Are children's voices heard in family court proceedings?

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Funding cuts could silence the voices of some of our most vulnerable children in our family courts.

CAFCASS officers report on what is in the best interests of children, and they represent children as their guardians in Care Order proceedings. CAFCASS stands for Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and a recent study shows that in nine out of ten cases judges follow their recommendations.

The demand for the involvement of CAFCASS is increasing sharply, in part due to the “Baby P effect”. Many CAFCASS children’s guardians surveyed in 2012 believe this is still an important factor. Social workers are increasingly wary and therefore more Care Order applications are made.

The study shows that local authorities are making applications at an earlier stage when they become involved with children and neglect is now being acted upon more frequently. Neglect is the most often cited category of abuse for children subject to a local authority child protection plan at 86.3% in 2012.

However, cuts made to public expenditure may stifle the children’s voice and representation. The families and children who become the subject of CAFCASS involvement and care proceedings are often from dysfunctional families with higher rates of mental illness, domestic abuse, dependency on income support and they are often from single parent families and parents who were abused themselves. Consequently, cuts on benefits will directly hit such families and cuts to specialist support services who work with these families will also have a negative impact. Given the start most of these children have in life, specialist representation is crucial.

Fortunately the Legal Services Commission, after an initial refusal, has granted a licence to the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) to continue work in the Family Courts. NYAS provides advocacy services for children in care proceedings and advice and representation for children caught up in some of the most difficult residence and contact disputes. In 2011, NYAS represented 156 children in such difficult cases and resolved matters where CAFCASS had been involved but for various reasons was unable to continue. It is a vital service providing independent and separate representation for children, but it remains vulnerable to cuts.

Consequently, whilst it is reassuring that children’s views are being listened to with most CAFCASS reports being followed, public funding cuts are likely to stifle these voices and cut off these support services.

Such short term cuts may prove costly in the long run, not only for the children but for society, as increased numbers of our young people develop into adolescence without the representation and support they need. It would be a massive shame if some of the most vulnerable members of our society were to pay the price of our financial shortcomings.