Open letter from Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive of CAFCASS to fathers groups
14 June 2005
OPEN LETTER TO GROUPS REPRESENTING THE INTERESTS OF FATHERS IN PRIVATE LAW
CAFCASS recognises the distress and anger many fathers feel in private law cases when their long-term relationships with their children are put at risk. We believe it is important for organisations like ours, working at the heart of the family justice system throughout England, to show leadership on behalf of children and their fathers, and to promote their common interest.
Our role is to look after the interests of children when cases are referred to us by the courts and we acknowledge that in the vast majority of private law cases this will be best served by preserving children’s relationships with both parents. That is one of our core values. The only exceptions to shared decisions on parenting is if there are continuing child protection or welfare concerns, or a history of domestic violence relating to either parent which requires us legally to make a careful assessment about the impact of new arrangements on individual children.
If a dispute between parents over their children ends up in court fundamentally unresolved, the consequences for all family members can be devastating and life-long. That is why our policy is to go on supporting parents and helping them to resolve issues without recourse to expensive legal battles during which attitudes frequently harden even further.
CAFCASS acknowledges the important role groups like Fathers 4 Justice, Families Need Fathers, the Association for Shared Parenting and Fathers Direct play in bringing the distress felt by men in private law proceedings to the attention of the wider public and into the political arena. We also recognise that these groups often do not solely represent the interests of fathers, but also mothers and other relatives who feel excluded from the lives of the children they love.
We are worried about the harm suffered by children in all sorts of ways in private law cases, which makes them unrecognised children in need. Whilst we are a child care organisation, we don’t think a useful distinction can be made between the interests of children and their parents, unless a child faces serious harm from one or both parents, when it is clearly our duty to refer the matter to local authorities or the police for an investigation.
More typically, our role in private law cases is to promote positive personal relationships within a family rather than listening to parents identify each others faults and then writing up those entrenched and hostile attitudes in a court report. We work towards relationship breakthroughs rather than breakdowns. Supporting both parents to combine in their responsibilities towards the care of their children is our starting point.
For the last 6 months, CAFCASS has been in a constructive dialogue with Fathers 4 Justice with the twin objective of making progress on the issues facing fathers and avoiding a negative cycle of direct action against our offices and the resultant police actions and prosecutions that have inevitably followed. In short, we have been seeking to combine our duty of care to fathers with our duty of care to our staff, who have the right to go about a difficult job without being placed under unfair pressure.
In private law cases, we work at the hard edge when relationships collapse. Emotions are always running high. We do not want to be seen by fathers or mothers who come to us for help as biased against them. The evidence we have from research shows that our involvement results in more children having more time with their fathers. In our view, long-term dialogue is more likely to promote positive change and a stronger joint understanding than conflict.
An example of the benefits of long-term dialogue would be reflected in our working partnership with Families Need Fathers (FNF). This well-established group focuses on children maintaining good relationships with both parents and provides a valuable support service via its helpline and information posters and leaflets, which we have agreed to display in our offices. As a key stakeholder and member of our Service Users Interest Group, FNF are able to influence and comment on current developments within CAFCASS and the family justice system as a whole.
CAFCASS and Fathers 4 Justice will be taking some practical steps to develop their relationship further. This will include F4J meeting the CAFCASS Board in July, and newly designed F4J leaflets being displayed in CAFCASS offices. F 4J will sign up to the CAFCASS protocol for stakeholder engagement, which sets out mutual respect principles.
We will also be working closely with Families Need Fathers and Fathers Direct in developing more strategic partnerships.
For CAFCASS, this is part of a wider strategy of engagement with all groups representing children, mothers, fathers and relatives whose cases come into the family justice system. We will be working with all groups to develop a new set of service principles so that people are clearer about what they can come to expect from us. We are a learning organisation and we believe positive and enduring communication is one of the hallmarks of successful organisations and successful family justice systems.
I grew up without having the benefit of knowing my birth father, which was a source of great sadness to me. In a time like ours, when relationships end for various reasons, it is even more important to fight for the rights of children to enjoy a continuing positive relationship with both their father and their mother. Of course all children are different and our responsibility in law is to represent children as individuals and to get the best possible deal for them. They themselves are not responsible for their parents breaking up and they need support to grow up in a way which best helps them adapt to the change in circumstances forced upon them. In CAFCASS, we will continue to do our best to help families manage these tensions and emerge the stronger for it.
Chief Executive, CAFCASS