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The resolutions approach: misunderstood and under-used

Assessing risk and parenting ability is a fundamental cornerstone of the family justice system. However, the way that families have been assessed has not drastically altered since the inception of the Children Act 1989. Over time the names of the assessments may evolve from a social work assessment to a core assessment and now a child and family assessment, but the basics remain the same. Local authorities still rely on a parent showing insight and accepting the alleged risks.

But the question that has always caused me concern is how do you approach a case when a parent denies the harm caused?

The prime example is a parent who has been involved in previous proceedings where a child has been injured. They may face a finding that they caused the injury. Alternatively, they may remain in the pool as an uncertain perpetrator. That parent then finds themselves in the position of wishing to care for their new born child but being told they remain a risk primarily because of previous findings which they continue to deny. The reality is, the standard method of social work assessment at this stage is reliant on a parent accepting the harm caused, in essence requiring them to accept guilt. Absent such an admission or insight (or an alternative form of placement such as residential or family placement), the standard assessment model is likely to conclude that separation is necessary due to the parents continued denial and the risk of future harm.

Is that the end of the road? The answer is no. It is at that point that consideration should be given to alternative forms of parenting assessment and here that the resolutions approach can assist the court.

It would be impossible to do justice to the resolutions approach within one article. The approach has already been the subject of multiple articles, books and lectures, but a trawl through the case law will find limited reference to it. Even less so when it comes to its application and the support services that are required to make it work and keep families together.

J (A Child) (Resolutions Model) [2021] EWFC 58

Recently in Re J, His Honour Judge Baker was invited to give a public judgment to demonstrate how the cumulation of circumstances within that case warranted the use of the resolutions approach.

HHJ Baker had presided over previous proceedings relating to the mother's younger child who had sustained inflicted injuries. The judge had made findings but couldn't conclude who caused the injuries and it remained a case of uncertain perpetrator. Mother went on to have another child and sought a resolutions assessment. The professionals in the case had their initial reservations about that assessment, albeit it was a relatively unknown assessment model to them. HHJ Baker authorised the assessment which ultimately led to the child returning home under a care order to the care of the mother under a strict safety plan.

It was argued there was a public interest to the judgment being published so that those working within the child protection system might see the positive role the resolutions approach played within this case. Whilst representing the mother I argued:

i. "Even though the resolutions approach has now been in place for a considerable number of years it is still not widely known. Indeed, even in this locality such an assessment is rare and perhaps it could be said under used. The number of reported cases utilising that assessment model with the UK are limited and it is therefore in the public interests for others to see that with commitment, engagement, and the multi-disciplinary support as provided in this case, the resolutions approach can be a successful form of parenting assessment.

ii. This case also provides an efficient model for such assessments. The interplay between the resolution's assessor, the social worker, the guardian, and the psychologist all led to a successful assessment and a detailed safety plan. It is again in the public interest to provide a clear example of how that assessment process can proceed within public law proceedings. In the hope that this will encourage the use of more creative models of working with parents and to match those assessments to the particular needs of that case."

For those who are unfamiliar with the resolutions approach, that is not unusual, and it was an obscure model of assessment even to the professionals within this case. HHJ Baker noted:

'36. The Resolutions Model challenges some aspects of social work practice in some cases. It is an unknown approach to many social workers. Ms Carboni says this in her final report:

"… Credit has to be given to the social worker, Ms Heatherington, who has worked well with me and been very committed to the work. By her own admission this has been a professional journey for her, but she is a reflective practitioner who has sought to understand the model in its complexity and the different way it seeks to develop future safety. Key to this is an open relationship where challenge and reflection takes place within a relationship of mutual honesty and respect. I have noticed Ms Heatherington's approach to conversation with the family being more relaxed whilst maintaining her authority and I have very much appreciated her input during the work and her honesty with myself and the family that she was learning as they were. Out of this has emerged a new relationship in which the family have come to appreciate her involvement, and all far are less guarded with the Local Authority.

