Interview with Cathy Ashley, chief executive of Family Rights Group

With the 30th anniversary of The Children Act 1989 looming, Cathy Ashley discusses Family Rights Group (FRG); set to mark the occasion with a summer event to commemorate the principles and values behind the momentous legislation.

With the 30th anniversary of The Children Act 1989 looming, Family Rights Group (FRG) is set to mark the occasion with a summer event to commemorate the principles and values behind the momentous legislation.

FRG was, in fact, key in developing the legislation 30 years ago and helped to draft accompanying guidance and the training programme in preparation for, and following the enactment of The Children Act 1989.

Cathy Ashley, chief executive of FRG, said: "What was unusual was the amount of energy, thought and collaboration that went into the Act and the related guidance and training and the FRG was engaged throughout the process."

Cathy has been chief executive of the FRG for 15 years, having previously worked as a political adviser, managed a local government policy team and chaired the early years and childcare partnership in her local area. And despite the FRG having been set up in 1974 and thus established for 45 years, Cathy is the latest in a line of just five chief executives/directors who have led the charity during its existence.

"It is really unusual. There is a culture of family within FRG. There is a sense of continuity and loyalty. We are serving people who have largely been stigmatised, ignored, shamed, degraded and when you are working with families and see their strength, determination, struggles and abilities, you have got to challenge the system's attitude and show that they have got so much to contribute to improving the system. There is so much injustice, maybe unintended, but once you see that you can't forget it, you can't leave it," said Cathy.


FRG emerged in 1974 from the Child Poverty Action Group and was set up by lawyers and social workers who were concerned about the way they had observed parents targeted in the family justice system, especially surrounding the removal of children which, at that point, could be done against parents' wishes by a local authority without court consent. Henry Hodge, CPAG’s legal adviser at the time and chair of Liberty and who went on to be a High Court Judge, was one of the founders of the charity.

"We are unambiguous in our belief that the child's welfare is paramount," said Cathy. "In terms of their identity, security, knowing that they are loved and cared about, family is critical to that. The child welfare and family justice system should be fair and ensure that families' rights and options are explored when the state intervenes for the adult's human rights and the child's perspective."

"For most children, it will be best for them to be raised with their parents. Some families may need support and, where the state needs to intervene, it will be traumatic and the ramifications will be huge. It needs to be done with the child central throughout," she added.

"Our approach is one which is those with experience of the system need to have their voice heard within their individual situation, which can help to identify a solution, and at system level."

"The Children Act 1989 was introduced as the existing Acts were unconnected, old and out-of-date. There had been a number of inquiries and concerns which led to a shift in understanding that partnership between practitioners, the State and families is central to children being bought up safely. Messages from research had also fed into that," said Cathy.

Unsafe situations

She explained that most children, even those on a child protection plan, will be brought up by their parents and so a partnership between the State and family is key to safeguarding the child. Even children who end up in care will often gravitate back to their families "so family remains central".

This is one of the reasons that FRG is working collaboratively with local authorities, family group conference services, Become, Who Cares? Scotland, The Fostering Network, Children 1st, Scottish Child Law Centre and other stakeholders including young people in care to develop and implement Lifelong Links. The aim is to build positive lifelong support networks for children in the care system and it is being trialled in 12 English authorities and five in Scotland - marking the first time the FRG has worked in Scotland.

"Too often children in care or care leavers do not have a safe support network. With social media, children can search for their families but may be rebuffed or put themselves in unsafe situations," explains Cathy.

"The idea of Lifelong Links is that a family group conference coordinator, trained in the Lifelong Links approach, works with young people, to explore their family network and other people who are important to them, for example, former foster carers or teachers, or a neighbour. The support network is then convened at a Lifelong Links family group conference. We had one child who wanted to have his former foster carer's dog at the Lifelong Links FGC, as he always used to talk to the dog when he felt he couldn't cope.

Unless pre-family group conferences held pre-proceedings, the aim is not to find a placement, it is to ensure the child has a safe network to turn to during their time in care and in adulthood. The child’s social worker is involved throughout, so that unsafe situations can be avoided and to ensure that the Lifelong Links plan is integrated into the child’s care and pathway plan," she added.

FRG was key in the process of establishing Family Group Conferences in the UK. In the early 1990s they bought over from New Zealand social workers who had introduced Family Group Conferences there in response to a significant number of Maori children being moved into White institutional care. "As a result, this led to piloting of FGC and the principle that family is a resource not just in protecting the child but in providing an understanding of their identity. The wider family is too often under-utilised in their capacity to add to the child's wellbeing and to help parents who might be struggling. At the heart of FGC is partnership working," said Cathy.

Looming crisis

A very recent piece of work the FRG has been instrumental in is the Care Review.
In September 2016, the then president of the High Court's family division, Sir James Munby warned of the 'looming crisis' with regards to the increasing number of care order applications and the rising numbers of children in care saying: "We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis."

He pointed to Cafcass figures which showed that care proceedings during the four years from 2005‐6 to 2008‐9, the figures fluctuated by modest amounts, with the average annual figure during that period being 6532. However, in 2009‐10 there was a dramatic increase to 8832, an increase in a single year of some 35%, whether compared with the previous year’s figure of 6488 or the average figure of 6532 for the preceding four years.

"It is generally agreed that this unprecedented increase was the consequence of the Baby Peter case. Since 2009‐10 the figures have continued to increase significantly. Comparing the figures for 2009‐10, 8832, and 2014‐15, 11159, the overall increase over that five‐year period was 26%. The figure of 12781 for 2015‐16 was an increase of 14% over the previous year," said Sir James Munby.

