Spotlight on Sarah Parsons from Cafcass

Estimated reading time: 11 min


You may have read our recent piece on Anthony Douglas, his approach to the training of his Cafcass Family Court Advisors (“FCAs”), and the proposed “launch” of the new Cafcass “High Conflict Pathway” tool and process. If you haven’t read it then you should as it shows some of the background to the question of Parental Alienation in the UK and the ability for Cafcass to meet this challenge for the generations of children ahead.

It also raised important questions around the training of Cafcass FCAs based on solid research of Cafcass own data on training completion rates and their ability to train themselves.

It is incumbent on Anthony Douglas as the CEO of Cafcass to ensure his teams are trained, have access to the best tools, and do their jobs properly. Representing and reporting on the interests of children within the family courts is a serious undertaken and should not be taken lightly, least of all by the CEO.

So we were interested to see Mr Douglas take a back seat at the next set of debates and press releases around the new High Conflict Tool following our very public stance, a stance that’s been shared widely, that he has questions to answer, not least of all about his proposed solution to Parental Alienation, and that Sarah Parsons has stepped into the gap.

Who is Sarah Parsons?

Cafcass say that Sarah Parsons is the “Cafcass Principal Social Worker and Assistant Director.”

That sounds a rather important title or set of titles. “Principal Social Worker” implies that of all 1,400 FCAs, it’s Sarah who is the one at the top; the principal social worker.

“Assistant Director” conveys the impression that Sarah is but one small step away from “Director”, which is often the most senior role below that of the CEO or Managing Director. But titles can always be misleading.

So we grabbed the organisation chart from Cafcass themselves:

According to this Sarah Parsons fits into the box entitled “Assistant Directors – Operations” and reports to Christine Banim who is listed as the National Services Director, reporting in turn to Anthony Douglas himself.

(Those eager followers of our research may notice that the National Improvement Services (“NIS”) team also ultimately reports into Christine Banim too)

Reporting to Sarah Parsons and her fellow Assistant Directors are all the Heads of Practice, the entire Service management team including all FCAs, and the support and commissioning teams.

Sarah is described on the Westminster Dialogues site as:

“Sarah Parsons worked as a Family Court Welfare Officer before joining Cafcass in 2001. She has been Assistant Director since 2013. She is the Principal Social Worker for Cafcass and leads on Learning and Development nationally. She has operational responsibility in East Anglia and for the London Private Law service.”

We assume either Sarah herself or someone from Cafcass supplied or approved that bio of Sarah for publication as this is normal practice for speakers at events.


What areas does Sarah Parsons cover?

Apologies if you’re viewing that image on mobile. If you squint you may be able to make out the following text under Service Area A14:

“A14: Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Hertfordshire, and Bedfordshire
Sarah Parsons, Assistant Director and Head of L&D

A14 is a huge area. It handles around 4,000 private and public law cases a year (you can view the actual stats here) spread between some 117 FCAs, and as you can see, geographically it is a monster: the whole of East Anglia, Hertfordshire AND Bedfordshire.

4,000 cases split between 117 FCAs means each FCA is working, roughly, on 34 cases a year. That seems a large amount and we would make the argument that if this area looks understaffed to our untrained eyes then it almost certainly would look understaffed to any expert in determining the numbers of cases a single FCA should and could be handling professionally at any time.

If you squint further and you notice area A15b you’ll also see this:

“A15b: Greater London Private Law
Sarah Parsons, Assistant Director and Head of L&D

Which covers another 4,000 cases per year and some 85 FCAs.

Sarah Parsons is responsible for at least 20% of all cases that go through Cafcass every year, if not more, along with direct responsibility for some 200 FCAs. And that’s without her responsibilities as Head of L&D where one could reasonably assume she’s responsible for every case and every employee from a training persepctive.

Sarah Parsons in the Press

Sarah Parsons, the assistant director of Cafcass, said: “We are increasingly recognising that parental alienation is a feature in many of our cases and have realised that it’s absolutely vital that we take the initiative. Our new approach is groundbreaking.”

[Sarah] Parsons said: “We have reached a much clearer position on parental alienation recently, which we want to send a very clear, strong message about. The current, popular view of parental alienation is highly polarised and doesn’t recognise this spectrum. We want to reclaim the centre ground and develop a more nuanced, sophisticated understanding of what’s going on.”

“By assessing the impact of our work on a child’s outcomes, our managers are able to uncover important learning points and identify strengths, which can be used to enhance individual professional development. This also feeds into wider learning across the organisation.” – Sarah Parsons on Cafcass QA Tool and Framework 2016

“The Cafcass assessment tools have been selected following a review of tools used by local authorities, the voluntary sector, CAFCASS Cymru and internationally. They have been selected on the basis of their usefulness in the Cafcass context. Some of the tools, for example the Safe Contact Indicator [1] and the Impact of Parental Conflict Indicator, have been created within Cafcass and as such are not formally validated. Others, such as the tool for assessing drug abuse [2] are validated social work assessment tools

A training programme has been designed and delivered and is supplemented by an e-learning programme to reinforce and refresh this.” – Sarah Parsons on Evidence Based Practice and Cafcass Tools Matrix 2014

There are many many more quotes from Sarah Parsons in the Press going back the last few years and all relating to her work as the Principal Social Worker for Cafcass with added responsibility for the development of tools and assessments, training, and compliance.

