Advice service for care case children “not fit for purpose”

11 November 2010 by

The Commons Public Accounts Committee has published a damning report into the Children and Family Court Service’s (‘Cafcass’) response to increased demand following the Baby P scandal.

Cafcass was established nine years ago to advise children and the courts in family proceedings. It has come under significant criticism in that time. The new report deals specifically with the 34% surge in care cases following the Baby P scandal. The report is damning, concluding that Cafcass is not fit for purpose, taking 27 days to allocate a case and finding itself unprepared for the increase of cases following Baby P’s death.

The child protection system is likely to be significantly reformed following the recommendations of Professor Eileen Munro, who has been asked by the coalition government to lead a “fundamental” review. Part 1 of the review can be found here.

The conclusions of the Cafcass report were:

1.  Cafcass, as an organisation, is not fit-for-purpose. Many areas still do not provide a timely service to the courts, and the average time to fully allocate care cases at 27 days, down from 40 days, is still well above what it should be. Cafcass and the Department should report back to the Committee in a year, when we will expect to see that they have completed firm actions and undertaken rigorous monitoring to achieve the large amount of improvement that is still required.

2.  With duty allocation needing to reduce quickly and substantially, there is a risk that the reductions could result in the scale of unallocated cases returning to the unacceptable levels seen in summer 2009. Cafcass should establish plans with clear milestones for every area to manage the reductions in duty allocation of care cases and take prompt action in circumstances where unallocated cases start to rise.

3.  Cafcass did not see the crisis coming, nor did it have a contingency plan in the event of a significant increase in demand. The specific impact of the Baby Peter tragedy was hard to predict, but the possibility of a sustained increase in cases was a scenario that Cafcass should have planned for. It should prepare robust contingency plans so that it is prepared to act when changed circumstances affect its business.

4.  Cafcass took far too long—until October 2008—to put in place an acceptable performance management framework and is still dealing with the legacy of under-performing staff and low morale. Cafcass’s senior team should develop and implement a clear action plan to address existing and emerging skills gaps, and to raise performance and staff morale.

5.  Sickness absence among frontline staff is unacceptably high and significantly exceeds levels elsewhere in the public sector. Cafcass should develop a comprehensive set of actions to drive sickness absence down to acceptable levels, building on best practice elsewhere in the public sector. The Department should monitor Cafcass’s progress against the implementation plan.

6.  Judges remain satisfied with the quality of reports to the courts, but caseloads carried by family court advisers have been increasing, which brings new risks to the quality of service provided to the courts and families. Cafcass should manage individuals’ caseloads so that staff morale does not fall and the quality of reports to the courts is maintained or improved. Cafcass should also plan for the succession of the many experienced and longstanding family court advisers who are approaching retirement, in order to protect the continuity and quality of service.

7.  Low compliance by staff with important requirements has been a persistent problem, and has undermined Cafcass’s efforts to improve performance. In driving through its Transformation Programme, Cafcass’s top management should take personal responsibility for effectively communicating changes to staff. Managers at all levels should be assessed on their effectiveness in both inspiring staff to comply with corporate requirements and holding them to account for non-compliant behaviour.

8.  The quality of assessments on care cases by local authority social workers varies. Poor quality assessments place an additional burden on Cafcass as the courts must request a new assessment from Cafcass family court advisers if they cannot rely on the work of local authority social workers. The Department should work with local authorities to ensure that they are fulfilling their responsibility under the Public Law Outline to undertake appropriate pre-action work with the family, and to produce good assessments so that cases can proceed without requiring extra interventions or investigations by Cafcass.

9.  It is shocking that Cafcass has not previously collected all the information it needs to manage its workload more effectively. Shortcomings in the Case Management System make compiling trend data laborious but even so, Cafcass must undertake the data collection it needs to manage its business. It should agree with the Department the quality and type of information required and put in place measures to secure it. In addition, the Department should support Cafcass in securing a better service from the provider of its corporate IT systems.

10.  Cafcass has taken too long to secure essential changes, and much of the responsibility lies with top management. Driving through the Transformation Programme while overseeing consistent improvements in the level of service will take strong and vigorous leadership and communication. The Department should regularly monitor Cafcass’s progress in implementing the Programme, holding senior management to account for any delay. Cafcass and the Department should review the robustness of the Programme regularly and take action promptly to resolve emerging problems.

The BBC quote Cafcass as saying they will take “robust action” to improve the service, which affects 140,000 children annually. Its chief executive Anthony Douglas said “Cafcass is fit for purpose because we have absorbed a massive number of new cases in the last 12 months and have improved our productivity by 17%, which is a performance any organisation would be proud of.”

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