Sarah Parsons talks about the Cafcass Tools Matrix

Estimated reading time: 7 min

If you ask Cafcass how they determine the needs of a case they will refer you to the Tools Matrix published on their website and available to their FCAs.

This is what they say about the tools matrix and the tools available:

The new tools include:

  • a pathway to help structure the analysis of cases featuring domestic abuse to ensure systematic review of risk and a tool to assess coercive control
  • tools to assess levels of risk related to neglect, parents’ capacity to change and risk of re-abuse in public law (care) cases.
    tools for direct work with children with disabilities or additional needs
  • a tool to assess a child’s level of risk of child sexual exploitation.

The review, led by Sarah Parsons, Assistant Director and Cafcass’ Principal Social Worker, drew on the expertise of a group of practice managers, supervisors and practitioners from across Cafcass, and incorporated feedback from teams.

Here’s what WE know about these tools from a response from Cafcass themselves:

Cafcass does not have any tools for use in identifying the needs of a case.

Cafcass does not any specific training or eLearning on identifying the needs of a case.

Cafcass has an eLearning module ’Private Law Assessment Tools’ which broadly outlines how the tools can be used.

The toolkit matrix itself also provides a guide to which tool could be selected in which circumstance and for what purpose, which will be identified by the practitioner when planning a case.

Cafcass say that “A ‘toolkit’ is available on the intranet to support practitioners in their direct work with adults and children; the toolkit matrix provides a guide on how to match the appropriate tool to the identified needs in the case.”

They were asked to provide a copy of this toolkit matrix showing how the appropriate tool is matched to the identified needs.

Cafcass responded to say:

The Operating Framework refers to a ‘toolkits’ of tools and resources available to support practitioners in their direct work with adults and children, these can be found on our website in the toolkit matrix under ‘Tools for evidence Informed Practice’.

Against each tool there is a simple note which indicates, briefly, what the tool could or should be used for.

And Cafcass themselves say:

The toolkit matrix itself provides a guide to which tool could be selected in which circumstance and for what purpose, which will be identified by the practitioner when planning a case.

Assessment of Coercive Control Tool

In order to understand the tools and how they are used it’s useful to pick one and use that as a useful example to walk through the process.

In this case we’ll pick the “Assessment of Coercive Control Tool” primarily because it’s a topical situation right now, secondly because the law is quite specific on what constitutes coercive control and therefore it’s useful to see what Cafcass themselves understand of the law and how best to relate it to an actual case, and again, how this is reflected within their tools.

Cafcass say:

The toolkit matrix itself provides a guide to which tool could be selected in  which circumstance and for what purpose, which will be identified by the  practitioner when planning a case.

For the Assessment of Coercive Control the matrix lists this:

Assessment of Coercive Control Tool
Private Law: This tool should be used where the Safe Lives Dash has identified elements of coercive and/or controlling behaviour to assess this dynamic more fully in the context of the application.

It’s interesting to note that this makes no mention of the law on coercive control and how it applies only in specific situations. Still, it’s a start at least.

It does mention the Safe Lives Dash tool – and here’s what they say about that and when that tool should be used:

Safe Lives Dash Guidance and Tool:
Private Law: Use in interview if domestic abuse is current to establish if a referral to MARAC is required.

The Safe Lives Guidance opens with this statement:

You may be looking at this checklist because you are working in a professional capacity with a victim of domestic abuse. These notes are to help you understand the significance of the questions on the checklist. Domestic abuse can take many forms but it is usually perpetrated by men towards women in an intimate relationship such as boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife.

This checklist can also be used for lesbian, gay, bisexual relationships and for situations of ‘honour’-based violence or family violence. Domestic abuse can include physical, emotional, mental, sexual or financial abuse as well as stalking and harassment. They might be experiencing one or all types of abuse; each situation is unique. It is the combination of behaviours that can be so intimidating. It can occur both during a relationship or after it has ended.

The Safe Lives Tool also includes this intriguing comment:

This form will provide valuable information about the risks that children are living with but it is not a full risk assessment for children. The presence of children increases the wider risks of domestic violence and step children are particularly at risk


Here’s what Sarah Parson, Principle Social Worker and Head of Learning and Development for Cafcass has to say about the tool:

But there’s a problem

The problem with coercive control is that it applies equally to both partners in a relationship or post-relationship. Indeed many parents relate stories of being coercively controlled long after the main relationship has ended and they’re solely in a co-parenting relationship.