We’ve started unpicking some of the tools already and there are many more posts to come on the entire Tools Matrix that Cafcass used. You should take the time to read our research into 2 of the tools here as they often feature in Cafcass responses to questions around their ability to understand cases especially those involving domestic abuse, safe contact, and parental alienation:

Westminster Dialogues 2017

There is much more we can say about Sarah’s input into the development of tools and reports but we’ll save those for specific research posts in the future but by now you should have a firm idea of Sarah’s responsibilities and areas of input within Cafcass.

In late 2017 Sarah attended and spoke about the High Conflict Pathway and the impact on children and parents exposed to Parental Alienation, at the Westminster Dialogues an event run by OnlyMums and OnlyDads (an amazing organisation who make a real difference to parents and kids).

The summary posted on the Westminster Dialogues site reads:

“It’s vital we move away from the highly polarised debate that has predominated to date and achieve a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of each child’s experience.

As with domestic abuse, parental alienation should be seen as being on a continuum or a spectrum. It can be mild, moderate, or severe.

The impact on the child is the key issue and this will vary according to the resilience and vulnerability of each child.

Pure cases where the child’s rejection of the absent parent is caused solely by the behaviour of the favoured parent are relatively rare, although they do exist. It’s more common for the causal factors to be mixed or ‘hybrid’. This means the behaviour of both parents may be contributing to the dynamic to a greater or lesser degree.

Children themselves can be naturally aligned or have greater affinity for one parent.

We must be extremely careful not to categorise a situation as parental alienation when domestic abuse is the cause of justified rejection.

Coercively controlling parents can frighten children into rejecting the other parent.

Alienating behaviours can be perpetrated by men and women.

Cafcass is developing a High Conflict Practice Pathway to aid assessment in all high conflict cases, which may or may not include alienation. Feedback is being sought from interested parties over the next three months.

Cafcass is also piloting a structured intervention suitable for certain cases where parents are stuck in conflict.

-Sarah Parsons, Principal Social Worker, Cafcass

We disagree with a number of points that Sarah made in her speech, as do many others. There are some glimmers of change but these are almost immediately counterbalanced by a return to Cafcass’ traditional approach. It’s like listening to two people argue from within one body with one mouth – somewhat schizophrenic in approach.

High Conflict Pathway

Cafcass themselves have this to say on their own website:

How, where and when is the High Conflict Practice Pathway being implemented, and who will be involved?

The HCPP was developed by an advisory group from Cafcass England, comprised of approximately 40 of our practitioners from across the country and led by Sarah Parsons, Assistant Director and Principal Social Worker for Cafcass.

From 1st November 2017, practitioners from the advisory group have been using the pathway for any cases which they assess to be suitable. This early use will not only assist assessment of the impact of parental conflict in these cases but will also help identify any improvements that can be made to the pathway. This initial review stage will last for three months before further developments are incorporated and the national launch in Spring 2018.

Why is this worrying?

Apart from the fact that they’re already testing this blindly with live cases and without external input or consultation?

Let’s go back and summarise what we know:

  • Sarah Parsons is Head of Learning & Development for Cafcass and yet their training is appalling; developed internally, not fit for use, hugely gender-biased, and years behind the times
  • Sarah Parsons is Head of L&D for Cafcass and yet, by their own admission, they can’t get FCAs to do their own training “because they’re too busy” – [EDITOR’S NOTE: except when it comes to doing their expenses training…]
  • Sarah Parsons is directly responsible for around 200 FCAs in A14 and A15b Service Areas of which only 6 turned up for Anthony’s Parental Alienation Training, and 5 for his Emotional Abuse Training.
  • Sarah Parsons, as the Principal Social Worker for Cafcass, is responsible for 1,400 FCAs of which most don’t and haven’t done their training
  • Sarah Parsons, as the Principal Social Worker for Cafcass, is responsible for 1,400 FCAs of which only 32 turned up for Anthony’s Parental Alienation Training
  • Sarah Parsons is responsible for the Tools Matrix developed in 2014 which is not fit for use.
  • Sarah Parsons is responsible for the Domestic Abuse Pathway, again not fit for use
  • Sarah Parsons is responsible for the Safe Contact Indicator Tool, again not fit for use

We could be here all day…

RegionService AreaNumber of FCAs January 2017FCAs who attended Anthony Douglas Parental Alienation WebinarFCAs who attended Anthony Douglas Emotional Harm Webinar
Tyneside and Northumbria A15420
Durham, Teesside, North Yorkshire, York, Cumbria and LancashireA210932
Greater Manchester A37910
South Yorkshire and Humberside A46521
West Yorkshire A56703
Hampshire, The Isle of Wight and Dorset A65102
Avon, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Thames ValleyA78622
Cornwall, Devon and SomersetA86812
Cheshire and Merseyside A910030
Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire A105110
Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire A116730
Birmingham, the Black Country, Shropshire and Worcestershire A129731
National Business Centre, Coventry, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire A136620
Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire A1411712
Greater London (Public Law) A15A1465 in total for A15a and A15b3 in total for A15a and A15b
Greater London (Private Law) A15B85see row abovesee row above
Surrey and Sussex A165723
Kent A174011
N/A (Self Employed Contractors)SEC200

There’s more…

There is a major issue with the proposed High Conflict Practice Pathway which we have been covering in other posts and that is the belief within Cafcass that it is down to a Cafcass FCA to determine the facts in the case. It is something of grave concern to us, and to others, and it has been a problem for some time.

