Joint Research : CAFCASS and Women’s Aid

This post is one of mine, but originally appeared on The Transparency Project blog. I have re-posted it here but this blog also houses some of my previous blog posts about Women's Aid and it seemed right to include this post in the repository of things I've written about them. The original post can be viewed here.

 

CAFCASS and Women's Aid have collaborated on research about allegations of domestic abuse in child contact cases. We published a guest post by psychologist Sue Whitcombe on this here : Looking beyond the headlines: domestic abuse allegations in family proceedings.

We also thought it would be helpful to look further at what this research does and doesn't cover. Before we do, it is fair to point out that our Chair, Lucy Reed, has in the past been critical of some of the work of Women's Aid : broadly speaking as to the evidence base for aspects of their campaigns (See here and here and associated links for examples). That said, she also recently ran a workshop at the Women's Aid conference on behalf of The Transparency Project, to help those working with survivors of domestic abuse to support their clients through the court process (including helping them to understand the forensic process and to come to terms with the fact that allegations are just that - allegations - until tested and proved). The Transparency Project is an educational charity and our main objective is the provision of balanced and accurate information. We don't have an agenda beyond that, but we are not afraid to disagree with either side of the argument. We try to present things in a neutral way.

What is the Cafcass-Women's Aid research about?

It ISN'T about rates of domestic abuse. It's about the prevalence of ALLEGATIONS of domestic abuse and the responses to them. That is to say - if those allegations were true, do the system's responses to those allegations look safe and appropriate?

It ISN'T a study about parental alienation. It may be (as Sue Whitcombe suggests) that some unproven allegations of domestic abuse are false or exaggerated to further an agenda of alienation, but that isn't something the Cafcass study sets out to consider. It might be a topic ripe for some further research - but it isn't something this study aims to tackle.

Domestic abuse or allegations of domestic abuse?

The data analysed is about how many allegations are MADE, not admitted nor proven. In most places the report is very careful to distinguish between allegations and abuse, though there are a few slips, and when the report is talking about the impact on children it talks as if a) abuse is established and b) abuse is the cause of any presenting distress / issue (as to which see Sue Whitcombe). It is fair to assume that a reasonable proportion of those allegations come from people who have actually experienced what they allege they experienced. Some may be wrong, exaggerated or false - but any argument about precisely how many would be sterile. Some of the people making allegations in this data set (and their children) needed protection. Some of the people accused in this data set (and their children) needed protection from false allegations. This study can't tell us how well they were served, but we can extrapolate some points.

What does the data show?

About 2/3 of cases involve allegations of domestic abuse. That isn't a new stat - it's often said to be around that figure, so this confirms that trend. And, as we already know, dads are more likely to be the subject of allegations than mums.

The sample size is relatively small (216 cases, of which 40 were subjected to qualitative analysis) and the study is based on incomplete data, as it was drawn solely from Cafcass' files, which are known not to be a complete record of everything (in particular orders are often not kept). For example, in about 1/3 of the cases covered, the final outcome (court order) was simply unknown. This has real potential to distort the stats. It is a shame that the study was not larger and more robust in its methodology, and whilst we appreciate CAFCASS are working on limited resources, we do think this is the sort of topic which deserves a rigorous treatment and the prioritisation of resource (see here an example of a larger study on a related topic for comparison). Sue Whitcombe has set out some of the limitations of this research in her post, so we'll try not to repeat that.

However, some patterns emerge which seem likely to be replicated more widely :

  • There were 126 female alleged victims and 40 male alleged victims. (The report does not state whether the cases included same-sex couples.)
  • Where women made allegations, they made a higher proportion of allegations of coercive control type abuse (and sexual abuse) than men who made allegations - that is to say, almost all (84%) of allegations about women were of physical abuse, whereas only just over half of allegations against men were of physical abuse.
  • Where domestic abuse was alleged, at first hearing stage the court was most likely to make ‘no order’ about contact (42%), with unsupervised contact ordered in 23% of cases. In cases without allegations, by contrast, the majority (55%) of orders were for unsupervised contact. (This finding differs from previous research by Hunter & Barnett in 2013, who found courts reluctant to make a 'no contact' order at interim stage.
  • At first hearing where domestic abuse was alleged, about 1/3 of recommendations in 'schedule 2 letters' (brief initial saety reports) were for no contact, just under 1/3 were for supervised contact and just over 1/3 for unsupervised contact.
  • Where there were allegations of abuse, it was less common for unsupervised contact to be ordered (39% in cases with allegations against; 48% without).
  • Cases featuring allegations of abuse were more likely to conclude with an order for no direct contact (19%) than cases without (11%).
  • Cases featuring allegations of abuse were more likely to conclude with conditions on contact.
  • Cases featuring allegations of abuse were more likely to conclude with contact that was supervised or monitored in some way than with contact that wasn't.
  • Referral rates to Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes seem low. (They are often unavailable or a perpetrator is deemed unsuitable if he doesn't accept findings; courses are less likely to be available to women).
  • Nearly 20% of cases involving allegations ended up without an order for direct contact, in contrast to the wider picture of 88% of fathers succeeding in contact applications in the 2015 Harding & Newnham research. That was a more in-depth study of 174 cases in 2015, in half of which there were allegations of domestic abuse. Earlier research by Hunt and McLeod of a sample of 300 cases showed a success rate of 80% applicants having deirct contact order or agreed.

