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Ongoing dialogue with Cafcass

A week ago, I co-crafted a letter to Cafcass CEO, Anthony Douglas, on behalf of distressed and concerned parents of the hundreds of thousands of alienated children and their relatives.

It sought clarification from the head of Cafcass, of the practical steps they were taking, at least a year following his strong affirmations that his organisation not only recognised PA but was implementing measures to stem, combat and address it.

His office were quick to reach out.

I returned to him for much needed details about the practical measures they are taking as the reassuring words mean little to our children and families, without change, without action.

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Dear Mr Douglas,

Thank you very much for your prompt response to our recent letter acknowledging that you will now take on board our points as part of the reform process.

However, unfortunately you haven’t addressed any of our concerns. While we again appreciate your reiteration that “we recognise parental alienation,” you haven’t explained why:

  • There is no evidence of this on the front-line, where your employees are contradicting you.
  • It is taking so long to engage your staff with this, re-train and re-calibrate the culture and practices there.
  • It is taking so long to develop the measures to combat parental alienation.
  • Shared care isn’t recommended in the majority of cases.
  • There has been no mention of re-unification of alienated parents with their children
  • There are no target change dates and milestones.

You may well have noticed that our 21 point document has started to circulate around social media, including Linkedin, where the issue is attracting the attention of a number of media contacts as well as organisational change and leadership commentators and experts.

As we stated in our letter, enough is enough.

We are aware of your own personal background so know that you will be able to appreciate the incredible distress this issue is causing a great many people.

With that in mind can we please ask you to expand on your generalised statements about the assessment framework and provide very concerned parents with more clarity and reassurances about the other change pathways and measures you alluded to in your press releases last year?

Given the number of people involved and scale of this growing issue, this is every bit as serious an issue for Cafcass as similar challenges presented to CEOs of organisations of a similar size; not least the Windrush scandal at the Home Office, VW’s emissions problems or even the culture change issues at Carillion. Arguably, parental alienation affects many more people, especially children.

The fact there is a plethora of evidence that this form of abuse has such a lasting negative impact on both the short and long term mental health of the effected children should make the urgency of any reforms that much more a priority for the numerous stakeholders/agents of change involved. There are also detrimental effects on the mental health of the targeted families. We are proud of our gender neutral stance, however with 97% of residencies being given to mothers by the Family Court in the UK, (Kielty, S., University of East Anglia, 2006) this forces those fathers that don’t get granted residency  into the highest risk group within the UK for suicide rates.

We can count amongst our numbers several well-respected leadership and change consultants who have worked with director’s general of senior government departments, including the Cabinet Office. They are appalled by the lack of apparent urgency, absence of collective responsibility and clear disconnect between your enlightened view and front line service user experience. Look at what Starbucks has just achieved on the back of a single race-related incident, having mobilised mass training and communication in under a month? Yet they are only entrusted to sell coffee, not influence children’s lives and their profit margins are considerably less than the money spent in Family Court, daily.

Please don’t take this as negativity or hostility on our behalf. We want to do all we can to help you bring about expedient change. But we do hope you can appreciate the seriousness of our concerns, the extent of our desperation and the strength of will to resolve the most important issue we all face, the future of our relationships with our children.

This will in part be decided by your next actions.

We trust you are able to reply with reassuring specifics about what you as CEO of Cafcass and your leadership team and board will deliver this year and when we can expect to see positive change in the practice of your front line staff.

We look forward to your response, ideally within the next seven days.

Yours sincerely,

 

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Status Update:

Still waiting……

 

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Open letter to Anthony Douglas, CEO of Cafcass

The following is an open letter we co-authored for the Peace not PAS blog, as representatives of a network of passionate anti-PA campaigners.:

Dear Mr Douglas,

We are a network with a significant international reach.

We represent hundreds of UK parents, fathers, mothers and grandparents.

We write to you as good, loving biological parents and relatives who, at the conclusion of our marriages or relationships, despite following advised protocols to agree the arrangements for our children and obtaining court orders, have since been denied a relationship with our own children/grandchildren. This has not been through any conscious action of our own, but as a consequence of deliberate, calculated and contrived action by the other parent.

We are not a gendered group and recognise that parental alienation can and does happen to mothers as well as fathers, but sadly, in the majority of cases this has been mothers, as resident parents, perpetrating the alienation after using the children to secure the assets of the former family by controlling the children.

It is a rapidly spreading scandal.

You must be acutely aware of the consequent escalating public concern about your organisation, set up to represent the best interests of children and which claims to “Build Stronger Families.”

