On 27 July 2017, I had the privilege of attending the Family Justice Young People’s Board, Voice of the Child Conference 2017. For those unfamiliar with this body, it operates under a Cafcass ‘umbrella’, but is run by children and young people who have been through the family courts in either a private or public law context and can offer a unique feedback on what the most important individuals in the entire process feel about the service they received from us, the adults and professionals who are supposed to know best. It was both an inspiring and a chastening experience.
The Minister of State for Courts and Justice, Dominic Raab MP had been invited to attend and to speak. He did not, pleading other, unspecified, commitments. In his place, he sent a civil servant, Dr Elizabeth Gibby, who is the Deputy Director of the Family Justice Policy Division with a statement to read out on his behalf. Dr Gibby had the decency to appear thoroughly embarrassed by her political master’s behaviour and got through reading his completely forgettable message as quickly a she could, before moving to her own views, which showed considerably more insight and imagination. What was disappointing, was to learn that work on the much-awaited Practice Direction on children’s evidence in the Family Court will not even begin until after October 2017, when the Practice Direction on vulnerable witnesses will be brought out after a three-year gestation.
It is impossible to know why Mr Raab was not able to attend and why no other elected politician from the Ministry of Justice was in a position (or inclined) to attend in his place. The clear impression however, was that if you do not vote you do not matter. If it was deliberate, it is unforgivable; if unintended and accidental, it was, at best, inept.
The theme of the conference, which was organised and run by the children and young people themselves was ‘Diversity and Inclusion’, but, for me at least there were wider and more profound messages. Rather than providing a factual account of the speakers and events, what follows is a distillation of the lasting impressions and clearest messages to emerge in the course of the day.
The first thing to strike me and inspire, was that this was an event where the children were doing, rather than having things done to them. They were standing on the podium, moving people from one event to the next and setting the agenda, rather than being the passive subjects of the actions and plans of others. They were doing it well too. These were young people as multi-faceted individuals like the rest of us, not just two-dimensional figures in an academic problem, or chess pieces, to be moved across the board in an attack on the other player and sacrificed for a tactical advantage.
In a brave and insightful section called ‘Do You See Me?’ we were faced with pictures of young children and the formulaic descriptions given to them in court reports. The subjects (FJYPB Board Members) then revealed themselves and what they had gone on to do and become. ‘I am more than how you see me’ they said. Just how much more was plain for all to see. They also reminded us that what the professionals do and say continues to affect their lives, for good or ill, long after we have left the scene and moved on to new cases. ‘Did you see their potential?’ the young people asked us in relation to the photographs. ‘Don’t let your perception limit their futures’ they warned. The room was silent, save for the sound of several hundred pennies, suddenly dropping.
The inconvenient truth is that children are not just assets to be transferred, shared or organised. A very brave and eloquent young person recalled;
‘They were talking about me like I had never existed; like I didn’t matter. Things were arranged without me knowing. I felt like I was worthless’.
Family cases, whether in public or private law are messy and the adults alone can be hard to manage. It is all too easy and tempting to side-line the child on the basis that they will do as they are told, but at what cost? None of us would ever deliberately want to make a child feel worthless, but by trying to, as we see it, protect them from adult issues, is that what we sometimes do? Could we do better? No one should be left feeling worthless, even by accident.
The other clear message, was that we often do not spend enough time with the children. It should not be just about going through assessment questions so that boxes can be ticked. It is about building a human relationship and an understanding about who this person, holistically, is; not just how they fit into the problem we are required to solve. We were told that 80 per cent of the children spoken to by FJYPB wanted to communicate with court professionals face to face. Such a wish is far from unreasonable, but sits awkwardly with recent suggestions that children’s guardians do not, perhaps, always need to meet the child. Professionals in Children Act proceedings have ever diminishing amounts of time available to them to carry out their tasks and obtain the required information. The Conference however reminded us of the need to retain some common courtesy and humanity. Accepting that we have to ask some very personal questions, we were still challenged, ‘would you be willing to answer a question put in that way?’
Above all else, the thing which confronted me again and again through the day was, ‘How would I feel if I was treated like that?’ We do not ask it often enough and when we do, the question often has uncomfortable answers. In a world of assessment tools and checklists, I would suggest it is a touchstone from which we should refuse to be parted.