The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) become involved with a family when one parent takes the other parent to Court over their child’s arrangements. CAFCASS is initially involved at the safeguarding stage (as explained in my earlier blog) and a CAFCASS Officer should also be present for the First Hearing Dispute Resolution Appointment (FHDRA) (the first court hearing of the application).
Read Amy's blog on who CAFCASS are and what to expect here.
At the FHDRA one parent may raise their child’s wishes and feelings as a factor in deciding the arrangements for that child. In certain circumstances the Court may direct CAFCASS to undertake a “Wishes and Feelings” Assessment of the child or children involved.
Why might the Court direct a CAFCASS Wishes and Feeling Assessment?
Under the Children Act 1989, the Court must consider the “welfare checklist” when deciding what is in a child’s best interests. One of the factors for the Court to consider is “the child’s wishes and feelings in light of his or her age and understanding”.
Sometimes each parent has a different view about what their child wishes or feels or they simply don’t know. In these circumstances, CAFCASS may be directed to ascertain the child’s true wishes and feelings.
How old must a child be for CAFCASS to assess his or her wishes and feelings?
CAFCASS may visit a child of almost any age as the child’s wishes and feelings are always assessed against the background of that child’s age and understanding.
However, for a “standalone” wishes and feelings assessment, I would estimate age 8 to be the youngest starting point. At the FHDRA, CAFCASS will consider all the issues and the parents’ viewpoints and decide whether they are prepared to conduct an assessment.
How does CAFCASS carry out a Wishes and Feelings Assessment?
Many parents worry that CAFCASS will simply ask a child directly “who do you want to live with?” or “how many nights do you want to stay with mum/dad?”. In fact, a CAFCASS wishes and feelings assessment is much subtler and child-focused than that.
With younger children, CAFCASS may use cards with different faces on for a child to put next to each person in their life. These faces may be happy, sad, angry or worried etc. depending on how that person makes them feel.
Other techniques include asking a child to draw pictures of their family or the houses they visit and then discussing these pictures. For older children it may be about asking them to list the things and people who are important to them.
Children are always given the opportunity to choose not to contribute. Some children want to contribute but others would much prefer to “keep out of it”.
The CAFCASS assessment should not just report what the child has said but should also analyse and interpret the child’s words against the background of the case. CAFCASS may recommend an outcome which is contrary to a child’s wishes and feelings if they consider doing so is in that child’s best interests.
How do I prepare my child for CAFCASS?
The easy answer to this question is that you shouldn’t prepare a child for a CAFCASS wishes and feelings assessment.
Firstly, you need to think very carefully before you tell your child that his or her parents are at Court about them. Doing so arguably involves them in adult issues that they don’t need to know about. However, if your child is aware then I would still be wary about any preparation for a CAFCASS visit. CAFCASS want a fair assessment of a child’s wishes and feelings. They do not want to hear what a parent has told a child to say and CAFCASS are skilled in identifying such a situation.
If you are in any doubt at all, telephone the CAFCASS Officer and ask for guidance, or look on their website.
Can I get a CAFCASS Wishes and Feelings Assessment without a Court application?
No – CAFCASS will only get involved if one parent has applied to the Court. An alternative to a CAFCASS wishes and feelings assessment is child inclusive mediation, where a mediator may choose to visit a child to assist parents in resolving a dispute.
For more guidance about how to speak to your children about your separation and for an idea of how they are feeling, I recommend the guide recently produced by a charity called Voices in the Middle.
If you’re struggling with your child’s arrangements please contact Amy Fallows at firstname.lastname@example.org.