On 17 November the Guardian ran a front page article by Amelia Hill about a “groundbreaking” new trial that CAFCASS were running, to tackle parental alienation. It contained substantial quotes from CAFCASS’ Principal Social Worker, Sarah Parsons, so appeared to have incorporated their input and therefore seemed likely to be reliable. The headline was :

Divorcing parents could lose children if they try to turn them against partner – Measures being trialled to prevent ‘parental alienation’ feature penalties including permanent loss of contact with child

Hill reported that :

• From spring 2018, all frontline Cafcass caseworkers will be given a new set of guidelines called the high conflict pathway, which will itemise the steps social workers must take when dealing with cases of suspected alienation. The pathway will spell out exactly when children should be removed from the alienating parent and placed with the “target parent”…
• Alongside the guidelines, Cafcass has developed a 12-week intense programme called positive parenting, designed to help the abusive parent put themselves in their child’s position, and give them skills to break their patterns of behaviour.
• A trial of it will start shortly, with 50 high-conflict families being sought across the country. After an evaluation in spring, the programme will be rolled out nationwide.
• If it does not work, psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health experts will be brought in. If the alienating parent continues to perpetuate the abuse, however, contact with their child will be limited to supervised visits.
• In extreme cases, care proceedings will be initiated and the parent will lose contact with their child.

This was confusing for lawyers in the field, because it appeared to cut through existing law on who takes decisions about the removal of children (judges do). Sarah Parsons was quoted by Hill as saying

We have reached a much clearer position on parental alienation recently, which we want to send a very clear, strong message about…The current, popular view of parental alienation is highly polarised and doesn’t recognise this spectrum. We want to reclaim the centre ground and develop a more nuanced, sophisticated understanding of what’s going on.

The new arrangements described by Hill don’t seem to be centre ground or nuanced at all – they sound draconian and rather frightening – and appear to give CAFCASS huge decision-making powers that they do not legally have, and seem to write the judge out of the storyline altogether.

In response to the Guardian piece, Emeritus Professor Jane Fortin wrote to the Guardian expressing her concern. Her letter was published this week and said :

Cafcass’s plan to “help” “abusive” parents “to change their behaviour with the help of intense therapy” sounds Kafkaesque, especially with the ultimate sanction of care proceedings to remove the child.

(Jane Fortin’s research which raised concern about the risks of potential overdiagnosis of alienation, as referred to in her letter is here by the way)

We were certainly finding it difficult to know exactly what to make of this new scheme, because perplexingly, there was no trace of any “groundbreaking” new pathway on the CAFCASS site and it wasn’t clear what had prompted the publication of the article in the first place.

Only a few days before the Hill article appeared, Sarah Parsons had spoken at an event at Westminster hosted by Only Dads and Only Mums, and at first we wondered if the quotes had been taken from the speech given there. But once the text of that speech was published, it became apparent that this was not the source – and that what had been said at the meeting was in many respects at odds with the scheme as described by the Guardian. In particular, Parsons is quoted there as saying :

• We must be extremely careful not to categorise a situation as parental alienation when domestic abuse is the cause of justified rejection…
• Cafcass is developing a High Conflict Practice Pathway to aid assessment in all high conflict cases, which may or may not include alienation. Feedback is being sought from interested parties over the next three months.
• Cafcass is also piloting a structured intervention suitable for certain cases where parents are stuck in conflict.

We were signposted to some documentation on Voice of the Child blog, which (it was said) was the pathway document obtained by them from CAFCASS. But those documents were dated December 2016 and looked more like training tools and a handbook than a “pathway”. And what’s more, they didn’t say what was reported by the Guardian either (CAFCASS confirm that these are not the pathway, but are current CAFCASS training materials, which are due to be revised before the Pathway is finalised and rolled out).

On 22 November CAFCASS finally published some information about the pathway, but without referring to the Guardian article. It did not match the scheme as described by the Guardian, and there was no attempt to directly address that article. By this stage we were really confused.

So we emailed CAFCASS, made a FOI request for a copy of the pathway, and suggested to them that better still, they should publish it in the interests of clarity and transparency. Almost immediately, CAFCASS responded offering a conference call with Sarah Parsons to help answer our questions. The resulting interview of Sarah Parsons is the basis of the explanations we offer here.

On 30 November CAFCASS CEO Anthony Douglas published a blog post about alienation and the high conflict pathway. In it he talks again of a spectrum, of nuance, of “Poly-victimisation” and “omni-directional harm”, and says that “Powerful emotions like this can rarely be successfully channeled into linear case outcomes in court” (we don’t think he’ll be winning any Plain English awards). Again, the post does not directly engage with the Guardian article.