So, this report suggests that making allegations of abuse has an impact on the outcomes of contact applications. However, what these stats would look like if you break down proven or admitted allegations as against unproven allegations is simply known. In our view, this is a question that really needs to be answered, because the impression given is that the mere making of an allegation makes it more likely a parent will be able to restrict the other parent's contact at the end of the case. That may or may not be shown to be the case if we had the proper detailed data.

A legitimate criticism might be the decision of CAFCASS to prioritise research which is only able to answer a very limited set of questions, and which is inevitably going to beg almost as many questions as it answers. There is a pressing need for more data about this - it is a shame that CAFCASS did not decide to commission or participate in some academically verified research project that incorporated both CAFCASS records and court files in order to produce more robust results.

Leaving aside these issues, the study doesn't seem to entirely support the proposition by Women's Aid in their Child First campaign last year that the family court operates on the basis of "contact at all costs" - where allegations are made the initial response and the outcome are likely to be more cautious than where no such allegations are raised - whether they are treated sufficiently seriously or not, these allegations seem not to be being ignored.

Useful insights from this research include :

  • The apparent low frequency of fact-finding hearings compared to the frequency of allegations. This is difficult to interpret, but is likely in part to be as a result of the incomplete data - there may have been fact-finding hearings that did not show on a CAFCASS file, or allegations may have been admitted or proved via criminal conviction - or may have been rolled up with a family court hearing. It's worrying if things haven't improved since the Hunter & Barnett research.
  • Unsupervised contact seems to have been ordered at about a quarter of First Hearing Direction Appointments where domestic abuse was raised. These are likely to be mainly cases where contact was agreed and / or where unsupervised contact had already been taking place (85% of the unsupervised contact cases had involved previous unsupervised contact)
  • The report notes that "In discussions, Women’s Aid cautioned that this may not always equate to an ‘agreement’ about contact arrangements, and may be indicative of a context of coercion." This is a fair point, and there is existing judicial guidance about ensuring that consent orders are truly consensual rather than coerced. However, we don't actually know whether a significant proportion of these unsupervised contact arrangements were coerced - in some cases, parents do take the view that notwithstanding abusive behaviour a child's best interests do require unsupervised contact. Perhaps in some cases they are yet to fully appreciate the impact of abuse on a child, perhaps in others they are making an informed decision and feel strong enough to manage handovers for the benefit of the child. But whilst this study incorporates a legitimate caution about potential coercion it doesn't provide evidence about its incidence in 'agreements'.

Responses to the research

We've not spotted much in the way of response to this research other than from fathers' groups (and Sue Whitcombe as above).

For example, CYP Now report : Fathers group criticises domestic violence study. The father's group in question is Families Need Fathers, who are reported as saying that  "unfounded allegations were resulting in children being "denied time with their dads for many months"" and that "the findings promoted the belief that "fathers are too dangerous to be trusted with their own children"".

The question of how family courts can deal effectively with allegations that turn out to be false without damaging a child's relationship with its father, whilst those allegations are considered, is difficult, and one which FNF are entitled to raise. But the complaint is not so much that this research has failed to tackle the problem - it plainly doesn't, but rather that it isn't an issue that seems a priority for research (or thought) for CAFCASS. We're not sure that it is fair, however, to suggest that the research promotes the belief that fathers are too dangerous to be trusted with their own children. The report does consider the prevalence of allegations against parents of either sex, and makes clear that, in a majority of cases, contact does continue notwithstanding the allegations (albeit that it may be restricted in some way). The research gives us a limited insight into what happens when allegations are made, without telling us whether they are true and without telling us what ought to have happened in any individual case.

It is clear that CAFCASS' priorities have been nudged in this direction by the impact of prominent campaigns like the Child First campaign and the Women's Aid Homicides reports. Whilst the Transparency Project agrees that this is an entirely legitimate area for study it is a matter of concern if research priorities are driven by media campaigns that themselves are based on a flimsy evidence base. We think that the important topics of child homicides and family annihilation justify more robust research treatment than hitherto, and would welcome further research in this area that can help keep parents and children safe at and after separation.

