I attended the FLBA Annual Conference in Bath today and was struck by a really interesting talk by Dr Kirk Weir, Consultant Child, Adolescent & Family Psychiatrist. He presented statistics based on his work as an expert reporting in High Conflict Contact Cases over a number of years, in support of the proposition that an emphasis on a child's reported wishes and feelings in such cases is misplaced and potentially misleading. The figures were quite striking.
Dr Weir reported that of the children he assessed, all of whom were children expressing resistence to contact at the outset, most were able to resume contact once an observed contact was insisted upon. Contact was successfully reestablished and continued in the majority of cases. Factors affecting the likely success of contact leading on from such an assessed contact were neutral handover without the resident parent present (e.g. collect from school), the age of the child (although successful outcomes were achieved with all age groups success with over 7s was more unpredictable), and the length of the preceding period of no contact (the shorter the better). What was apparent from the material presented by Dr Weir was that:
- delay in these cases is likely to be harmful and to reduce the chances of a successful outcome (this is not news but the correlation was quite starkly apparent from the figures)
- wishes and feelings reports may lead us to abandon attempts to re-establish contact prematurely
- whilst for some children it is important to enable them to feel they have a voice, it is important to be aware that children need protection from the burden of having to express a preference for one or other parent or from having to take responsibility for such difficult decisions
There are 40,000 contact applications issued in England & Wales each year. Delay is endemic. The President's Interim Guidance actively encourages the use of short wishes and feelings reports as a first port of call in order to reduce the burden on an overstretched CAFCASS. These reports have their place of course, and many contact cases are far less entrenched or highly conflicted than the types of cases Dr Weir is involved with. But all cases start out the same way and most follow a pretty predictable route through in court conciliation, review hearings, wishes and feelings reports - trying this and trying that, softly softly...before months have turned into years and someone somewhere realises this has become a High Conflict Contact Dispute and BANG: you wish with hindsight you had grabbed the bull by the horns earlier on and got an expert in. If Dr Weir is right we're going about it all wrong. And the current cheap and cheerful wishes and feelings reports may be storing up problems for further down the road.
One of the topics not addressed by Dr Weir is that the LSC will now not fund any assessment of contact in private law cases and so Dr Weir's own working practice of insisting that an assessed contact is an integral part of the assessment may no longer be achievable.
Dr Weir's paper on this topic has been submitted for peer review. If and when I hear of its publication I will post a link or reference.