We asked Sarah Parsons how the pathway will dovetail with the existing court process (the Child Arrangements Programme), in decisions about whether or not allegations of domestic abuse require a fact-finding hearing before the case can be moved on, and how it will dovetail with the existing domestic abuse pathway. (We’ve raised concerns before about the muddling of the judge’s fact-finding role with CAFCASS’s “evidence informed practice” see here and here  and here). Parsons told us that one of the reasons the pathway is not ready for publication is because this issue – of the stage at which a case is appropriate to be put on a particular pathway – is still under development. Although early in our discussion, Parsons said that CAFCASS will be “really careful to discount the pathway where there is violence and therefore potentially a justified rejection of a violent parent by a child”, later in our interview she specifically said that the two pathways are “not mutually exclusive as there may be elements of both [domestic abuse and conflict/alienation] in a single case, or new evidence could emerge in the course of a case that leads to a decision to go down the other pathway”.

We were left with the distinct impression that, at present, CAFCASS just don’t know the answer to when and how they are going to be using this tool, or where it will interlock with judicial decision making and case management functions, or with other pathways.

Although Hill reported that “the guidelines…were sent out at the beginning of this month to judges, lobby groups including Families Need Fathers, experts, doctors and lawyers for a three-month consultation”, CAFCASS told us this is incorrect and that no information has yet been sent to stakeholders about the pathway because it is still a work in progress. However, invitations to stakeholders to focus groups are imminent (we are assured that The TP will be invited). CAFCASS are at pains, by the way, that we tell you that the “consultation” is voluntary and not a formal consultation (a gesture of goodwill, if you like). Indeed they have updated their post to say so.

What has been sent to the judiciary is information about the CAFCASS Positive Parenting Programme pilot (PPP), which is already underway. Parsons tells us that this is a four session intervention to be delivered by CAFCASS guardians in 50 cases that are identified as “stuck” in conflict, where a child’s CAFCASS guardian (possibly with a co-worker) will work directly with both parents and child to help them to listen to the child and deliver a positive co-parenting message to the child from both parents. Although it uses therapeutic techniques, it is not “therapy” as suggested by Hill. (Parsons denies using the word “therapy” at all, but the distinction is one that not everybody would immediately appreciate). It will only be used where all the participants agree. Although it is anticipated that participants on the PPP scheme will be identified through the High Conflict Pathway, the intervention will not be appropriate in all high conflict cases. Indeed it will only be available in that minority of high conflict cases in which a guardian has been appointed by a judge. Parsons objects to us describing this intervention as “short” and to the Guardian’s description of it as “intense” (although we think Amelia Hill probably meant ‘intensive’, rather than ‘intense’), leaving us wondering how different it really is from the way many guardians used to work before they were so heavily restricted in the direct work they were once permitted to do with families.

Information from CAFCASS about whether or not the pathway is already in use in conjunction with the PPP is contradictory. Parsons told us it was not, but when we pointed out that the 22 November news item on the CAFCASS site said the pathway had been in use since 1 November she told us that needed to be reworded as it was “not as clear as it could have been”. That item now says :

From 1st November 2017, practitioners from the internal advisory group have been using the ideas from the pathway as part of its ongoing development. They have not been using the proposed new assessment tools. These will not be in use until after external stakeholders have had the opportunity to feed in their views and after the full training programme that will accompany the formal launch of the pathway.
[our emphasis, highlighting newly appearing information].

So CAFCASS are using the ideas from the pathway but not the tools for the pathway, but yet feedback from practitioners who have used the pathway will be collated by February. And the PPP Pilot is happening now, and apparently “Use of the High Conflict Practice Pathway will help practitioners to identify cases which might benefit from [it]“.

We’re still confused. It sounds a little bit as if CAFCASS are using the unfinished pathway in an ad hoc way to support the pilot of the PPP, but do not wish to say they are doing so, because they have yet to consult.

So, what about all this stuff about the Pathway spelling out when children should be taken away from one parent and moved to another? Parsons told us that this is all wrong and that the journalist has misunderstood what she told her. It appears that in response to a question about what happens if the pathway does not lead to a resolution, Hill has extrapolated from Sarah Parsons’ explanation of the current caselaw around the instruction of experts, the possibility of a change of residence as a last resort and the use of care proceedings to enable that – and has formed the understanding that the pathway itself would incorporate these steps.