Also, the realities of post-separation control suggest that it is the parent who retains residency of the children who is ultimately able to exert the most coercive control over future events. Ask any non-resident parent how it feels in the run up to christmas or the summer holidays to understand how controlled they feel over some pretty basic things.

The tool takes no account of this – indeed it fails to mention it all, and yet the majority of cases that Cafcass are called into to report on are cases post-separation where a non-resident parent is applying to the Courts for contact with their children.

Cafcass say that they record the use of this tool and yet when asked they cannot provide any statistics saying that they only record the use of it within actual case files and not across the organisation as a whole. We find this troubling however it’s not as troubling as the additional research we have done into actual case files.

And here’s a link to what the CPS have to say:

Prosecutors should be aware that there is a significant under-reporting of domestic abuse against male victims. Many victims will be reluctant to report offending in the fear that it may damage their reputation, or pride; others may be hesitant as they fear the consequences that may ensue in relation to their family settings. Prosecutors will need to deal with these issues with great care, to ensure that male victims do not feel undermined, or the credibility of their allegation not believed on the basis of their gender.

Prosecutors should also note that in some cases, female perpetrated abuse against male partners is a sensitive and complex area. Some women may use children within the relationship to manipulate a male victim, by for example threatening to take away contact rights. It is therefore essential that where such instances arise, prosecutors work very closely with the police to investigate and consider the whole picture, before any charging decision is made.

We’re not highlighting the male victim issue for any reason but to provide a contrast against the terminology and language used with the Cafcass tools and training.

Recording the use of a tool within case files

Many of our researchers have obtained their own case files from Cafcass under Subject Access Requests and are thus able to see whether the use of a tool and its findings have been recorded. In many of these cases the Researcher themselves made an allegation to Cafcass about either:

  • domestic abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • coercive control
  • parental alienation or high conflict, hostile parenting

and yet in not one single file obtained from Cafcass have we seen a single reference to the use of any of these tools that should have been used in any cases where a parent makes a statement to Cafcass on one of the items listed above.

Perhaps we’re missing something.

Or perhaps it’s that Cafcass are misleading everyone.

High Conflict Practice Pathway

In 2018 Cafcass plan to launch their “High Conflict Practice Pathway” (aka High Conflict Pathway tool) to address Parental Alienation.

We know from our research into existing tools and training that Cafcass have a different view on what is fit for use to the rest of us. We know that the tools are all developed internally or occasionally selectively copied from outside sources by Cafcass NIS team, and we know that they don’t train anyone on them properly. We also know that they don’t record the use accurately of these tools.

Why on earth would anyone trust them to develop a new pathway when they can’t even get the old ones right?

Who is responsible for this?

The person responsible within Cafcass is Sarah Parsons, Principle Social Worker, Assistant Director, Head of Learning and Development, and go-to person for public speaking enagements on how great Cafcass are and how robust their tools are.

You can read more about Sarah in our spotlight on her here:

but it’s worth noting that not only is Sarah now taking public ownership of the High Conflict Pathway but that she’s also responsible for the Domestic Abuse Pathway, the Tools Matrix, the lack of training, the poor quality of training, and the lack of compliance within Cafcass.

She also has a weird understanding of how the law works and how Cafcass fulfils its responsibilities within the law and especially on decision making on domestic abuse facts within a case. You should read our Spotlight post on her, it’s fascinating.

Sarah Parsons has more to say

If you’ve got this far you should probably take this lot from Sarah with a large pinch of salt too…

What are the tools used for:

Why do we have these tools?

How should they be used?

Our tools and domestic abuse

Our tools and understanding the needs of a child

The organisations we work with

Things to think about

Should Sarah Parsons remain in her post? we don’t think so.

The Cafcass senior management and leadership teams should take a good hard look at Sarah Parsons and her ability to perform her role effectively. As for the latest “tool” she’s pushing out so quickly and without any oversight? well that needs to be halted right now and experts brought in by Cafcass to help them deploy something, at long last, that could actually be fit for purpose.

Thanks Sarah, but no thanks.  If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and it walks like a duck then Sarah, it’s a duck.

Please Quack off somewhere else.

Further Reading and Additional Resources


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