Interview with Elaine Mitchell

Welcome Elaine, thanks for agreeing to discuss the impact of the Pandemic with me! As  a highly experienced Cafcass Officer and Guardian I thought you would be in a great position to help us understand the changes Covid has wrought on your work and from your perspective on the family courts.  

Thanks Mel, I’m happy to chat, I would like to point out straight away though that these are my personal views of the pandemic and they do not reflect the view of Cafcass.

Got It, so to the first question! My practice has changed in all sorts of ways during the pandemic,

how do you think the pandemic has affected your ability to do your job as a Guardian, both with the families and in court?

Initially during the pandemic, it was very hard to adjust with work, not physically seeing families who are vulnerable, yet frontline Social Worker’s were still going out carrying out safeguarding checks. I missed seeing the families I work with, as I prefer to see people face to face. There was a presumption that young people prefer video calling, but actually they don’t. Many would say they do not like being on screen and asked if they could text/message me. I had to explain that I needed to see them, and advised they looked away from the screen if this was more comfortable for them. This worked well for one Young Person in particular due to them being on the autistic spectrum.

That’s really interesting. So what has been the most significant change for you since Covid struck?

The impact on not visiting a child where a care plan is separation was very hard, as you had to rely upon the parent having the means (eg no computer/laptop/iphone etc) for me to speak with the child/Young person and to ensure they were not present whilst I was doing so to gain their wishes and feelings. I was also not able to assess the relationships within the family home, as I only saw a snapshot, a specific time, pre-arranged and restricted to a screen, you cannot pick up on non-verbal language, nuances that you note when in an actual visit. Not all parents or children were able to download Skype/Teams to enable video calls of them, there was also the issue of internet as everyone was online, the screen would freeze or the signal was too weak.

I think the lack of technology/access to reliable technology or resources has really affected all aspects of public law family work. What other consequences did you find occurred when having to use indirect methods cause?

Families often said that they felt it was not real. Also those working you could hear them at their place of work and other’s around them. I had to remind parents when initially meeting with them either by phone or on screen of the seriousness of the matter before the court and that they should make sure, where possible, they were alone and definitely not with the child. Given the lockdown some families did not have the bubbles for child care and this affected some hearings as the parent could not attend, or had to do their best whilst caring for their child/ren.

The positive to this was that you actually got to see the young person, if the parent had WhatsApp, as you knew the parent and young person was going to be at home, as no one was going out except for shopping, daily walks or medical care.

Yes at least they couldn’t avoid you or  pretend to be out! I found the pandemic really changed how I had to do my job. What have been the biggest obstacles for you as a Guardian and how have you had to adapt your practices to overcome them?

During the pandemic the workload changed due to being at home, being stuck in front of a screen, not moving about, not travelling so not getting breaks etc.  More was expected of us as workers not limited to the company but other agencies expected us to attend meetings, be present, be available by telephone when they wanted to speak. Also it was trickier to make sure we had the equipment to enable us to do the job effectively. Cafcass was very good at making sure we could do this by providing funding to make our homes more work accessible enabling us to order the equipment we required.

Being a Guardian is an isolating role, prior to the pandemic we did not met in the office very often, our meeting place was the waiting area at court, this went as did attending team meetings. We acknowledged the is and had weekly coffee catch ups, the purpose of which was not to necessarily talk about work but to discuss other things, making it less formal. Sadly it was always the same people in the team that made use of this, for me it was good to talk about what was on TV, what books we were currently reading and yes the pandemic, checking in on one another was good.

I now appreciate attending team meetings, which are returning to be in-person meetings as I recognised how I felt at times not seeing people and the impact upon others in the team. Some of us would catch up by telephone at other times too, the supporting one another was good and has continued.

It’s definitely true that we’re all appreciating the little connections we previously took for granted and finding ways to keep them going even when we’re not physically at work. Chambers started lots of WhatsApp groups that definitely didn’t exist before the pandemic! They all helped us keep sane.

Workwise though I think that lack of connection with the client was a real negative for me of the pandemic. I wonder what, for you, have been the most obvious negatives of the ‘new way’ things are being done?

After an initial period I adapted to not attending court hearings, but it felt uncomfortable when separation was being requested and for final hearings so for example when the care plan was not to reunite a child/Young Person with their family. Also for some families where English is not their first language, it was a struggle for them to understand who is who and what the process is which made it difficult on a couple of cases too. Then there was the pressure to get as many hearings in a day as possible, whilst not having to physically travel to a court (the move from hearing to another was often a matter of minutes) that was exhausting and a source of stress. Further I found that the connection issues ( not being able to join/dropping out/ not being able to hear or be heard etc) continued to be an issue with some CVP hearings. That caused( and continues ) to cause some frustration too.

I definitely echo all of those! Are there any changes in the system that you think should continue?

Now we return to some normality, getting out to visit families and YP is enjoyable but having to adjust to the time it takes to travel to and from a visit, takes a chunk out of the day, planning is once again essential and to try and make use of the time by seeing if another family are in the same area/way home so that time is spent well and not doing a repeat journey later in the week. Also now due to visiting more and Courts returning to ‘in-person’ attendance at Hearings is not going to be easy as we cannot do one after another as we had adjusted to doing on screen as the courts are so spread out in Kent, it is not possible to be in two places at once.

I do feel that some of the Hearings should and can remain remote. For example agreed Directions and Case Management Hearings. It is frustrating traveling for an hour to a hearing for it to last 20 minutes and then to have to travel home. Contested separation hearings and final Hearings though must be in-person to do them full justice and for the families and YP to feel they have had their cases heard.

I remain of a view that it is best to visit a child/Young Person and families in-person, as mentioned above, you pick up so much more during those visits and the family get to know you better. We are once again adjusting as we return to some sort of normality. Young people open up more once they have met you and fully understand our role.

I totally agree that it’s crucial that final hearings, where there are issues of separation, must be done in person and I hope that now we are starting to get back to normality that will be possible for all again. I also think that your observation that young people often have to meet you face to face to start to open up and trust you is fascinating, particularly when the view commonly put forward by the media is that young would all rather just interact with people on screen and have lost the art of face to face engagement. That will definitely inform my practice moving forward.

Thank you Elaine for taking the time to give us such an interesting insight into the world of Guardians. It has been such a pleasure hearing from you and I hope to see you in court in person very soon.