COVID-19 has had a huge impact on families across the UK over the past few months. The impact has been even greater where families rely on a third party to facilitate or supervise the time they spend with their children. As restrictions ease what should families expect from this independent support?
Support during COVID-19
Support may be facilitated by a Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) officer or an Independent social worker (ISW). Whilst a Cafcass officer is court appointed, it is more common for ISWs to be involved in longer term arrangements.
Both Cafcass officers and ISWs are often instructed to prepare reports and to make welfare recommendations. The effect of COVID-19 has meant that in almost all cases, observation and supervision in preparing these reports has been carried out remotely, usually over video call. This has led to reports, which make key recommendations such as how contact arrangements should progress, being made in circumstances where the author may never have met the child or parent(s) directly.
ISWs are also commonly involved in assisting with handovers when a child moves between households, or supervising contact with one or both parents. During the height of the pandemic the handover service was withdrawn by a number of ISWs, leaving some parents unable to see their child for a significant period of time if the other was unwilling to agree an alternative arrangement.
The transition towards direct support
Since the beginning of June, many ISWs have resumed in-person engagement with children. New policies have been put in place by many ISWs and agencies which must be agreed by all parties ahead of any direct work.
After three and a half months of remote work, earlier this month Cafcass issued a protocol for returning to in-person work as restrictions are further eased. This highlights positive outcomes from remote work, including that it can be:
- Less intimidating – taking place in a familiar and comfortable setting;
- Less intrusive – the impact of monitoring a parent or third party is less invasive remotely; and
- More convenient – by removing the element of travel, it is easier to accommodate competing schedules.
As a result, Cafcass will not immediately return to direct work in all cases. The following factors are to be taken into account in considering whether in-person work is more suitable:
- Where coercion or parental alienation is suspected;
- Where a child or family has requested direct work or where they are not able to engage remotely;
- Where a parent refuses to engage in remote contact and if it is in the child's best interests for the direct contact to take place;
- Where there is a history of domestic abuse and there are concerns over speaking about traumatic events over video; and
- Where they may be mental health considerations.
This list is not exhaustive and other factors will feed in to the decision to carry out direct work, such as the child's age: young children often struggle with the necessary attention span required for a remote discussion. It is also not always possible to establish that a child is on their own remotely and this may be a risk factor taken into account.
As restrictions continue to be relaxed, in-person work by third parties will increase. However for some, remote arrangements may remain the preferred choice.
Resuming direct support: What to expect
Parents should be aware of the following as they resume direct work with third parties, particularly if there is a transition from remote work:
- Where contact arrangements are to be observed or supervised, they are likely to be 'weather permitting' and may be cancelled or rearranged last minute in the event of a downpour;
- Parents who live in central London may have to consider driving outside the city to find open spaces which can be easily reached by car, where many ISWs are not comfortable using public transport;
- Contact sessions may be time limited and arrangements may need to be in place should a child not understand social distancing or try to hug or kiss the non-resident parent;
- Use of personal protective equipment for both ISWs and the non-resident parent: balancing the need for 'normal' contact against other risks, for example needing to hold the child to cross a road; and
- Often third parties will only proceed with direct work if all parties agree. Parameters surrounding what can and cannot take place (and if not, why it is not safe to do so) should be discussed and understood between parents, children and third parties.
More generally, parents should give thought to child arrangements surrounding:
- Returning to work. One or both parents may be considering returning to work in the coming weeks. Arrangements need to be agreed, including the introduction of any third parties into the household such as nannies or cleaners;
- Holidays. As the summer holidays commence, one parent may wish to take the child on a break either within or outside the UK. If a parent wishes to travel abroad, this may mean that the child needs to quarantine with that parent for a period of up to two weeks on their return;
- Returning to school. Most schools will likely have COVID-19 policies in place for when children return in September. Parents should ensure that arrangements are agreed for the return to school, together with any provisional arrangements to account for changes (such as further closure of the school without notice).
- Local lockdowns. These may be announced at short notice. Further, a parent or third party may be contacted as part of the 'track and trace' system, requiring them to self-isolate for two weeks. Alternative arrangements (such as video calls) should be considered and agreed in advance if possible.
Early consideration and clear communication are essential. The lasting impact of the pandemic is still unknown and it is not expected that life will return to how it was for some time. By ensuring flexible arrangements are in place, parents can provide their child(ren) with a more stable environment during this ever-changing time.