Working on what Scotland needs

Since the London Conference some of us have teamed up with others to change things in Scotland: 1. to raise awareness of Alienation (PA), and 2. to campaign for competent assessments of families and children in courts. You can help us wherever in the world you are!

The 2014 referendum – if nothing else – will have reminded the world that Scotland is a nation, devolved & separate within the UK. It has always had its own systems including laws, courts & service delivery. Over several years, we have found even greater ignorance & messy systems in Scotland than there seem to be in England & Wales.

If you read my PA overview ‘essentials’ article you will see some pointed descriptions of differences in Scotland.  As well as that general ignorance about PA, we’ve found a long-standing practice that shocks colleagues in the rest of the world. That is the routine use of private practice solicitors to seek information and provide Bar Reports to the courts about families and children. These reports often include assessments and recommendations, covering practice – including ‘taking the views of children’ – for which the authors mostly have little or no training or qualifications. Alternatively just form F9  may be served to ascertain a child’s views.  Official acknowledgement – available since 2011 – that Sheriffs are enormously influenced by Bar Reporters and that it’s rare for Sheriffs to make a decision against the recommendations in a Bar Report has been largely ignored. (Sheriffs are the Scottish equivalent of Judges).

So we are working on two campaigning tracks – 1. raising PA awareness, and 2. building authoritative support to share the concern about private practice solicitors acting beyond their professional competence whilst aided and encouraged by the court.  The second track is, obviously, broader than the first (PA awareness). We can expect wide support from all quarters … “Who could say No to it?”. And that might be a good platform for broader acceptance of the specific learning about PA.

Raising PA awareness

My raising of awareness hinges on the overview article.  I use it as a calling card for key people: professionals and heads of agencies to inform and engage them and to further develop these solutions and plans for a more enlightened Scotland. We are slowly and informally networking and teaming up with others. We are looking for opportunities to present to larger groups and events too. Anyone interested, or with suggestions for Scotland, please contact us (use the Contact us option in the menu above).

I hope to get asked to do more presentations like one recently – a PA workshop as part of a Family Violence conference, a conference that specially featured a more gender inclusive approach to DV than the usual, one that recognises a fuller range of factors involved. My workshop was really just a trailer to get people to read my overview article.  The audience included social workers – an often castigated profession that has a hard job to do in trying circumstances – so I’m learning how best to engage them in spotting PA. I reckon spotting is a realistic aim in 30 minutes. Stopping PA is much harder to know or teach how to do!

I am currently working on the ‘Child Report’ on the Scottish scene, a complement to the overview paper. That integrates a picture of how things are in Scotland, and helps a local process of awareness-raising and option-appraising of how we become far more PA aware in Scotland. So there’s lots to be done. And meanwhile ….

Incompetent assessments in courts

CAFCASS down South also gets criticised. This kind of specialist work ‘in the shadow of the courts’ to assess and support families is, in principle, an essential service. The courts in Scotland don’t have anything like CAFCASS built in. Social workers used to do assessments for family courts, and still do in some areas. Even other professionals that one might expect to see as expert witnesses – psychologists, child psychiatrists – are noticeable by their relative absence at all. Expecting them to also have PA awareness or skills is a further concern.

So, in Scotland, it is mostly lawyers who gather information and often involve themselves in ‘assessment’ that the Sheriffs – it might appear – ‘rubber-stamp’ in courts.  Compare this similar “rubber-stamping” concern in England that was roundly condemned by a senior judge there. We certainly must recognise and support all awareness and good practice in all parts of the legal system. There are lawyers just as concerned to improve things too. But even if the Bar Reporters were PA aware, that would still be incompetent in all kinds of ways. The cost of representation naturally leads to a growing number of litigants-in-person and Families Need Fathers Scotland and others provide what guidance they can. Here’s the FNFS’s Bar Reporter guide for parents – yes, mothers need it too. Quite quickly we have found a broad local and international network of experienced and authoritative people who have already been worried and ready to do something about the quality of child assessment in various kinds of court proceeding including in high conflict separations. We are planning to highlight this big public concern and better inform our fellow Scots. Please watch this space, as they say.

If you’re interested in more detailed insight into what’s going on, have a look at this blog to show the public workings of the government committee set to come up with improvements. Yes, its pretty well lawyers talking about how lawyers keep doing the job with no input from anyone who might know more about children and families and assessing them in difficult circumstances. Here’s a Scottish paper by David La Rooy et al highlighting a related aspect of poor child assessment as victim / witnesses.

In relation to incompetent assessments directly influencing life-long family decisions made in court, read about the injustice experienced by real people – who simply love their children and represent no risk to them whatsoever – when overconfident professionals meddle in disciplines other than their own. The common mistakes humans make when dealing with the unknown, and the devastating impact these errors can have in court ought to have been learned from the Sally Clark case where a mother was blamed for her children’s deaths on the evidence of an expert witness who was assumed to be competent in matters he did not understand. Read about the Orkney case too.  Pamela Roche’s harrowing book Broken Lives Broken Minds tells a transatlantic story of her sons turned against her by their father with obvious major disturbance to the boys. Until way too late, the legal and the other helping professions involved were incompetent in their failure to do the most basic things. They did not ask themselves what had been happening when the boys’ became disturbed, nor did they meet to properly take the other parent’s account, nor did they contact the UK local agencies for their side of the story to check against the father’s unfounded one. Incompetence has terrible consequences.

You can help too

Meanwhile, the one thing we ask anyone and everyone everywhere reading this to do. Please let us know of your interest and potential support for a campaign in Scotland to change this unacceptable low grade assessment of children in family courts. Yes, you can help, even from outside Scotland … we have support from as far away as Australia and NZ.

So, it’s a long road we’re on up here, but the longest journey continues with the next step.

Nick Child, Rtd Child Psychiatrist & Family Therapist, Edinburgh

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About Nick Child

Retired child and family shrink now family therapist living, working and playing in Edinburgh.

One comment

  1. Two further thoughts to add about incompetence:

    First that incompetence has terrible consequences for its victims, the child and family, the clients. But incompetent professionals – the perpetrators of incompetence, you might call them if it wasn’t such a lazy act of omission – the incompetents are likely not to know they’ve been incompetent. They rarely suffer any consequences, let alone terrible ones.

    Secondly, there can be a lack of due process that is even worse than ‘rubber-stamping’. Here is Lord Munby’s judgement at a recent appeal hearing of a public case…. Lord Munby stands out over many years as that astonishing rarity – a forthrightly honest human being despite being in one of the most ivory-towered of ivory-towered professions! There’s full details of the appeal here if you want them.

    But Christopher Booker in the Telegraph summarises it in his equally forthright way:

    After highly critical rulings from the other two judges, Munby weighed in by saying that he wished to emphasise two “important” points. The first was that it is “one of the oldest principles of our law”, going back 400 years, that “no one is to be condemned unheard”. Any “parent faced with the removal of their child must be entitled to make their case to the court”; and if they wish “to give evidence in answer to a local authority’s care application”, they must be permitted to do so. Secondly “there is the right to confront one’s accusers”, and to cross-examine any important witness on whose evidence the local authority is relying. Judge Dodds’s adoption of such a “ruthlessly truncated process” in this case was “fundamentally unprincipled and unfair”.

    Like

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