Subsequent to our substantive interview however, Sarah Parsons told us that “the High Conflict Pathway will provide guidance on the very rare circumstances that Cafcass FCAs may consider making this recommendation to the court. Its inaccurate to say the Pathway will not include this- it will. This again is much needed addition to current guidance”. Without wishing to be repetitive, we’re confused again. What this probably means is that the pathway will highlight the possibility of a change of residence as a recommendation that might be made by CAFCASS, and will set out when that might be appropriate – but until we see the pathway this is merely an assumption. Hill clearly formed the view that this would be prescriptive, but like us she probably hasn’t seen the document either.

Sarah Parsons told us that when she gave the interview to Amelia Hill she had no idea that the intention was to run a front page splash. She told us that she had stuck faithfully to a script in that interview (we can see echoes of that script in the Westminster Dialogues, the quotes in Hill’s article and Anthony Douglas’ blog post), no doubt because CAFCASS are acutely aware that parental alienation is itself a high conflict area and it is easy to get in a tangle and end up criticised by one lobby or another. Parsons told us that she was pleased to be able to speak to us to explain how her words had been over-interpreted and things had been oversimplified in the article. She was emphatic that CAFCASS want to be “absolutely transparent” but want to get as wide feedback as possible before publication of the pathway. “One of our aims is to be transparent, so people know how we will assess – it can be scary for many people. People will be able to read it and know where they stand. It’s not just about alienation – it’s a High Conflict Pathway which is much broader”.

The Hill interview request arose (we now understand) from a speech given by Anthony Douglas at a Parental Alienation Workshop in October, where he spoke about alienation and mentioned the pathway (see the video on the VoC post linked to above where Douglas can be seen to hold up a document marked draft high conflict pathway). As a result, CAFCASS found themselves with a request for an interview about what that pathway entailed, which they agreed to participate in. This may well not have started life as a front page article, but no doubt the description of the pathway as “groundbreaking” by Sarah Parsons (a description she accepts she used) coupled with mention of the removal of children from “target parents” has propelled the story up the priority list and facilitated the sort of headline that will have induced anxiety amongst many parents, particularly those who are worried that allegations of alienation can be used by abusive and controlling parents as a way of manipulating proceedings and intimidating their ex partners. It is clear that CAFCASS recognise this risk, but that message has been obscured in the Guardian piece. Parsons clarifies her use of the term groundbreaking by explaining that the bringing together of tools and process into one document is groundbreaking, but that there has been no radical shift in the approach of CAFCASS to issues of abuse, alienation or conflict. This is a message which appears to have been entirely lost in translation (notwithstanding the inclusion in the piece of the quote about nuance and centre ground).

It is unclear quite how the nature and state of this new project has all got so garbled and jumbled up in the article, and perhaps more concerning that CAFCASS seem to have been unable in their subsequent communications to proactively explain the position. Clarity has clearly been hindered by the inability to refer to source material. Given how inaccurate the Guardian front page now appears to have been (whether by fault of the journalist or CAFCASS we do not know) we are surprised that CAFCASS have not taken steps themselves to correct or clarify the article more effectively – perhaps by writing to the newspaper or asking for a space to respond, or by publishing a piece on their own site directly referring to the piece, linking to it and explaining what is wrong or unclear. Giving an interview to The Transparency Project is not really an answer to this – we are not a proxy for the CAFCASS Comms department (although requests for us to “say something constructive about this” suggest they have misunderstood how we operate). We will not be co-opted to anyone’s agenda.

What’s more, it is unfortunate that for all their protestations about transparency CAFCASS have declined to provide us at this time with a copy of the (draft) Pathway or to publish it, pending the focus groups they promise to hold soon. “It all blew up too soon for us”, says Parsons. “It isn’t ready to share… The stakes are high”. Indeed they are.

Parsons protests that “we are clear the developments will not result in any draconian approach or in us over stepping the mark in court. The impact will be the opposite in that the guidance and training will raise understanding and quality of practice, as we’ve seen with the DA Pathway. There is a danger of people applying labels such as PA and DA inaccurately and the pathway will help to avoid this.”

Such a statement will inevitably disappoint those who were pleased to see CAFCASS were apparently finally getting tough on alienation. But in the current context such statements are going to do little to reassure those worried that the pathway (as reported) would represent a wrong turn : The inability to scrutinise and properly understand what CAFCASS is planning in such a contentious field is highly unfortunate. Reassurance is urgently needed. We would again invite CAFCASS to publish the Pathway now – albeit in draft – in light of the ongoing confusion about the direction of travel.

We will do our best to participate in any focus group to which we are invited on this topic (subject to having a body available to attend), and will publish a further post clarifying matters once we are able.

Feature pic courtesy of Alexander Baxevanis (flickr – creative commons licence). Thanks!