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What is the Systemic Family Assessment?

Following the success of the Multi-Disciplinary Family Assessment service, WillisPalmer has launched the innovative Systemic Family Assessment, which is available at legal aid agency rates.

The SFA can be used for private and public law cases and is designed to provide courts with a multi-disciplinary assessment so that they have all the evidence required to make final decisions about children in a timely manner.

Care figures

Private law

The Systemic Family Assessment or SFA has been introduced to address the backlog of private law cases and to resolve problems surrounding parental alienation and contact disputes regarding children in a timely and efficient manner, placing the child at the heart of all outcomes.

There has been an increase in demand for private law cases and, according to Cafcass, in April 2021, they received 3,648 new private law cases – a massive 42.7% rise or 1,092 cases more than the same period in 2020.

One of the main problems is that in private law, there is often not a clear timeframe for cases to reach a conclusion and decisions to be made about the subject child or children.

But while the situation can be distressing all round, it can have a massively detrimental impact on children witnessing their parents embroiled in an ongoing battle. Their mental health is likely to deteriorate during the process, which can sometimes be stretched out for years.

These children are likely to feel unsettled, anxious, confused, resentful towards one or both parents, and these feelings may impact on their education and social lives as well as their mental health and emotional wellbeing. They may grow up with a distorted view of relationships and family life which will, in turn, affect the intimate and family relationships they will form as adults.

They may be witnessing highly conflicted parents. Children may well have divided loyalties regardless of the parent they reside with and feel stuck in the middle. Furthermore, the ongoing dispute can become all encompassing for the warring parents, both desperate to ‘win’ and for the duration of the case they can actually be less emotionally available to their children at a time they need them the most.

For disputes that cannot be resolved following a Section 7 report from Cafcass, there is often a need for further expert intervention to fully assess the issues that are preventing the matter from being concluded.

Why SFA in private law?

The SFA is a multi-disciplinary assessment model with a clear timeframe, to address private law disputes and provide the court with the expert analysis it needs to be able to make final decisions for children in a timely manner.

Two experts – a psychologist and independent social worker – work together, in consultation with one another, to provide a full assessment and final report six weeks from instruction. This report, which will be quality assured one of our Consultant Social Workers, will enable the court to be in a position to proceed with a final hearing and make informed decisions about the child’s welfare, care and contact arrangements.

The multi-disciplinary assessment incorporates psychological profiling of the parents and a social work analysis of the needs of the child, taking into consideration the Welfare Checklist. The social work analysis considers the relationship between the child/children and their parents and then provides an expert view about the impact of the family system on the child/ren and clear recommendations about how to minimise any negative effect on the child.

In some instances, this will prevent the need for the child to be joined as a party to the proceedings and a Children’s Guardian appointed under rule 16.4.

Head of Practice, Lucy Hopkins, said: “In private law cases, which can drag on for several years, children are left in a state of limbo, caught between their parents who are locked in conflict. This alone will be upsetting for them but they are likely to be exposed to adult conversations which will further exacerbate their feeling of distress. The trauma of the case is also extremely likely to affect their mental health and wellbeing which, in turn, can affect their education and friendships. The longer the case goes on, the more likely it is that the child or children will be impacted negatively – especially as it likely that both parents are less emotionally available for the children as the case becomes all consuming. It is only ethical that steps must be taken wherever possible to minimise the impact on children in private law cases in order to prevent lifelong damage from being caused.”

Public law

In public law cases, the SFA is designed to address public law disputes and provide the court with the expert analysis it needs to be able to make final decisions for children in a timely manner.

The number of children going into local authority care has risen steadily over the years and, in January 2020, the Local Government Association stated that the number of children in care has risen by 28 per cent in the past decade. The figures show that 78,150 children are now in care, up from 75,370 in 2018.

Children are often taken into care because they have experienced neglectful or traumatic childhoods. Often they have experienced unavoidable delays while the local authority has tried to engage with the family and therefore, if the matter goes to care proceedings, it is vital that children are not subjected to further delay in order for them to gain some stability.

The case itself is likely to be very distressing for the child or children involved because they will likely be aware of the enormity of the decision being taken and will be concerned about the outcome and what it will mean for them.

 It is important that care proceedings are concluded as promptly as possible in order to minimise the distress and uncertainty experienced by the children who are at the heart of these cases. The sooner a decision can be reached about the child’s long-term future, the less likely it is that any emotional or psychological damage caused as a result of prolonged distress and worry will impact on the child in the longer term and they are more likely to be able to settle with their carers, whether that is their parents, relatives, foster carers, or adoptive families.

Therefore, the aim of the SFA model is to carry out a multi-disciplinary assessment within a clear time-frame to ensure the courts have access to key information required for determining the best outcome for the child and making safe decisions about their future.

Why SFA in public law?

In public law it is often necessary for the court to order expert reports to address complex issues beyond the expertise of the parties already involved in the case, and subsequently psychological assessments of children and their parents along with parenting assessments undertaken by an independent social worker are readily ordered.

The SFA incorporates psychological profiling of the parents and a social work analysis of the needs of the child, taking into consideration the Welfare Checklist utilising a psychologist and independent social worker who work together to provide a full assessment and final report in six weeks from instruction.

The social work analysis considers the relationship each child has with their parent/s and siblings before providing an expert view about the impact of the family system on the child/ren and clear recommendations about how to minimise any negative effect on the child.

Head of Services Dave Wareham said: “The very fact that there are care proceedings is a clear indication that children have experienced some difficulties in the family home which may include neglect or abuse and as such are already incredibly vulnerable. However difficult their home lives may have been, it is likely that they will have, some might argue misplaced, loyalties to their parents and many will be aware of the implications of the case. This will likely cause them huge amounts of distress and is likely to impact on their mental health and other significant areas of their lives. To then subject the child to further delays while investigations are carried out will have a massive detrimental impact on the child. Local authorities and the family courts must look at ways to minimise delays where possible to prevent any further distress for the child.”

Multi-Disciplinary Family Assessment

Systemic Family Assessment (private law)

Systemic Family Assessment (public law)

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