News analysis of a new comprehensive assessment of
family services and the crisis affecting the children’s guardians
(It may be advisable to print this document as it is
The National Family and Parenting Institute has produced
a comprehensive map of family services in England and
Anabel Unity Sale reports on the
landscape it reveals and how the NFPI aims to steer the country
towards more informed parenting.
It has been a long, long pregnancy. Now, after nearly three
years, the baby has finally arrived.
The infant in question is the map of family support services in
England and Wales. And the proud parent is the National Family and
It all started in November 1998 when the Home Office’s
family policy unit, under the guidance of the then home office
minister, Paul Boateng, launched a consultation exercise into the
practical support the government could offer parents.
The main recommendation of the Supporting Families consultation
document was the establishment of a new National Family and
Parenting Institute. It said there was “a clear need for a
well-supported centre of expertise to which the government,
professional bodies or voluntary agencies can turn for advice on
After all, it noted, a similar body already existed in America,
Austria and Australia, and Canada even had two.
Exactly one year later, in November 1999, the National Family
and Parenting Institute was launched as an independent charity. It
came complete with a commitment from the government to provide
£2 million worth of funding over three years. The first task
the institute was charged with, as the Supporting Families document
recommended, was to map all the family support services in England
All the fieldwork for the institute’s mapping exercise
took place across England and Wales between June 2000 and February
2001. It studied 2,000 family support services providers, which
were funded by local government, charities and the private sector.
This research was combined with an in-depth analysis of 10 local
This week sees the launch of the report’s findings and
recommendations, which is out for consultation until 31 October
Mary MacLeod, chief executive of the National Family and
Parenting Institute, says the rationale behind such a mammoth
mapping task is simple.
“When you begin to recognise that families are really important
to the social fabric,” she explains, “you have to look at how you
support them in the job that only they can do, in a wildly changing
The report found that many family support services are well
established, with 47 per cent of services having been established
for 10 years or more. Service provision has also grown, with 40 per
cent of services having been established in the past five
But despite this positive foundation, the successes of these
services are hindered by a lack of access to them. The report says:
“Evidence from both the national and sample areas’ surveys
shows the serious scale of access problems, and the unacceptable
degree to which they are restricting the use of family
This is particularly true for families who are already
experiencing high levels of exclusion, the report adds, whether
they are from an ethnic minority, do not speak English or are
parents with mental health or substance misuse problems. Fathers in
particular, the report says, are “not perceived to be in the
mainstream of provision” and also face barriers to support.
The problem is compounded by the fact that there is a stigma
associated with people using family services. The report says this
is true “particularly in relation to support provided by social and
specialist mental health services.” Providers and commissioners, it
adds, are acutely aware of this and are using innovative ways to
combat people’s negative images.
The provision of family support services, the report says, is
concentrated on parents of children under five years old. There is
a failure to provide services for families of older children. It
found that families of children who are under five are twice as
likely to be targeted by services as the families of children aged
five to 10, and three times as likely to targeted as the families
of children aged 11 to 15.
One of the NFPI’s major proposals is the need for schools
to hold single information sessions about child development and
parenting issues. It suggests the session be run for parents at
five stages of their child’s life: entry to early learning;
entry to primary school; at age eight/nine; entry to secondary
school; and finally when the child reaches 14 years old.
Having such sessions regularly spaced out during a child’s
academic career is deliberate. MacLeod argues that parents need
knowledge and information in small, frequent doses, because
children often develop quickly in short periods of time.
The report also recommends that each local authority create a
family support co-ordinator function to support the planning and
delivery of family services. It says: “The co-ordinators could work
with service commissioners and providers, undertake consultation
with the local community, be responsible for mapping and provide
advice on best practice and ways of promoting access to
MacLeod believes a family support co-ordinator should act as a
“champion” for the family support services in their area. She says:
“It is not a major financial investment but would have a very big
outcome for local authorities in the development of services and in
people having access to them.”
She suggests each co-ordinator should have a template to help
them organise the information about what family support services
are available locally and this could be linked up nationally to
detail what provision is available overall.
MacLeod says the internet would be the ideal medium for people
to access such information and suggests such web connections be
available for people to use in libraries, doctors’ surgeries
and citizen advice bureaux.
While the report praises Sure Start for offering the most
comprehensive set of supports, it says its reach is not universal.
“It should be extended in respect of its geographical coverage and
duration of the child age group it serves,” it says.
And the institute would like to see a 10-year national strategy
developed for family support services, which would combine
children’s and family services. The report says this would
“provide a lead and aspiration” for local services and facilitate
joined-up national planning and funding.
Children’s and family services, the report says, are
“inextricably linked” and this link should be recognised through
It recommends that local planning of such services be merged to
produce a joint children and families plan every four or five
MacLeod says: “This could be done by councils’ chief
executives with joint commissioning arrangements.”
The report also calls for better links between welfare services
dealing with parents and their children.
It says: “Overall, the research points to the need for a range
of services to meet the needs of parents and children at different
stages in their life cycle, and for family support to be linked to
other aspects of social welfare, such as the benefit system.”
MacLeod says such a link up by a modern state is vital: “We
simply have to have a good benefits system.”
The report admits there are anxieties over how intrusive the
state should be and to what degree parenting may become
“professionalised by too great a focus on social support”.
MacLeod is keen to stress this support must not over-power
parents. “We don’t want ‘heavy touch’ support
because every family is different and they need different ways of
finding support,” she says.
And providers interviewed for the research, she says, do not
want to be told what to do in a “Stalinist” way, but do want some
central government guidance on what kinds of services they should
be providing and for what sorts of communities.
