Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK

- promoting responsible shared parenting after separation and divorce -

Family Assistance Orders - a better way of ensuring contact ?

Prior to the Children Act 1989, few courts appeared to attach enough importance to children staying in contact with the parent who was forced to leave home, and they were reluctant to enforce access orders. Some parents went to prison for obstructing contact, but there were grave misgivings about the effect of this on the children and their relationship with the other parent.

New powers

The Children Act gives the court new powers to help families in distress; namely Family Assistance Orders (FAOs). These orders apply to any family proceedings where section 8 orders are being considered (residence, contact, specific issue, prohibited steps). The court may make an FAO whether or not it makes a section 8 order, and it will require:
 " a) a probation officer to be made available; or
   b) a local authority to make an officer of the authority available, 
      to advise, assist and (where appropriate) befriend any person named in the order."      
                    [Children Act 1989, section 16(1)]
The people who may be named in the order are parents, guardians, people with contact orders or those with whom the child lives, and the child himself. Thus a welfare officer could befriend a child in order to help him regain a healthy interest in a parent or other relative. Such an order may be made for a period of up to six months but only if the court is satisfied that the circumstances of the case are exceptional. Unfortunately the Act does not define these circumstances, so we must look elsewhere for guidance.

The intention

The Law Commission report 172 on which the Children Act is based, describes in section 5.12 the intention behind FAOs as:
"... aimed at giving essentially short-term help to parents or spouses to cope with the immediate problems arising from their separation or divorce, to smooth the transition for them and their children, to promote arrangements for access where these are in dispute, and generally to facilitate co-operation between them in the future."

The circumstances

A recent book by a barrister in the Lord Chancellor's Department, and endorsed by the Lord Chancellor himself, perceptively describes the circumstances which call for an FAO:
" It may be made when the child, and his family, require expert help to deal with problems arising out of the family situation, for example a traumatic separation or divorce in which the child, or his parents, are having difficulty in coming to terms with the breakdown in relationships. The assistance given would be aimed at preserving or promoting the child's relationship with his parents, or other members of the family from whom he might otherwise become alienated..."

[extract from section 3.25 of "The Children Act 1989 - a procedural handbook" by P M Harris and D E Scanlan, published by Butterworths]

How to apply ?

Regrettably, FAOs can only be instigated by the court, but that should not inhibit people from asking for them. A starting point might be to remind the court of the fact that prior to this provision being available, 50% of children lost touch with the 'absent' parent. The damage to children when contact is broken should also be stressed, and as Harris notes there is a risk that they might become alienated - with all the harm that entails.

But no progress can be made without the agreement of the welfare officer or social worker involved; and that may be difficult if there is inadequate funding or training for this sort of work. It is always worth swallowing some pride if you can show that you are someone worth helping - these officers are after all the eyes and ears of the court and frequently what they say goes.

In extreme cases a Supervision Order (s 31) may be more appropriate, but that is the subject of a separate article.

David Cannon
Originally published - May 1992

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