Divorce introduces massive change into the life of a child, no matter what age. Adjusting to going back and forth between two different households, the daily absence of one parent while living with the other, creates a challenging new family circumstance.

In this article, we look at what to do if divorced parents suspect their child has suffered physical harm and what role CAFCASS and the Family Court plays.

The psychological impact of divorce

Countless scientific studies have highlighted the long-lasting psychological impact divorce can have on a child, generally intensifying a young child's dependence and accelerating an adolescent's aggressive independence. Any such psychological or emotional impact can at least be minimised by heeding sound advice never to use children as pawns in any dispute. Even though the relationship may be ending, the respective partners’ role as parents is ongoing.

What if you suspect physical harm?

However, what happens where parents have separated, and one parent believes a physical injury suffered by a child while in the other parent’s care might not, in fact, be accidental? This question is particularly pertinent this week, which marks Child Safety Week, a campaign that aims to reduce the number of children and young people killed, disabled or seriously injured in preventable accidents.

The role of CAFCASS and the Family Court

CAFCASS (the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service) will undertake safeguarding checks at the outset including whether an individual is already known to CAFCASS, the police or local authority. Their role is to make recommendations to the Family Court and highlight any risks of harm identified.

The Family Court can be invited to make findings having heard all the relevant evidence and make a decision accordingly as to the living arrangements for the child - who they should spend time with and whether this should be direct, indirect or supervised contact.

While there is a presumption that contact between the child and both separated parents will be beneficial, the Family Court’s paramount consideration is the welfare of the child and its decision will be based on balancing the merits of contact against any potential risk of harm.

The importance of acting immediately

Returning a child to a parent suspected of injuring them (for example at the start or end of an agreed or even court-mandated contact session) could make legitimate concerns expressed only later in the day look like baseless allegations. If there was such an immediate alleged risk the authorities and professionals may ask why the concerned parent did nothing about it at the time and allowed the child to return to the other parent’s care?

There is even a risk that a parent who does nothing might later be seen as unable to safeguard the child themselves or unable to meet their long term emotional needs because they continued to knowingly expose them to a risk of harm.

The right approach to reporting any incidents

Reports should be made as appropriate to the relevant authorities, police and social services. Any injuries should be documented. Care should, however, be taken in how any incidents are discussed with the child. Approaching this in the wrong way could result in further emotional harm being caused or a child inadvertently being encouraged to report a particular version of events or use particular language. Even if that version of events is true, there is a risk that the report might not be taken seriously if the story seems ‘rehearsed’.

Early legal advice should be taken as to what options might be available to safeguard the child. This might involve an application to the Family Court for an interim order that contact with the parent be supervised or suspended or seek a variation of that order where there is already one in place directing what the arrangements for child contact are.

The importance of getting early legal advice

In those cases where a parent has been wrongly accused of injuring a child as an excuse to prevent contact, early legal advice can help avoid a damaging situation where contact stops entirely. The longer such a situation continues, the greater the risk that the relationship between the child and that parent will deteriorate, potentially causing the youngster even more unnecessary emotional harm and reducing the chances of that parent being able to increase the amount of time they are able to spend with their child.

Should any divorced parent find themselves in this situation, taking early legal advice will assist in ensuring the appropriate action is taken, that a case is presented to best effect and that, where appropriate, the issues are drawn to the Family Court’s attention in a timely manner to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their children.