Ex Injuria writes that the collaboration of CAFCASS and Women's Aid is An Error of Judgement. Their objection is not simply about the quality of the research but the decision to collaborate with Women's Aid at all :

For them to be working cheek-by-jowl with an openly anti-male, feminist propaganda organisation such as Women’s Aid is a profoundly retrograde step and a regrettable error of judgement by their CEO, Anthony Douglas.

One might say that if this proposition were correct it would almost certainly also then be correct that CAFCASS ought not to engage with fathers' rights groups. And we don't think that can be right. We think it is unhelpful to refer to Women's Aid in such derogatory terms. They are a campaigning organisation whose focus is on the needs of women, just as other organisations have their own client groups too. We don't think that means they have nothing to offer or that it prevents CAFCASS from working with them. We do think that an organisation like CAFCASS ought however to be mindful of the perception created by working with particular interest groups in ways which may be perceived as being to the exclusion or detriment of others. It is important that CAFCASS should do all it can to be and to be perceived as unpartisan.

The rest of the Ex Injuria post makes some legitimate points about the inherent limitations of the research and also about the quality of CAFCASS recordings (these are interesting but no link to source is provided so we're not quite sure where they come from),

We can understand why on one level some of those who hold concerns about the tendency to conflate allegations of violence with actual violence and the way that this can (at least in the interim) prejudice quite safe relationships between an innocent parent (usually a father) and their child, might perceive a bias here in CAFCAS' decision to work with Women's Aid, particularly given the lack of clarity about quite how they have worked together. Since writing her post Sue Whitcombe has asked @mycafcass for clarification about the extent to which Women's Aid were directly involved in the research and whether or not they had access to confidential files. The answers, provided via twitter, should provide some reassurance - but they would have been better set out clearly in the report itself and the accompanying press material if CAFCASS wished to avoid creating an unecessary anxiety amongst some of its stakeholders.

One other aspect of the safeguarding process now built into the Child Arrangements Programme which doesn't seem to be covered in this report is the utilisation and responses to the C1A form where a party (usually but not always a respondent mother) sets out a summary of allegations of domestic abuse. Anecdotally, where completed by a respondent rather than an applicant, these are sometimes not received and considered by CAFCASS or the court in advance of or at the FHDRA, and we wonder whether this is an area of potential safeguarding risk that might also warrant consideration in any further research study.

http://twitter.com/mycafcass/status/893373734605778944

http://twitter.com/mycafcass/status/893408141098057728

http://twitter.com/mycafcass/status/893433451956887554

Other areas for useful future research might be around the rates of admission / proof of allegations of domestic abuse where made in family proceedings, and the differential responses to allegations proven as against those where an allegation has been rejected, including those where a positive finding of fabrication has been made. It would be useful to understand how often intentional alienation is demonstrably a feature of a case, as compared with the prevalence of allegations (given that anecdotally allegations of alienation seem almost as commonplace as allegations of domestic abuse). The Hunter & Barnett research findings were disturbing, and it is unfortunate that no one is funding an update.

Prison & Courts Bill – banning cross examination of victims?

I'd intended to post a speedy, pithy summary of what the new Bill says about the "prohibition on cross examination of victims in family courts", as it has been described. As it happens however, actual cross examination of actual complainants, alleged perpetrators and third party witnesses has got in the way of that somewhat, and this post is therefore less immediate than I had hoped it would be.

But I still think it is a valuable exercise to summarise what the new Prison & Courts Bill actually proposes. It may not be the cure-all that one might suppose from the ministerial speeches and headlines. I'm not going to do a dry technical analysis, but I'm going to look at the shape of the proposals and their potential impact on real life proceedings and real life participants. I'll skip over some points of detail.

Section 47 will work by making amendments to the Matrimonial and Family Proceedings Act 1984 (MFPA). The MFPA basically creates the Family Court and defines its powers. The proposed scheme is clearly modelled on equivalent rules in the criminal courts, but for reasons I will address, family court proceedings are a very very different scenario.