FRG, along with two directors of children’s services and an academic specialising in kinship care, met with Sir James Munby, assuming they were one of many organisations contributing to the debate about how to tackle the issue. However, Sir James Munby said noone else had come forward.

Blame culture

As a result, the FRG initiated the Care Crisis Review, a sector led review of the rise in applications for care orders and the number of children in care. "The result was an intensive short piece of work," said Cathy. "As we were facing a crisis now, the Review had to be carried out quickly and not drag on for years. Evidence gathering events focused on options for change with input from social workers, social work managers, lawyers, Ofsted, Cafcass, ADCS, LGA, commissioners, families and young people."

"What was shining through was that the crisis was felt by families and the system. However, The Children Act 1989 and the principles behind it still stand and are sound. Relationship based practice is at the heart of effective social work and family is too often overlooked as a resource," said Cathy.

"The Review recognised that deprivation was a key contributing factor but not the only explanation. From the early 90's onwards we saw an incremental rise of the numbers of children in care, bar a slight dip in the mid 2000s. Austerity was a push factor but not the entire explanation for why children ended up in care," she said. "Resources are tight and there is a culture of blame and shame which results too often in a risk averse culture be it from practitioners and families fearful that the finger will be pointed. It is easy to resort to procedural responses."

"It is difficult to constructively criticise when things are going wrong without adding to a sense of blame. At the same time you can't hide from injustice. How you manage to do that in a constructive manner to help all involved and find solutions is one of the hardest challenges of our age," she added.

Cathy explains that one of the initiatives that came from the Care Crisis Review is that a parliamentary kinship care taskforce has been established which will report in November 2019. There is a major evidence gathering exercise taking place now to raise awareness of kinship care and look at the challenges as well as what is being done effectively and what needs to change.

When the Children Act 1989 was established, the Lord Chancellor at the time said it was "the most comprehensive and far reaching reform of child law which has come before Parliament". Cathy believes that the legislation has lived up to this accolade. "It is pretty impressive that 30 years on the Care Crisis Review concluded that families and the sector at all levels had a consensus in the soundness of the legislation."

However, she acknowledges that there are definitely areas that need replenished and revised, for example, the guidance around Section 20. "There is a need for a renewed understanding of the law and the values behind the Act. Something we found through our advice service is a lack of in-depth legal knowledge sometimes within practice and sometimes we have lost sight within social work of the importance of the legal framework. The legal framework has to be the starting point, if you understand the framework it helps to social work and families to navigate the system, and understand their powers and responsibilities."

Honest discussion

Family Rights Group’s advice service provides advice to parents, relatives and friends about their rights and options when social workers or courts make decisions about their children's welfare. It campaigns for families to have the voice heard, be treated fairly and get help early in a bid to prevent problems from escalating.

The advice service now has 17,000 callers a year but it is only funded for 5,000 calls so there are potentially 12,000 families who currently don't get the advice they need. "It is very difficult for parents to get independent legally sound advice. They can hear advice from us as we have no stake in decisions about their children, so we can have a very honest discussion. We can challenge in a respectful way. They can talk through their rights and options. For example, if a child is being voluntarily accommodated they may be able to challenge that but they need to know the consequences of doing that so that they can make an informed decision," said Cathy.

"We try to be consistent whether through our advice or lobbying work to look at the problem in the system and try and work for a solution, rather than focus on the problem. We don't hold back from challenge but we don't criticise for criticism sake."

"We have seen a huge increase in the number of people trying to contact our advice line, especially since Baby P's death," said Cathy adding that one third of callers are kinship carers and two thirds are parents.

Domestic abuse

However, she said a big shift in the last 10 years has been domestic abuse, which she says is a massive factor in calls to the advice line. She said the response to how the child welfare system treats domestic abuse, particularly focusing upon the mother’s ‘failure to protect’ is contributing to the rise in the number of families subject to child protection inquiries and care order applications.

"In our view there is a lack of attention to humane ways of working with families especially with adult as well as children survivors, enabling so that more children could be supported to live safely with the family. There is a lack of attention to working with the perpetrator, for example through perpetrator programmes," she added.

It is one of the reasons that the summer event, to be held on 20th June 2019 in London, is aimed at raising funds for the advice line. Ticket sales and a charity auction will raise the money for the advice line and , as the event is sponsored by WillisPalmer, "every penny raised will go to the advice line".

The event is being used to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Children Act "because as a lot of time is spent challenging what needs to change, it is also important to celebrate the good and it was a conclusion of the Care Review that 30 years on, the legislation is still sound," said Cathy, adding that not all law is fit for purpose and other legislation, particulary around benefits, does need revising.

"It is an opportunity to reflect on the approach, collaboration and evidence base that resulted in this sound legislation. It is also about looking at what we have learnt that can apply today. It is an opportunity to think about the values and principles of the legislation and what do we need to shift in our current environment to allow these values and principles to flourish," Cathy added.

Summer Party - Children Act 1989 - 30 years on
6.30 - 10.30pm
The October Gallery, London WC1N 3AL

Guest speakers the Right Honourable Sir Andrew McFarlane, president of the Family Division and Lord Mackay of Clashfern

To book visit the website.

The event will be attended by staff past and present as well as Trustees of the organisation - 50% of which are families who have experience of the child welfare and family justice system.

To find out more about FRG and to sign up to their newsletter visit Family Rights Group.

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