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Professional Roles 

and Titles

 Social work roles in the family court cases

This section explains the different roles that social work professionals can take in family court cases.

 

The Children's Guardian

Guardians are professionally qualified social workers with experience of working with children and families. The Children’s Guardian’s role is to represent the wishes and best interests of children in public law proceedings, usually care or adoption cases. They do this “in tandem” with a specialist children’s solicitor. Children’s Guardians are independent of all other parties in the case.  They do not work for the local authority which is involved in the case.

More information about the work of the Children's Guardian can be found here and on the Cafcass website.

 

When is a Children's Guardian appointed?

A guardian is appointed in care proceedings under the Children Act 1989 and in adoption proceedings under the Adoption and Children Act 2002. Care Proceedings start when local authority children’s services ask the court to make a decision about a child who they think has  suffered or may suffer significant harm. The court asks Cafcass to provide a Children’s Guardian. The guardian's role finishes once the court proceedings end.

What does the Children's Guardian do?

The Children’s Guardian's role is to safeguard the child's welfare, and to provide information for the court about the child’s wishes and feelings.   The guardian represents the child in the proceedings and will work closely with the child's solicitor who speaks for the child in court.  The guardian will spend time with the child and will explain the court process to the child in an age-appropriate way.  They will also speak to parents, relatives, professionals and other significant people. They have a legal right to read the local authority files on a child and can inform the court of any information from the files that they think necessary.  They will write one or more reports for the court and will make a recommendation about what is best for the child.  If the case is contested at court then the guardian will give evidence and can be questioned by the other parties.

What happens if the child disagrees with the guardian's views?

If the child does not agree with the guardian and the solicitor thinks that the child understands the issues well enough to give their own instructions, then the solicitor will act for the child.  The guardian will still give an opinion to the court, but not through the child's solicitor.What if any parties, including parents, disagree with the guardian's views?

Roles in private law cases

90% of separating parents reach agreement about arrangements for their children without court involvement.  The government wants to encourage as many families as possible to come to an agreement that is safe for children and is in their best interests.  Research shows it is emotionally damaging for children to be at the centre of conflict between their parents.  Separating parents will be encouraged to use mediation before going to court. Before an application for a contact or residence order is accepted by a court, the applicant is required to attend a Mediation and Information Assessment meeting to see if mediation is suitable for them.

 

Mediators

Mediation aims to help people to resolve disagreements through discussions involving an independent third party - a mediator.  It is always advisable to use a properly trained and accredited mediator.  Further advice about finding a mediator can be found here

 

First Directions Hearing

When parents apply to a court to resolve issues about their children the court tells Cafcass about the application.  Cafcass will undertake safeguarding checks with police and local authorities to find out if there any risks to children.  A Cafcass officer may ring parents to ask if they have any safety or welfare concerns. They will write to the court about any welfare or risk issues raised by the safeguarding checks.

The Cafcass officer, sometimes called a Family Court Adviser or a Children and Family Reporter, will be at court for the First Directions Hearing.  They may speak to both parties separately to see if it is possible for them to reach an agreement at this stage. This is also called conciliation.

There are a number of possible outcomes from the First Directions Hearing. These include:

  • The parents may reach agreement
  • The court may refer to a mediation service
  • The court may adjourn the case so that parents can attend a Separating Parents Information Programme (SPIP). 
  • The Court may arrange a Finding of Fact hearing to decide what has happened in the past where this is in dispute, e.g. whether there has been domestic violence
  • The Court may refer to a Domestic Violence perpetrator programme (DVPP)
  • A Family Group Conference may be organised by Cafcass
  • Contact Activities including supervised contact
  • Court may order a Child's Wishes and Feelings report from Cafcass
  • The Court may ask Cafcass to provide a section 7 welfare report about issues of residence and/or contact.

Cafcass officer/Children and Family Reporter

A Children and Family Reporter (CFR) is a qualified and experienced social worker.  They can be appointed in sec 7 contact and residence order proceedings under the Children Act 1989 when the court wants an independent view of what has been happening and what should happen in the child's life. 

When preparing a welfare report the Cafcass officer will usually spend time talking to the child on their own, maybe in the Cafcass office, to explore their wishes and feelings and what they would like to happen. The CFR will also talk to parents, relatives and other people such as teachers and health visitors. They will try to help parents listen to what the child has to say and explore whether it is possible to reach an agreement that is safe for the child and meets the child's needs. They will then write their report to explain to the court on what they think should happen.  The Children and Family Reporter can be called to give evidence and may be cross-examined.

