Over the past four years, Richard Whitecross, a legal researcher at Edinburgh Napier University, has been doing research on how the courts handle child contact cases in which there has been domestic abuse. He has interviewed lawyers, sheriffs and many women with children.
One of the key concerns raised with him by mothers with experience of domestic abuse is about the Child Welfare Report prepared for the court. With support from the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he is beginning a new project to look at Child Welfare Reports and how they report, or not, domestic abuse.
In this blog, he writes about what Child Welfare Reports are, why the matter when it comes to domestic abuse, and how to participate in his project if you have experience with these reports.
When hearing a case, a dispute about child contact, the court wants to understand the issue and may require further information. Under a new scheme introduced in 2015, the sheriff hearing the case may ask for a Child Welfare Report. They may ask that specific issues to be looked into and reported on.
The Child Welfare Report is prepared by a child welfare reporter, who is usually a lawyer and appointed by the court. The reporter is often a practising solicitor. The reporter should be aware of issues that are important when the sheriff is making a decision about contact or residence. For example, addiction to drugs or alcohol, mental health, and domestic abuse.
The reporter will be advised by the court of what information the sheriff is looking for. Typically, the reporter will speak with both parents, possibly with a teacher or GP. The reporters, certified under the Protecting Vulnerable Groups scheme (PVG), may be asked by the sheriff to speak with the child or children to obtain their views.
The reporter carries out the interviews to get the information requested by the sheriff. The report should explain what information they were asked to gather (their remit), a summary of their recommendations. It should then set out the information gathered, including the views of the child if interviewed, plus information of any allegations of abuse.
A copy of the report should be given to the parents’ solicitors three working days before the next court hearing. If there is any disagreement with what is said in the report, then the solicitors can mention this at the court hearing.
From earlier research I conducted for the Scottish Government, we know that the report and the recommendations are important in the decision or order made by the sheriff.
When I interviewed mothers, the majority of them spoke about their experiences of meeting with, and speaking to, reporters. One mother described being devastated by the absence of any mention of domestic abuse in the child welfare report given to her immediately before entering the courtroom. Others said that their own solicitor told them not to raise concerns about the child welfare report. Specifically, mothers were advised not to mention domestic abuse during the court hearing. This was despite talking about it with the reporter.
Under the current Children (Scotland) Act 1995, the sheriff must take into account abuse when making a decision about contact or residence. It is essential that the sheriff is aware of domestic abuse.
To help improve the experiences of women and children, we need to understand how Child Welfare Reports and, more importantly, the reporters present information on domestic abuse. My 2011 research led to reforms of the report system. I hope with the help of organisations and individuals to be able to encourage further changes to ensure that domestic abuse is reported to the sheriffs to help inform their decisions on whether or not to grant child contact or residence.
If you have experience of Child Welfare Reports, including reports that did mention domestic abuse, and you would be willing to take part in a short, confidential, telephone interview, please contact Richard on R.Whitecross@napier.ac.uk.
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