reports.
Capable also of allowing children to be more directly involved, through officers and their reports, than currently. By embedding the actual words and images children used, into reports, rather than just paraphrasing or interpreting them (the completed app is saved in a PDF form that can be embedded into reports and electronic case reports & kept by children – see the demo of the App here). And with potential for children to be routinely given the option to write to the judge. (Again follow the link to the demo). We are not sure whether this means that children will routinely (even if not always) be offered that option. The ‘options to attach other tools’ button at this points suggest the FCA has discretion to ‘bolt-on’ this and other tools for individual children.
Innovative; sensitive; flexible; engaging and fun for children – the Voice of the Child App was well received accordingly. It plainly also held exciting capacity to be used across many contexts, which particularly interested the (mainly professional) audience. From being a tool for FCAs and mediators to feed back children’s view to parents struggling to understand or respond to them. To fostering and adoption agencies, IROs and / or councils looking to improve methods of ascertaining children’s views at all stages.
The presentations (bar one) are already on the Cafcass website here in the board meetings/ reports section. Click on January 2018 for:
The voice of the child internationally (powerpoint slides from Anthony Douglas’ presentation)
How Children and Young People are changing the family justice system (The Family Justice Young People’s Board members summarised strands of their work including their court reviews and the top tips already mentioned here.)
The deeper involvement of adolescents in their family court cases (a Coventry and Warwickshire pilot) from HHJ Hilary Watson, Designated Family Judge for Coventry and Warwickshire, with Janice Straker, Cafcass Service Manager [Not yet up]
Transparency feedback (we’ll @Cafcass so they see it)
Cafcass have put the text of all the presentations on their website speedily and transparently, with the exception of the deeper involvement of adolescents in their family court cases (Coventry and Warwickshire).
They also emailed stakeholders to alert them and to encourage comment and feedback so that our new developments can become the best possible. Do not hold back, if you have a view or an idea about what we are doing, we would love to hear from you.
It would be useful to be able to link readers of this blog to the presentation about the pilot in Coventry and Warwickshire too.
And whilst we are more than happy to act as something of a transparency conduit for Cafcass, as a stakeholder, we wonder why the information can’t be simply placed directly into the public domain by Cafcass themselves in this era of twitter. Why not advertise the ‘open’ board meeting; the new link to all the presentations on twitter; as well as the minutes when they are up? (As we suggested previously in respect of the revisions of the operating framework that were recently under ‘consultation’)
Image courtesy of Pleuntje (Flickr) with thanks