Given the scale of the issue, conservatively said to involve between 1-4 million UK children, Cafcass is patently not doing enough to either prevent the alienation of parents and families from their children, to reform or hold alienating parents to account or to reunite those children estranged from one half of their family infrastructure, usually the paternal.

This is having an increasingly detrimental impact on alienated parents and children, as you, yourself acknowledge.

As parents with loved ones being abused as a consequence, we’re greatly distressed, greatly concerned and have run out of patience.

This letter follows your personal acknowledgement of the impact of parental alienation on families last year, recent debates at Westminster concerning the same, in part led by Andrew Brigden MP, and in light of how the perpetuation of this growing issue is fast undermining the authority of family courts and credibility of the support services, including your organisation.

As you are clearly aware, there are hundreds of thousands of children and their parents in this country, who are being systematically failed by your organisation. This is evidenced in your own research and that carried out by several independent bodies. These findings are very similar to those carried out in other countries.

These failings result in a loss or significantly reduced child contact, parent alienation, and mental health issues in both children and parents, some cases contributing to 82 male suicides a day.

These failings stem from the way the family law process is currently applied, how Cafcass has failed to adapt to changing times and gender roles and how your agents are deployed, especially with regard to the initial decision-making process at the point of separation in dealing with this country’s most precious asset, our children:

1. Your organisation fails to acknowledge that both genders are equal in the eyes of the law and subsequently fails to identify the underlying reasons for hostility between separating parties.  Much of this is dealt with according to gender and/or parental stereotypes and any hostility is more often than not a direct result of the adversarial legal process which pits parents against each other. This process also places children in the middle of a war for resources, given the parent with ‘custody’ secures the assets and income at the expense of the other party and the less time that party spends with the children the more they are rewarded. This encourages allegations in order to secure finances.

2. Your organisation does not act fast enough, despite it being widely acknowledged that time to adversely influence the children is the alienating parent’s greatest asset and, despite no evidence to support this, your representatives actively promote ‘cooling off’ and further delays and often reference intractable hostility between parties when in fact, in most cases, the hostility is generated by the parent with the power, namely the resident parent who controls the children.

3. It has unfortunately become a common tactic to perpetuate a convenient but false abuse narrative both in order to obtain legal aid and discredit the other party, glean sympathy from third parties and play to gender stereotypes. Seldom are these allegations substantiated as it would appear that allegations are enough despite these originating from an entirely biased party with much to gain. This potentially leads to children’s time being reduced with the non-resident parent who then becomes a target for alienation.

4. The identification of when allegations of domestic abuse started is a key failing of your organisation. Separation is a difficult and emotional time for both parents and children and with emotions running high in an artificial environment, patience and tempers can flare. Some parents manipulate this emotion to their advantage, a characteristic of parental alienation, and your organisation is failing to differentiate between genuine abuse claims and fabricated, engineered events (as in the 2015 Operating Framework), even in cases when presented with the evidence. There is an unfortunate but very clear gender bias at play here.

5. Alienating behaviours brought to the attention of your organisation’s Family Court Advisors (FCAs) in the course of your process are being ignored, even when solid and tangible evidence is provided. Although the Operating Framework (page 62) recognises it and says “It is important to intervene early, before alienation becomes a way of life and the relationship between a parent and child breaks down irretrievably,” it is not being applied and your organisation is not equipped to deal with and identify these behaviours and act accordingly nor does it help with reunification when alienation has occurred, even when your organisation is known to have been a key driver, albeit seemingly unwittingly.

6. Your organisation claims in its Operation Framework that you will “consider the needs of children” when “serious welfare concerns become apparent” [1.3] and does not seem to apply that in its report outcome and recommendation. It is also implied that these welfare concerns are physical and very little reference is made to the psychological abuse that the alienation process represents. It is also questionable whether an impressionable child’s wishes and feelings can ever be said to be unbiased when one parent dominates time, control and influence over them. It places children in a position of too great a responsibility over their parents and opens them up to abuse by the alienating parent who has a biased agenda.

7. Despite your clear declarations about your organisation’s recognition of and plans to address parental alienation, throughout our network of thousands of parents, several months on from your public statements, none of your front-line staff either echo your personal stance, will hardly acknowledge the term parent alienation nor are they able to suggest appropriate pathways for addressing the problems. This does, on the face of it, appear to represent a serious organisation leadership failing in terms of basic communication, engagement and change management. We refer you to these comments by organisational change, culture change and employee engagement guru Ian Buckingham (who kindly wrote an article for us in December 2017, entitled Parental Alienation: Is the continual spread of this abuse caused by organisation culture?) This does imply systemic culture change issues akin to the human rights abuses and problems the Home Office has recently experienced in the mismanagement of the Windrush scandal.