I understand that this has been an unusual journey for the other professionals at times, and that in this case my initial hypothesis has been tested out by other assessments undertaken during this process by other professionals. Whilst this is unusual during the work, it was nonetheless reassuring that my original risk assessment stood the test of time, and the work has now been completed successfully. I do want to reassure the court that have always been mindful that what happened to Amber was profoundly serious throughout my work, and I have never sought to downplay or marginalise the past whatsoever. However my analysis is that there is safety in place now for Jane going forwards…

37. I am very pleased that the local authority and the Children's Guardian have been both flexible and challenging. I think that has led to a very thorough and strong care plan for Jane.'

The starting point

The resolutions approach requires professionals to work from a starting point that the parent, or parents, deny causing the alleged harm, but to then consider what steps can be taken to safeguard the child despite that denial. As HHJ Baker summarised:

'17. My understanding of the model was that, in the right set of circumstances, the fact that a parent denies causing an injury need not rule out the possibility of that parent resuming care of or involvement in the care of that child. It may be possible to use the entire family and support network to build a protective regime around the child to ensure the child's future safety.'

In the example given above, of an uncertain perpetrator or where a positive finding had been made, the starting point following the birth of a new child would be that the parents remain a risk. Their denial would under many forms of assessment exclude them from caring because they have not accepted their role in that harm. That is in essence a circular argument because whilst they continue their denial, the conclusion of that assessment is not going to change, either at the beginning or the end of proceedings. HHJ Baker noted:

'18 ……. it was highly likely that the outcome of the case was inevitable as any assessment that followed the 'standard' (and often wholly appropriate) risk assessment approach would reach exactly the same conclusion as Ms Poole.' (Miss Poole being the ISW who had reported in the case)

Often in cases such as those detailed above the court is faced with an inevitable assessment: one which could be written at the beginning of the proceedings. That is not to be critical of social workers, but if a parenting assessment or risk assessment starts from the perspective that the parents need to plead their guilt before one can work with them, how is it possible to pass that hurdle if the parents continue to plead their innocence, or if they believe they have changed despite those findings. The unfortunate answer in the standard assessment model is that it isn't. It is therefore necessary to think outside of the box and consider alternative ways to assess those parents and put in place other safeguards to reduce or remove the risk.

Under the resolutions approach pressure is not applied to gain an admission from the parent. The assessor works to identify and create a safety/support network (a collective of friends or family) who can supervise the parent(s) with the children and therefore minimise or ameliorate the risk(s) with the formation of a safety plan. The safety plan and the safety/support network are the foundations of the resolution approach and essential in order for it to move forward.

That plan will involve the friends or family agreeing to supervise the parent with the child. That may be 24 hours a day and may last for an extended period of time until it can be gradually reduced. HHJ Baker summarised the nature of that plan used in Re J:

'29. The plan involves a long period when Jane and Beverley are supervised when together. 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. There are five family members and a close family friend involved in that supervision. It operates on a shift pattern in blocks of time. Gradually, very short periods of unsupervised time (starting with 5 minutes) are allowed by the supervisors. The family are given very clear guidance about detecting any difficulties with Jane's health and presentation. They are given clear rules about what is and is not acceptable. They have been helped to understand what to look out for to ensure Jane remains safe and healthy.

30. Beverley's care of Jane will gradually become less supervised. As that happens the family members' roles change to one of looking after Jane's health and safety through planned and unplanned observations and very regular family meetings, all in cooperation with local authority staff.'

Those seeking to utilise the resolutions approach must be forthright and open with the parents' family and friends. This is an intrusive process which requires the commitment and devotion of those who sign up to the safety plan. They must be aware of the risks suggested by the local authority in order that they can protect the child from those risks, but they must also be willing to devote a great deal of time to supervising the parent and child. From my perspective when considering if the resolutions approach will be applicable to a case, I first consider if there are sufficient family and friends to form that network. It is not always possible to create such an all-encompassing network and it is often at this stage the resolution approach falls down.