More information about the role of Cafcass workers in private law cases is available here.

 

Rule 16.4 Guardian in private law cases

Unlike in public law cases children are not usually made parties to the proceedings in private law cases.  However, the court can make a child a party where it considers the child's interests will not otherwise be protected. A guardian can then be appointed for the child under Rule 16.4 Family Proceedings Rules 2010 where their welfare requires independent representation. The guardian will appoint a solicitor for the child and can present evidence to court on behalf of the child.  Rule 16.4 guardians may be appointed via Cafcass or in some areas via NYAS (National Youth Advocacy Service).

What is an FCA?

The term FCA represents the term 'Family Court Adviser.' It includes both Children’s Guardians and Children and Family Reporters.

The Reporting Officer in Adoption

Reporting Officers are experienced social workers appointed by the Court in adoption proceedings and allocated by Cafcass.  A Reporting Officer is an independent person. If a birth parent agrees that their child should be placed for adoption or be adopted by the person/s they are living with, the court will appoint a Reporting Officer whose role is to ensure that the birth parent fully understands the effect of an adoption order and that any consent is given freely and unconditionally. This applies to a step-parent adoption just as to any other adoption.

What does the Reporting Officer do?

 The Reporting Officer will visit each parent and talk to them about the proposed adoption. They will ask the birth parent to check the details on the child’s birth certificate and sign an official consent form from the court. The Reporting Officer does not interview the child or the adoptive parents and sends a short report outlining the content of the interviews to the court with the birth certificate and consent form. The Reporting Officer does not usually attend the adoption hearing but if s/he feels there are any other matters that should be investigated or if the birth parent has decided not to consent to the adoption he/she will inform the court and a Children’s Guardian may then be appointed to represent the child and to safeguard their interests.

Independent Social Workers (ISWs)

Independent social workers are professionally qualified social workers who usually have considerable experience of working with children and families plus special expertise and training. They will work for themselves or for an independent agency. ISWs can work in a variety of roles.  This section deals with ISWs who work as expert witnesses in the family courts.

ISWs can be appointed in public and private court proceedings, e.g. under the Children Act 1989 and the Adoption and Children Act 2002, whenever the court requires an independent social work view in order to make the right decision for a child.  The appointment of an ISW may be requested by one, some or all parties to the case, but must be agreed by the court.  The exact task for the ISW will be set out in their letter of instruction which will ask some specific questions.  In public law cases an ISW will be independent because they do not work for the local authority involved in the case. 

What is an ISW assessment?

ISWs may be asked to undertake a wide variety of assessments.  In family court cases ISWs are most commonly commissioned to provide assessments of parenting capacity, assessments of risk that adults may pose to children, and assessments of attachment relationship between adults and children or between siblings.  Where ISWs have specialist knowledge and training they may be asked to provide assessments of parenting in relation to areas such as cultural issues, physical disability, learning disability, drug and alcohol misuse. 

Relatives who want to care for children within their extended family may be assessed as foster parents or adoptive parents, or as kinship carers. 

A vialbility assessment is a shorter assessment undertaken as a first step, to see whether a fuller and more comprehensive assessment should be undertaken.

What will happen?

An ISW will make appointments to interview adults to obtain the information needed to answer the questions in the letter of instruction.  They will often need to assess children with adults to obtain an understanding of family relationships.  Usually the ISW will also speak to other professionals and other family members or friends.  The details of each assessment will differ according to the work that needs to be done and the type of assessment ordered by the court. 

When the assessment interviews are complete the ISW will prepare a report setting out their analysis of the information they have gained from their interviews.  It will address the questions in the letter of instruction.  The ISW may not take any further part in the case, although sometimes they are asked to undertake further work arising out of the initial report.  When a case is contested the ISW can be asked to give evidence at court and may be cross-examined about their report.

What can you expect of the Independent Social Worker?

Nagalro's Principles and Practice Guidance provide guidance to ISWs about standards and good practice in their work.

Independent Reviewing Officer

Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) work for  Local Authorities. They chair the statutory reviews of children who are in the care of the local authority.  They are responsible for monitoring the performance of local authorities of their duties in relation to a child's case.  The role is intended to provide effective independent oversight of the child's case and ensure the child's interests are protected throughout the care planning process. More information about IROs can be found on the Department for Education website.

 

 

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