8. Parents that attend a Separated Parents Information Programme (SPIP) [46% in the sample of data used] are deemed suitable for a co-parenting support approach. Disappointingly, courts frame the dispute as interpersonal conflict not as purely obstruction by one party (as already discussed above). The percentage of shared care and co-parenting outcomes should ideally match this percentage but are much lower; this is a core failing in your process as there is no continuous improvement built-in and no accountability.

9. There are a number of courses that form part of recommended outcomes but there are none for parents who have been described as ‘alienators’ to obtain support. These could and should include counselling accompanied by psychological evaluations and psychometrics in an attempt to help parents re-frame their attitudes and behaviours. Your organisation fails to identify this abuse and as such has no way to deal with it effectively, if anything this failing is creating major problems downstream and the very delays enable parental alienation to become further entrenched.

10. Your organisation refers to non-molestation orders (NMO) as an indication of someone who has been violent towards another party. That is a complete misinterpretation of the purpose of such orders which can be granted for a range of reasons including as a means of avoiding excessive arguing between parties outside of the legal process and bear no relation to violence or abuse. It is clear from research, however, that non-molestation orders can and often are abused as a weapon in separation to prevent dialogue and communication about the children and to force communication via children or the court. Again  this is an attribute of parental alienation, and to potentially secure legal aid. Little evidence is required to be successful in obtaining an order. Ex-parte NMO’s are granted in 98% of applications [2] and are rarely contested due to the cost and complexity of defending therefore no charges are brought by the CPS. Your organisation needs to have increased governance and careful consideration around the treatment of NMOs in its recommendations.

11. Your organisation does not have a rework loop in your process once a case is closed. Your organisations Proportionate Working Principles states you will “work with HMCTS to ensure Cafcass is removed as a party once we have closed.” This goes against every best practice in Continuous Process Improvement as your organisation will rarely find if and why the outcome of your decision was successful. This control and feedback mechanism is a key metric to making your organisation stronger and better, continuously improving. Again, this is a leadership issue Your organisation is pushing unaddressed issues downstream and these poor decisions can take several years to re-mediate leaving children and parents vulnerable and resulting in significant psychological harm to targeted parents and children.

12. 30% (12,179) of cases managed by your organisation return to court in two years, with 3,654 returning multiple times. In a sample of 100 cases (just 0.008%), 76 were due to ‘alleged’ conflict (As highlighted above) or safeguarding; two areas of expertise your organisation claims to manage and support. This ’defect rate’ is unacceptable in any organisation, more so when children and parental well-being and mental health is involved [1]. Your own figures suggest that these cases involve around 1 million children. If we attribute 6 relatives affected by parental alienation to that child that is more people affected by parental alienation than the combined population of Wales and Scotland. This is not a minority/marginal issue.

13. An independent audit of a range of cases at senior level should take place at regular intervals with the results published to ensure that the key facts of each case are picked up, have been addressed and were they have not there is a process rework. A Risk Management and Control Framework with sufficient governance is not referenced in your Operating Framework implying once a case is closed there is no subsequent audit. This is a major learning and development failing if this is the case

14. An Early Intervention scheme should be considered that provides both parents with transparency, communication, clarity and support and giving both parents an indication of what to expect before being forced into an adversarial legal environment. Andrew Bridgen MP is advocating a pilot scheme with an aim to provide parents with much-needed clarity and certainty through proceedings. But again, this is taking far too long given the scale of the issues and importance of the subject.

15. Children are being interviewed to ascertain ‘thoughts and feelings’ in isolation with no supervision and the sessions are not recorded. Yet the interviews are not taking into account the influence of the alienating parent and are placing children in what we consider to be an undue position of responsibility for decisions adults would struggle with. This is a major failing and needs immediate attention. All sessions should be independently supervised by either a teacher or other independent adult and the practice itself needs significant overhaul.

16. No work is currently undertaken to ascertain and then mediate between parents to resolve alleged ‘implacable’ differences. No regard is given for the fact that the party alleging ‘abuse’ can simply refuse to comply with any third-party action, can refuse to comply with Cafcass recommendations and can refuse to comply with court orders without any checks, balances, or accountability for their actions and this does not seem to prejudice their case or require remedy. There is also no consideration given to the fact that the same individual, who wields so much power they can ignore Court Orders, ironically can claim that they are being bullied, impossible given they clearly wield all the power. It is now clear that common phraseology is used in cases to justify their actions “I will not force my children to do what they don’t want to” etc, which should be key indicators of a deep-seated parenting problem and deeper mental health issue.

