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Domestic violence and safeguarding children: risk identification and assessment in private law proceedings . Dr Lynne Harne School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol. email Background.

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Domestic violence and safeguarding children: risk identification and assessment in private law proceedings

Dr Lynne Harne

School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol. email


2005/2006 HMCS Inspection reports - too much focus on agreement seeking, rather than safeguarding children and their mothers from domestic violence

2007 Cafcass Safeguarding Framework involving screening, risk identification and safety assessment

May 2008 Practice direction on use of risk identification form

December 2008 Screening for all contact and residence applications

aims of the pilot study
aims of the pilot study
  • To look at the impact of the use of the risk identification form on safeguarding decisions made by Family Court Advisors, at or after the first hearing.
  • to look at the use of screening to inform risk identification and assessment
  • To look at the impact of risk identification and assessment on a small sample of S.7 (child welfare) reports.
  • The main method used was an in-depth examination of paper case files in one Cafcass team, where harm was identified on the form
  • A comparison was made between findings from files in the 12 months prior to the use of the risk identification form (rid) to files after its use between August 2008-March 2009
  • Interviews were undertaken with FCAs and managers
  • A small comparative sample of S.7 report files was also looked at
risk factors in the rid form
Risk factors in the rid form
  • previous harm to children
  • domestic violence (indicate any escalation)
  • jealous / possessive behaviour by adult in relation to partner or child/ren
  • post-separation violence
  • violence linked with contact
  • threats / fears of child abduction
  • other violence, including possession of offensive weapons
  • parental mental health /learning difficulties
  • previous suicide attempts / threats of suicide (child or adult)
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • presence of a person within the family / household who represents a risk to children
  • the existence of acute family stress – (e.g. from a high-conflict relationship breakdown or from social exclusion factors)
  • any ‘special’ feature of the child which may increase risk (e.g. disability; not being a child of the family; behavioural difficulties)
  • any specific cultural factors e.g. risk of forced marriage
  • (public law) child placed with parent/s during care proceedings especially when this is not the Local Authority care plan recommendation
  • private fostering / family placement that has not been assessed

Cases before the use of the rid form (15)

  • safeguarding decisions appeared haphazard
  • There was little identification of risk and lack of consideration was given to allegations of domestic violence, direct harm to children, alcohol or drug abuse or mental health problems on the case logs
  • It was difficult to tell how decisions were taken
  • Full screening checks were only sought in 9 cases
  • There were 8 cases which caused significant concern, where interim contact had been agreed (over half the sample)
8 cases demonstrating significant concern
8 Cases demonstrating significant concern
  • In 5 of these cases decisions were taken before police (PNC) screening checks had been received
  • These showed substantial convictions for offences related to domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse and in 2 cases, sexual offences against children
  • There were no S.7 reports and mothers were encouraged to agree contact arrangements
  • In 3 cases no PNC checks had been sought, apparently because fathers denied violence
case example
Case example
  • This concerned a mother’s application for residence and defined contact, regarding a one year old child.
  • The mother had experienced daily physical and verbal abuse, in presence of child. There was ongoing post-separation harassment. The father was alcoholic and had overdosed and threatened suicide since separation.
  • The mother had initially agreed to contact from fear of the violent father. The child was returned distressed and covered in faeces after contact (from mother’s application)
  • At the first directions hearing allegations of dv and substance misuse were noted by the FCA as well as in a children’s services report
  • Interim contact was agreed at a supported contact centre
case example continued
Case example continued

Subsequently PNC checks showed that father had convictions for domestic violence and offences related to alcohol abuse - was listed as a schedule 1 offender with 2 prior sexual offences and 1 offence for failing to report as sex offender. Also abduction offence against the child.

(note on file says contact to stay the same unless children’s services object)

3 months later court ordered contact for 5 hours twice a week, but not overnight. Mum remained concerned over father’s care of child. Father wanted staying contact, case listed for further hearing 6 months later, (but no S.7 report)

summary of decision making in files at first directions hearing prior to rid
Summary of decision-making in files at first directions hearing, prior to rid
  • Interim contact agreed 8
  • No interim contact 7

Other actions where no interim contact

  • Fact finding hearing 2
  • S. 7 Child Welfare Reports 3
  • Referral to Children’s Services 1
  • Referral to judge 1
case files using rid form 18
Case files using rid form (18)
  • Considerable reductions in agreements for interim contact (15)
  • Clear identification of risks in majority of forms (16)
  • Increased recognition of harm to child, domestic violence and associated factors e.g. Abduction threats, alcohol and drug misuse and mental health risks
  • Increase in decisions to seek further information, further assessment, mental health reports
  • More use made of police screening information (80%)
  • Some recognition that women with a confidential address signified risk (2 cases)
  • The significance of post-separation violence was under-estimated in 3 cases , including threats to kill, out of these in 2 cases decisions were made before the police checks were received – 1 involved counter-allegations of violence, although pnc check showed only father had convictions.
summary of decision making in files using the rid form
Summary of decision-making in files using the rid form

No Interim Contact 14

Indirect Contact 1

Direct interim contact agreed 3

Fact finding hearing 2

Further information on issues 3

S.7 Child Welfare reports 4

Further risk/safety assessment 7

Mental health reports 2

S.37 Report 1

views of family court advisors
Views of family court advisors
  • Most thought that risk identification form was useful in assisting them to focus on risks and deciding on the actions needed, also useful as an adminstrative tool to pass on.
  • Although some were ambivalent that had improved their practice
  • Some suggestions on improving the form and for more guidance on interpreting and assessing levels of risk and having the MARAC checklist as additional tool
  • Compulsory screening for all applications for contact and residence was universally welcomed
  • Domestic violence was considered a significant risk by most FCAs interviewed
  • Training on safety assessment was helpful
s 7 report files
S.7 report files
  • Assessment of risks was improved and more clearly outlined in reports after the introduction of the risk identification form
  • There were more recommendations for indirect contact rather than direct contact
  • There was more consideration of views of children where stated were afraid of violent parent
  • Expert reports were often unhelpful, particularly psychiatric reports
  • Post-separation violence including threats to kill were under-estimated
  • The use of the risk identification form did appear to improve safeguarding decisions, alongside other policy changes- compulsory screening and training – a larger scale study would provide more conclusive findings
  • FCAs in general had a good understanding of the impacts of domestic violence, although more understanding was needed on risks from escalating post-separation violence/harassment, as well as assessing the parenting capacity of violent parents.
  • There remains the issue of what is considered adequate evidence of domestic violence, particularly where there are no police reports or convictions. Sometimes the courts were unwilling to have fact-finding hearings which may have clarified the issue.