It is important to note that the resolutions approach is not applicable to every case. As HHJ Baker identified, it was the specific circumstances of this case which meant that the resolutions model 'may be appropriate' and those circumstances included:

• The parents had separated
• There had been some movement on the mother's part; she had come to accept that the injuries were inflicted, whereas she had previously stated they were due to accidents or infection
• Mother had a relatively large and supportive family
• Although the ISW's assessment of the mother had been negative, it did highlight a number of positives.

HHJ Baker granted the resolutions assessment, which was carried out by an expert, Miss Carboni, who had extensive experience of carrying out such assessments.

The success of the resolutions assessment cannot be attributed to one person alone. Although credit was given to the mother who made such progress, a plan cannot work without a multi-agency approach and in this case that included:

• The local authority who, following some initial reservations, fully committed to the assessment and the safety plan. HHJ Baker noting that:

'34. This case could not have progressed as it has without the cooperation and support of the local authority and in particular the social worker, Ms Hetherington.

35. It must always be remembered that bringing in an expert such as Ms Carboni, may be appropriate, but such experts leave the case. It is then the local authority that must remain involved and put the plan into action. If the local authority does not support the plan, it will not work.'

• The guardian

• The court directing a psychological assessment

• Drug testing of the mother

• The resolutions assessment by Miss Carboni

• The family and friends who formed the safety network and will continue as part of the safety plan.

Conclusion

The resolutions approach is a different way of thinking. Not a new way of thinking and not a new form assessment – indeed, it is used widely across the world, including in Australia and USA. It is unfortunately under-used in this jurisdiction, perhaps because of the cost (approx. £4,000 in this case), which ultimately falls upon the local authority, or perhaps because professionals are unaware of its existence and what it can add to the case.

The keen reader of Re J will note that it is not a quick process and not one which could easily complete within the statutory 26-week timescale. The resolutions approach requires a vigorous assessment and direct work. As in Re J, it can require the involvement of multiple professionals and experts. It is therefore essential that the resolutions assessment is identified at the earliest possibility, ideally at the first hearing. The child within Re J was born in May 2020 and the proceedings did not conclude until the 25th June 2021 – well outside of the 26-week timescale. Despite those extensions, that assessment enabled the court and the professionals to achieve one of the primary hopes for all child protection proceedings, to keep families together. HHJ Baker addresses the timetable and the delay that such an assessment caused:

'43 b. This case has taken a long time. Some months delay were added by the Covid 19 pandemic. Face to face contact between Jane and her parents was suspended for many weeks and professionals were restricted in their ability to meet family members in person. However, even without the pandemic, it is difficult to imagine a case involving a Resolutions approach being completed within 26 weeks. I note Recommendation 31 from the Public Law Working Group Final Report (March 2021):

"Recommendation 31: Case management of cases in relation to new-born babies and infants. Applications in respect of new-born babies and infants should be the subject of strict case management directions and time limits. It is especially important that proceedings in respect of these children are concluded, whenever possible, within the 26-week limit. There will however be some cases, particularly relating to first-time parents, where parents are demonstrating their ability to respond in a sustainable manner to the advice and treatment provided to address concerns about their parenting, and where therefore proceedings may need to be extended."

In this case it was of course a balance between delay and the likelihood of success. I did not think it would take quite so long when I permitted the assessment. In this case, the outcome has been positive for Jane. It may not have been. That, of course, is the burden and cost judicial discretion.'

Re J is a prime example of the resolutions approach. It shows that with the correct support, and the correct set of circumstances, including a supportive family, the professionals can come together to agree a safety plan that can enable rehabilitation of a child to their parent despite their continued denial.

If those reading this article take away only one idea or concept I would hope that it is this: open your mind to alternative forms of parenting assessment and match the type of assessment to the individual needs of the family.

10/08/2021

Family Law Week: The resolutions approach: misunderstood and under-used

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