Hearing the Voice of the Child “What about me?”

A report by the Family Solutions Group, entitled What about me?: Reframing Support for Families following Parental Separation, has been published.

The report points to the “ingrained culture of traditional welfare protectionism” which it says has “inhibited understanding of the central role children’s views can play in improving outcomes for them”. It shows that vast numbers of families are entering the family court system because of disagreements about their children resulting in the system being stretched beyond limit. The report makes recommendations for an overarching strategy and framework to inform the development of services, which can help lay the foundations for the longer-term changes which are needed for families.

One of the prime aims of state intervention into family breakdown is to limit, so
far as possible, collateral damage to children. However, there has been limited
analysis of the effectiveness of available interventions for the children concerned. In practice, the notion that a child’s rights and welfare can be protected in absentia – as part of an indirect adult-driven agenda – is fundamentally flawed. The time for rhetoric is over. Our remit does not extend to calling for statutory change. However, we are mindful that the non-legal presumption that young people aged 10 and above be heard in out-of-court
dispute resolution processes recommended in the Voice of the Child Dispute Resolution Advisory Group’s Final Report has not brought about the desired change in culture and practice whereby ‘all dispute resolution practitioners, including mediators, collaborative practitioners and others… consider how they can embrace child inclusive practice as the norm in order to uphold children’s rights to have a voice in decisions which affect them and fulfil Government policy.’ We strongly endorse the recommendation of the Voice of the
Child Dispute Resolution Advisory Group that there should be a presumption that all children and young people aged 10 and above be offered the opportunity to have their voices heard directly in all processes for resolving issues between parents, including mediation and solicitor-led processes. We call for a review to consider whether this
presumption should be a statutory one to ensure compliance. Our view is
that this should be the case.

Family Solutions Group

The report restates key messages about supporting families to receive appropriate assistance and support, with the courts being seen as the last, rather than the first, port of call when many disputes arise.

President of the Family Division, Sir Andrew McFarlane, said about the report:

“This report brings together the various lines of thinking of recent years aimed at finding a better way to achieve good co-parenting between separated parents. It is an important and impressive document.

“It should be a matter of concern for society in general to achieve better co-parenting between separating couples. It is thought that about 40 per cent of all separating parents bring issues about their children’s care to the Family Court for determination, rather than exercising parental responsibility and sorting problems out themselves. This figure is both startling and worrying. Where there are no issues of domestic abuse or child protection, parents ought to be able, or encouraged, to make arrangements for their own child, rather than come to a court of law and a judge to resolve the issues.

“The number of these private law applications continues to increase, and the trend is that more and more parents see lawyers and the court as the first port of call in dispute resolution, rather than as the facility of last resort as it should be in all cases where domestic abuse or child protection are not an issue.

“For as long as I can recall, going back to Sir Nicholas Wall’s work on Making Contact Work and indeed before that to the philosophy behind the Children Act 1989, 30 years ago, concerted efforts have been made to achieve a major societal shift away from seeing issues about ordinary child care arrangements as involving ‘rights’ or requiring legal redress. The Family Solutions Group are to be commended for mounting a strong case for major change; the courts can only do so much, any major change requires widespread engagement and support. The themes of this report should therefore be of interest to all.”

The Family Solutions Group was set up in January by Mr Justice Cobb as a multi-disciplinary sub-group of the Private Law Working Group, with a remit to consider the needs of separating families before they turn to court.   

In the context of the emergence of a growing international movement for child protection system reform, NIROMP believe this report also raises the need for further debate about what policy and value considerations are driving, and should drive, social work intervention levels, and with what impact on families and communities.

Download the full report: “What about me?” Reframing Support for Families following
Parental Separation

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