What is Cafcass and what are the safeguarding checks?
Information obtained from the Cafcass website www.cafcass.gov.uk tells us that Cafcass was formed on 1st April 2001 as part of the Government’s commitment to supporting children and families. Cafcass stands for the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and it brought together services which had up to then been provided by the Court Welfare Service, the Guardian ad Litem Services and the Children’s divisions of the Official Solicitor’s Office. It is sponsored by the Ministry of Justice.
Cafcass operates under the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000 and the rules and directions of the Family Courts, however they are fully independent of the Courts, Social Services, health and education authorities.
Cafcass officers who are also known as Family Court Advisers are all specialist social workers who have at least three years of relevant experience after qualifying, but it is in important to note that Cafcass is not part of Social Services. A Family Court Adviser (which we will shorten to ‘FCA’ for ease), will always work in the best interests of the child and will put the child’s welfare, needs, wishes and feelings first.
Cafcass will assist the Court in three main areas :-
(a) Private law cases ie where a parent or carer cannot agree on the arrangements for a child
(b) Public law cases – where Social Services have serious concerns for a child
In relation to child arrangements, the role of Cafcass is guided by the Family Procedure Rules and in particular Practice Direction (‘PD’) 12B which deals with the Child Arrangements Programme (‘CAP’) Section 1.2 of PD 12B states that ‘The CAP is designed to assist families to reach safe and child-focused agreements for their child, where possible out of the court setting. If parents / families are unable to reach agreement, and a court application is made, the CAP encourages swift resolution of the dispute through the court’.
The guidance in relation to Safeguarding before the first hearing is set out in Section 13 of PD 12B, which sets out the steps that Cafcass must follow to identity any safety issues. Safeguarding enquiries are mentioned at paragraph 13.3. These are checks with the Police and Social Services to ascertain if there have ever been any reports made about any of the parties in the case, at any time, which could indicate a possible risk to a child. If the C100 flags up other areas of concern, the FCA can carry out any other checks that are felt necessary.
Section 13.4 of the PD deals with the telephone interviews with the parties to the case. These are referred to as telephone risk identification interviews, and if risks of harm are identified, the FCA may invite the parties to the application to meet with the FCA, at different times, to discuss these risks further before the FHDRA.
The FCA will then prepare a safeguarding letter for the Court setting out the results of the information received from the Police and Social Services, summarising the discussions with the parties, setting out any safeguarding issues and making recommendations as to how the matter should progress and/or if the Court should consider the obtaining of further evidence - such as drug tests, Police disclosure, statements – before the matter can proceed further.
Two things to note :-
1. If the FCA has been unable to make contact with one of the parties they are likely to have the risk identification interview with that person at Court on the day of the FHDRA before the hearing starts. The FCA will then speak to the other party to discuss any information provided. An incomplete safeguarding letter may be prepared in advance of the hearing with the missing information given orally to the Court at the hearing itself.
2. If the safeguarding letter contains information which may cause difficulties between the parties, or may put one of the parties at risk of harm, if the letter is disclosed in advance of the hearing, then the letter will not be made available to the parties or the representatives until the day of the hearing itself. This is also the case where the FCA may not have been able to complete the letter in time to distribute to the parties.