Cafcass has launched Parenting Plan and Family Meetings: a free support service for separated parents in Greater Manchester, Durham, Teesside and North Yorkshire to assist families to agree arrangements for their children away from court.
Here we take a look at one of the initial pilots which was a pre-cursor to the new pre-proceedings service and the benefits to families seen so far.
The use of Family Meetings has resolved issues within proceedings in all but one of 13 cases which participated in a local pilot in Middlesbrough, findings show. With Cafcass’ assistance, families were able to reach full agreements on arrangements – bringing speedier resolution to cases which had been stretching on in the court. In those 12 cases contact progressed following the meeting, with the agreed plan forming the basis of the practitioners’ recommendations and in 11 cases, the court order.
Initially trialled within court proceedings, these positive results have led to Family Meetings being piloted at the pre-proceedings stage and across a wider geographical area, alongside the Parenting Plan Meeting pilot in Greater Manchester, to help divert cases from court.
what lies behind the success of Family Meetings?
Marie Gittins, Senior Head of Service for Durham, Teesside and North Yorkshire, explains: “The meetings, based on Family Group Conferences, bring together the parents or carers and other important people in their and the children’s lives to jointly work on a plan for arrangements.
“A Cafcass practitioner prepares the family ahead of the meeting and starts off discussion, encouraging them to talk and come to their own agreement. It means families are empowered to build constructive solutions themselves that work for their circumstances – they take real ownership.
Where appropriate, children may also attend part of the meeting to share their views. “This really hits home for the adults, who distracted by their dispute may not have realised the impact on their child,” says Marie. “Having a neutral family member or friend saying to the parents, ‘Look, this isn’t realistic,’ is also very powerful, helping shift parents’ perspectives and move things along.
“Some of the families we were working with under the initial pilot had been entrenched in their court dispute for a long time. In one case the parents hadn’t spoken in two years. Through the Family Meeting we got a result and they were able to reach an agreement.”
As for our practitioners’ role, “Their input in keeping the focus on children is invaluable. They really bring home the benefits of this approach for families, as opposed to prolonged disputes and proceedings which are more stressful and expensive, and, more poignantly, damaging for children and young people.”
Family Meetings are also helping iron out the finer details of arrangements explains Marie. “Plans stemming from the meetings were more detailed than what is usually contained in court orders. Families need to be able to adapt to their changing circumstances. The Parenting Plan supports families to think about day to day arrangements, as well as plan flexibly for the future.”
With the extension of Family Meetings under the new pre-proceedings service which also offers an option for a Parenting Plan meeting, things have certainly come a long way from the early brainwave of Susan Simpson, Senior Service Manager to trial them.
Promotion of the meetings by local points of referral and across organisations, such as GP surgeries or Citizens Advice Bureau, will help target parents before or at the point of a court application to encourage them to access this service away from court.
“It’s an exciting avenue to explore and may change the shape of pre-proceedings work in the future.”