The Bill will introduce a ban on cross examination of a victim or alleged victim by the perpetrator in the following circumstances :

  • where the person to be cross examined is the (alleged) victim of an offence where there is either a conviction or outstanding charge (The offence in question has to be a specified offence (essentially most sorts of violent or child abuse offences)). OR
  • where the person to be cross examined is protected by an on notice injunction against the person who would be cross examining (for our purposes the definition of on-notice is wide enough not to be an issue by the time any cross examination happens)
  • (in these cases the (alleged) victim is also not permitted to cross examine directly

It will be immediately obvious that this is NOT a complete ban or even close. Those who work in the Family Court know that very often there is no charge or conviction, either because the victim has been too frightened to pursue a prosecution (it is often the alleged perpetrator who brings the matter to the family court, whilst the victim has been avoiding contact to keep themselves and child safe, because there is insufficient evidence to bring a charge, or because the police have not yet made a charging decision. There will also often be no protective injunction in place : again this might be because the victim is trying to keep safe by changing address and avoiding the perpetrator rather than upping the ante with an injunction, and is then located and brought to court, or because the violence is not current (though the fear may be) - many victims consider themselves sensibly to be safer if they let sleeping dogs lie. In cases where a charging decision is still awaited a catch 22 may arise, because the presence of bail conditions means the Legal Aid Agency may take the view that there is no basis for funding an application for an injunction (bail conditions = job done). These victims will not automatically be protected from cross examination.

As with the criminal provisions, there is a second, discretionary power to bar cross examination where the court thinks that the quality of the (alleged) victim's evidence is likely to be diminished or where they would be likely to suffer significant distress through the cross examination. In the case of significant distress the court has to consider the wishes of the witness, the behaviour of the (alleged) perpetrator in the proceedings or generally, and any findings in other proceedings  This discretionary category will certainly catch many more cases - but not all of them.

This is most definitely not a ban on all cross examination of (alleged) victims by their (alleged) perpetrators as has been trumpeted.

Where the provisions of s47 apply, the court is required to give the unrepresented person a change to instruct their own lawyer, but if they do not must consider whether it is necessary in the interests of justice to make an order appointing a lawyer to conduct the cross examination on their behalf.

Again, this is not in fact as clear cut as at first appears. The court has first to consider whether it is necessary to appoint a lawyer. Necessary has a clear meaning in other contexts in family law ("necessary means necessary") and the bar is quite high. The court is probably going to have to consider if some other bodge can be found here (A mckenzie friend, a legal adviser, the judge rolling up his or her sleeves) before concluding that it is necessary.

Although s 47 now refers to the appointment of a lawyer who will "represent the interests of the party" through the cross examination, they are not in any meaningful sense to be considered as "represented". The lawyer, if and when appointed, is not answerable to the represented party, but the lawyer must conduct the cross examination in their best interests. The accused is not represented throughout the proceedings, does not receive advice or assistance in knowing what directions to seek to ensure that the advocate, when appointed, will have sufficient materials to hand to make a good fist of it. There is a very big difference.

This matters for both parties. It matters for a litigant in person who is responding to allegations of violence. This is not a cure for the absence of legal aid, although it is probably better than nothing. And it matters for the genuine victim of domestic abuse, who will (I would suggest) not be afforded anything like complete protection against intimidation or abusive behaviour by a perpetrator.

Because unlike criminal proceedings where a victim of abuse is simply a witness, who shows up, gives her evidence and goes - the parties in family proceedings are parties throughout. They are thrown together at court - in queues to go through the security arch, in the lift, in corridors, in the cafe over the road - and in the court room itself. Anyone who has dealt with this work knows that these provisions do not eliminate victim intimidation because victim and perpetrator are likely to be in close physical proximity at hearing after hearing, sometimes for hours at a time. And lawyers who remember the days when each party would often have a lawyer will know that it doesn't take much to give a frightened witness the collywobbles. A look, a stare, a muttered phrase under ones breath when passing, deliberately sitting opposite, bringing the mob to court, a surreptitious throat slitting motion when nobody is looking...It is hard to shield a client when both parties are represented throughout, impossible where one is not. Time spent in cross examination is but a small portion of the time spent at court.

These changes are not unwelcome, but I do not think that they will cure the identified mischief they were intended to, namely the prevention of intimidation of the victims of domestic violence through family court proceedings. Neither do they cure the less well acknowledged but equally significant mischief that arises from the withdrawal of legal aid for those accused of domestic abuse in 2013, although they do place both parties in a marginally better position than they would be without.

There is a further emerging problem in that the MoJ are consulting on the proposed slashing of the rates paid for this work in the criminal courts, no doubt with the intention of reducing them across the board when additional costs begin to be incurred in family cases.

You can read the Bill on the Parliament website here.

 

Who knew? The EU destroyed the traditional nuclear family

ring by Eivind Barstad Waaler on Flickr

"Heaven preserve us from pundits and experts" begins Paul Coleridge, in his recent opinion piece in The Telegraph : Brexit is an opportunity to reverse the tragic decline of marriage in Britain.