So after a gestation period of 32 months – from when the mapping
exercise was first suggested by the Home Office to when the
institute completed it – will the recommendations really make any
difference to family services?
A Home Office spokesperson hints that they will. She says: “It
will be of great use to both local and national government and
voluntary sector organisations concerned with family support.”
She adds: “We look forward to reading the full report and the
recommendations it makes. We shall be giving these proper
For her part, MacLeod believes a fundamental change is needed,
from the ground up, in how family services are perceived. This
starts, the report says, with a designated government fund for
family support that could be accessed on the basis of the index of
deprivation. It says: “The fund should enable local agencies to
reduce any serious inequalities in the support available to
disadvantaged families as a consequence of where they happen to
She explains: “It is fairly clear that there is an absence of
cash because services that support families do not fit into
departmental existences both nationally and locally.”
She adds: “Investing in family support is not some luxury, it
really is the basis for a decent society. That seems terribly
grandiose but it is just the case. In this country we are really
lucky because we do have a universal structure even if we are not
able to deliver it. It just needs development and growth.”
The consultation document National Mapping of Family Support
Services in England and Wales is available by clicking
here or from 020 7424 3460.
Next month the children’s guardian service could
be in crisis as a result of a contract dispute. Jonathan
Pearce reports on the implications for vulnerable
“Cafcass has made it clear they want to get rid of us. We are a
nuisance. They want some nice compliant people. They have lied
about every single thing to date.”
These are the words of one children’s guardian – formerly
guardian ad litem – at a meeting last week to discuss the latest
developments with Cafcass – the Children and Family Court Advisory
and Support Service.
Cafcass was set up in April to deliver a unified service to the
courts in public and private law cases. But ever since its launch –
and for months before – it has been mired in a controversy over the
integration of about 750 self-employed guardians into a service
dominated by court welfare officers.
The message from a recent publicity event hosted by the NSPCC
and Cafcass was that only now would children’s voices truly
be heard. Instead, the guardian service is on the point of
Self-employed guardians have until the end of the month to join
Cafcass as salaried employees or leave, despite 18 months of
Observers fear that at least half the highly experienced and
qualified workforce could leave at a stroke. Some practitioners
simply cannot become employed – they have other jobs as
psychologists, play therapists, psychotherapists or social work
managers. But even if they wanted to be employed, they resent the
greatly reduced salaries on offer and argue that Cafcass does not
understand their role.
There are about 850 guardians in England and Wales, of whom
about 750 are self-employed. At a recent meeting of guardians in
London and the south east, over half indicated they would not sign
As a result, the guardian service looks likely to capsize this
August. Waiting lists will be inevitable, along with ineffective
representation of some of the most vulnerable children in the care
Guardians work with lawyers to represent children in care and
adoption cases. The relationship between the two is widely
recognised as important in safeguarding the best interests and
welfare of vulnerable children. The guardian scrutinises the
council plan for a vulnerable child to ensure it is the best option
and accords with the child’s wishes, where possible.
The guardian will interview the child, social workers and other
relevant parties, such as friends and family, as well as examining
social work records and writing reports. Much of the work is done
outside the courts and in about 80 to 90 per cent of cases an
agreed care plan can be put before the court.
The waiting lists and delays threatened by the Cafcass dispute
could be devastating for children. “What happens in the early
stages either alienates parents or brings them in,” says Veronica
Swenson, editor of Seen & Heard, the guardians’
“It has massive implications for future outcomes,” Swenson adds,
pointing out that if there is a chance of the child returning home,
this is when it will happen. After 12 weeks in care, there is a
huge drop in the likelihood of a child returning home.
The Association of Lawyers for Children, and the Solicitors
Family Law Association (SFLA) are concerned too.
“There is a rather unique system for the representation of
children in this country,” says ALC chairperson Fiona Ledden. “The
question is whether it can continue at the same level of expertise
as we currently have. The ALC is very concerned that there will be
sufficient numbers of very experienced guardians to assist the
courts in making the difficult decisions.”
But Cafcass has a plan. While it “negotiates” with the
guardians, it is running a recruitment campaign for “family court
advisers”, part of whose role will be to act as children’s
guardians. For the posts, Cafcass is asking for social workers with
three years’ post-qualification experience, whereas current
children’s guardians tend to have around 20 years’
Family courts are also being warned of a potential shortage of
guardians, and Cafcass is planning a “bank” of part-time employees
to provide flexibility in meeting demands.
Cafcass admits there may be a problem. “We do have a potential
short-term issue to address on how we meet some of the work this
summer,” says Cafcass director of operations Joe Kuipers. But he
defends the benefits of a fully managed service which will ensure
“a high quality service to children”.
Others are not so sure. “Since 1984 guardians have offered a
really thorough, independent, and connected representation of
children,” says the SFLA’s children committee chairperson
“Those with a lot of experience are likely to leave and it is
hard to see how they will be replaced,” says Gieve. She talks of
the “steadfastness” of the guardians, and adds: “I can’t
remember a guardian case where the guardian didn’t see it
through from beginning to end.”
And continuity is a crucial factor. Within councils a child can
often pass through the hands of two or three social workers, for a
variety of reasons. In contrast, guardians can end up representing
different children from the same family over a number of years,
with all the attendant benefits that brings.
Solicitors are rightly worried. Children’s solicitor
Richard White says they will still take on the cases, but admits
they will not be able to handle the children’s welfare
aspects as well as guardians.
Realisation of the magnitude of the loss will be gradual, White
says: “It will be very difficult to put your finger on it for a
while. Quality is very hard to define. It’s only when
monumental mistakes appear that this will happen.” Unfortunately,
by then it will be too late.