It also explains why, when Cafcass position themselves like this, that the Judiciary end up relying on them and the contents of their reports so much. Cafcass have in effect put themselves up as the experts in a case when the reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.

We’re not the first to have noticed this or to have challenged them on this either:

Sarah Parsons spoke at the What About Henry debates in November 2016, a year ago, another great event organised by OnlyMums and OnlyDads, this time focusing on domestic abuse.

The Transparency Project record what was said along with their thoughts:

The second major point (from our perspective) that arose in the course of this event, was around the role of CAFCASS officers in cases involving domestic abuse. There was some discussion about the pressures on family courts and the reluctance in some cases to hold fact finding hearings, which were costly and caused delay. In that context, Sarah Parsons, Principal Social Worker for CAFCASS said this (taken from our contemporaneous note which we have compared with one other attendees for accuracy, not verbatim – we’ve used brackets to show where we’ve added in words from memory) :

if [there is going to be] no fact finding hearing it is up to the social worker [cafcass] to almost conduct a mini fact finding enquiry through interview, trying to establish the facts…what’s in best interests…ask questions. We also use tools such as Barnardo’s DV risk indicator matrix, safe contact indicator. These are externally validated.

Subsequently she volunteered some clarification those remarks, saying that CAFCASS use “evidence informed practice”, and that she had been referring to the practice of producing a report on an “either / or” basis (this is the practice of making recommendations on alternate hypothetical scenarios that disputed facts are proved or not). She went on to say that reporting in DV cases involves nuance, and is a subtle sophisticated task that is required to avoid drift and to enable contact if that is appropriate. She then observed that some women feel unable to go through a trial.

It gets worse though:

When challenged about whether it is appropriate for Cafcass officers to undertake what is ostensibly the court’s job of investigating the truth of matters alleged, Sarah Parsons said emphatically :

“That IS our role, it is absolutely what our safeguarding role is. Cafcass’ remit is to safeguard children and to explore the issues relevant to the child.”

We are really worried about this. It may be that Sarah Parsons has not explained herself clearly, but the words used clearly suggest that a CAFCASS officer will, and ought to, assess the veracity of a parent’s allegations through their responses in interview, and should form recommendations based upon that assessment. If this is the message or instruction that is being given to CAFCASS officers they will be led astray – it is wrong in law.

Where there is a dispute about it, the person who decides WHAT HAS HAPPENED IN THE PAST (the “arbiter of fact”) is the judge. And only the judge. The role of CAFCASS is to advise the court on welfare issues, not to “assist” the court by prejudging the matter on their behalf. If a CAFCASS Officer feels they need to know what happened before making a recommendation they must say so.

Transparency Project publicly challenged Cafcass on this and received a written response from Colette Jacobs Head of Communications Cafcass shortly afterwards, which again they’ve published:

There was some discussion following the points our Principal Social Worker Sarah Parsons made about Cafcass’ approach where domestic abuse is alleged and the court has not ordered a fact finding hearing. Acknowledging there was some clarification on the day of points made, we thought it would be helpful to set out Cafcass’ position on the role of the Family Court Adviser in relation to fact finding.

It has always been a social work task to investigate and assess. This inevitably involves assessing the credibility and coherence of the information assembled from all sources. We then arrive at a structured professional judgment – or a view – about what constitutes the evidence base, particularly in relation to child impact, which then informs our recommendations. This is nothing new: it is not a change in role or approach of Cafcass. The distinction between our forming a view and a formal finding of fact hearing is a crucial one. Some cases require a formal finding of fact or facts by a court, but not all cases.

It is not our role to decide on disputed facts and there is no suggestion that we are the final arbiter. We add value to the decision making process in family proceedings by assessing what is in a child’s best interests. Our role is quite rightly limited to making a recommendation, based on our assessment and view formed.

What’s interesting here is of course exactly what Transparency Project have to say: Here you have Sarah Parsons, the Principal Social Worker for Cafcass, making a serious mistake about Cafcass’ role in law and trying to bluster her way through a defence of her position. We wouldn’t expect that from a fresh faced FCA never mind someone who’s been a Court Welfare Officer since 2001…

And yet, here we are a year later and we have the same Sarah Parsons again developing and leading the implementation of a tool that makes the exact same mistakes all over again.

It’s the very definition of madness.

So where to next?

Sarah Parsons is stepping up into becoming the public-face of the High Conflict Practice Pathway tool.

Examine her record. Scrutinise what she says. Scrutinise the tool.

Do not go blindly into that good night.

To paraphrase Monty Python: “She’s not the messiah, she’s a very naughty girl”.


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