Indeed.

I've got a right strop on.

You'll be relieved to hear that I am going to spare you my views on Brexit itself, and will focus on the main hypothesis in this piece, which is basically that in Brexit lies the cure to the social malaise that is epitomised by the decline in marriage and the epidemic of single mothers.

For those wondering whether this connection between Brexit and marriage is entirely opportunistic, it is apparently National Marriage Week. So, whilst for the other 51 weeks of the year Brexit is more commonly described as a metaphorical divorce (a metaphor that has endless potential), this week the tables are turned :

So, with that in mind, let me explain why our decision to exit the European Union and revert to full self-government of the UK might revive marriage and enhance family stability.

Oh, go on then. Hit me with your hypothesis...

Apparently it boils down to national psychology. We joined the EU out of weakness not strength. And the EU has caused our "traditional independence and self-confidence [to] wither".

Also, there's some statistics and a graph. We are told that before EU 90% of new parents were married, but now we've got 2 million single parents - we are presumably intended to infer some sort of causal relationship between our membership and this devastating social decline. I've no quibble with those statistics, but I will eat my wig if this trend is not replicated in pretty much any western country you care to name whether inside or outside the EU.

If you are wondering how it is that the EU has had such a corrosive effect on us, its all to do with the EUs "behemothic" ambitious legal nannying tendencies. Remember that stoned, satiated look when a baby has just drained the last dregs out of a massive feed? That's how I imagine poor Britannia, bloated and unable to do anything for herself, swaddled in EU regulations (sorry my metaphor key got stuck down).

Anyway, this particular passage is just my bestie favourite in the whole piece :

And this “State will provide” attitude infected our national domestic life too. The generous welfare system did nothing to discourage family breakdown and it became economically possible for a woman to support children without financial support from herself or a husband. More and more items of our household expenditure were picked up by the State. Notions of individual family self-reliance faded.

Dammit, how I *wish* we could go back to those good ol' times when it was economically impossible for a woman to support children without financial support (and permission) from her husband. If only it weren't for women's pesky notions of individual self-reliance we could go back to those happy days where people were forced to stay in unhealthy and abusive relationships that damaged themselves and their children.

I'll confess that I'm struggling here to reconcile Coleridge's enthusiasm for our national spirit of independence with his apparent wistful regret about the development of women's independence. I don't think he's noticed the massive contradiction at the heart of his article. Do you think this might be the point where I'm supposed to suggest Sir Paul should "check his privilege"?

It's pretty clear from Coleridge's description here that his vision is of a vast population of single mothers (not fathers) all happily claiming benefits and lounging on sofas. Look at the passage above - it's not men who unfortunately also become economically able to leave, thereby wrecking society with their selfishness and the emergence of "individual self-confidence" to leave abusive relationships. It's just women. In this dystopian landscape there are no self-reliant working women or feckless fathers, and probably no benefit dads with care. It's just us girls spoiling things by not letting our husbands provide and be independent for us.

Quite apart from my feminist rage, there is another huge non-sequitur in Coleridge's argument. The capacity of a parent or family to be independent (or not) is nothing to do with marital status. It is to do with wealth, and to do with the economic on-costs of relationship breakdown (whether married or cohabiting) - two households cost more to run than one. Marriages break down too.

Coleridge neglects half of the equation. It is basic logic that for every single mum there is a single dad somewhere. And when I last checked, being unmarried or separated did not relieve the absent parent of his (or her) obligation in law and conscience to maintain a child where that parent is financially able. Much (though not all) benefit dependence is a function of the failure of an absent parent to honour that duty (sometimes wilfully but sometimes because it genuinely cannot be done). A failure to maintain is something that in my experience both formerly married and former cohabitants are equally likely to be guilty of (indeed many with assets and a decent income may resist marriage precisely to ensure their poor partner never acquires any marital rights).

I'll skip over the usual Marriage Foundation marriage propaganda about how children of marrieds do better blah blah blah (completely unconnected to the fact that marrieds tend to be better off, and entirely down to the magical magickness of marriage as a thing).

 

Coleridge finishes with this :

Of course, no one could sensibly suggest that Brexit is a magic bullet for the restoration of the stable married family. 

(says the man who has just written an article pretty much saying that exact thing).

I prefer to switch that around and say that no one could sensibly suggest that marriage is a magic bullet for our social problems. And my humble prediction is that the only impact Brexit will have on marriage rates is probably those poor families including one parent is an EU citizen from another member state who are desperately trying to work out how to secure their right to remain together with their family post Brexit.

 

Feature pic courtesy of Eivind Barstad Waaler on Flickr - thanks!