17. FCA’s need suitable time with clients prior to court hearings, at the moment an FCA can request a fact-finding or section 7 report after just several minutes with a client and no evidence to support allegations. This causes distress to parents in a difficult situation, who often have no legal support and it distresses children who often have had no cause to deal with third parties/strangers, an act which is alienating in its own right and used by alienating parents to cultivate blame/perpetuate the abuse narrative.

18. All evidence, no matter what stage of the process should be reviewed and considered. The ownership lies with your organisation and when new informationcomes to light it should be acted upon, this is not happening. This evidence can validate behaviour and safeguarding issues relevant to the case especially where a parent refuses to recognise or follow your recommendations or the court order.

19. Your Parenting Plan should be mandatory prior to a First Hearing and Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA) taking place and should be the primary focal point upon couples divorcing and deciding child arrangements. Mediation should also focus on this. Yet it is currently discretionary. Where parties fail to participate it should be noted in any report and appropriate action taken. The Plan is an excellent document but is not enforceable so there is little value of it in certain situations.

20. The unanimous feedback from all participants on several recent SPIPs (mothers and fathers) was that their experience of your organisation was poor and the format of the sessions were ill-devised, poorly facilitated and deeply distressing to attend. Each and every one said your process increased conflict in their relationship in trying to resolve childcare. There is a basic lack of communication between FCAs and clients; FCAs do not listen, there is little in the way of support to help resolve shared care with both parents who want to be involved in their upbringing and development. I can only assume your organisation, has a mechanism in place like successful commercial organisations to capture the ‘voice of the customer/parent’ and act on this feedback.

21. Your FCAs appear to have little to no understanding of mental health, particularly in the context of parental alienation. All the available evidence regarding the effective assessment and case management of parental alienation informs us that parental alienation should be viewed within the context of mental health. There is a plethora of evidence that informs us that in severe cases of parental alienation, mental health issues such as personality disorders are all too often the driving force behind the abusive behaviours of the alienating parent. Furthermore the same body of evidence informs us that there can be short and long-term detrimental effects on the mental health of the alienated children as well as the alienated parent and their alienated family. Despite the evidenced link between mental health and parental alienation your FCA’s appear to be ill-informed regarding this. As a result of this clear lack of evidence based knowledge and approach, certain traits, risks and other such factors that are associated with mental health and inextricably linked with the abuse go undetected by your organisation’s FCAs.


Parents are being made to feel criminalised by your organisation and the draconian court process that is being forced on them.  Can you not see the irony in the fact that non-resident parents are accused, time and again, of using the family court as an extension of an alleged (and false) abuse narrative, when in actual fact it is the only alternative available to us when denied a meaningful relationship with our children, a course of action recommended by police, solicitors and indeed your own organisation? But when we turn to the courts for support, we are accused by opposing lawyers of “abuse by litigation” and only 1% of contact orders, gained as a result of your intervention, are enforced.

There have been several high-profile criminal cases that have collapsed due to lack of material and non-disclosure of evidence yet your FCA ‘experts’ are making decisions on the same basis in a limited time-frame that have major repercussions for family life and children. Your organisation sits back and endorses this by a slow, reactive process with no intervention that has no certainty of outcome.

We urge your organisation to change and for you to hold your leaders to account for delivering that change via their front line staff. Your intervention and process places undue and unnecessary pressure and stress on parents through inappropriate work with our children and undermines people who simply want to move on with their lives with their children, most of whom want fair and reasonable access ideally in a shared care environment.

Providing guidance and support to both parents early in the process would be a simple procedure to implement and this along with suitable mediation and support would negate the need for protracted court hearings downstream. These are changes you could and should be making NOW!

No CEO of a profit-making commercial organisation would settle for the inefficient and ineffective processes your organisation has. So why do you Mr Douglas? Your professional and personal reputation is very much on the line. You should be aware that there is increasing talk of a mass class action by alienated parents in deep distress, such is the scope and scale of this issue. And you will be aware of the campaign to deploy our local MPs, who will also be copied in on this letter.

You should be aware that we have a social media reach of 1 million per week and growing fast and given this is literally the most important issue we all face, those of us who survive the abuse, are not going to go away.

We have emailed you a copy of this letter direct. We would like to meet and discuss the contents and can come to a meeting supported by social workers, reunification specialists, psychiatrists, lawyers and organisational change consultants should you need additional input.

We trust and hope you will take our considered points seriously and look forward to your response, ideally in the next seven days.


Outcome:

Anthony Douglas replied reiterating that ” We do recognise Parent Alienation”.

He also repeated that they are working on changes to their systems and procedures.

A supplementary letter requesting specifics and timescales was sent, which we will publish after he has had a chance to respond.