Family Court Work: A personal view

A former children’s guardian describes her experience as an employee of the Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service and, Cafcass responds:

Former children’s guardian Elizabeth* claims that Cafcass is biased against older, more experienced workers. “I presume that this is due to them being more challenging of poor procedures and policies likely to damage effective working,” she explains. “But there are problems with employing less experienced staff, who in some cases are only three years post-qualified. Central to the role is being able to scrutinise and challenge the work of professionals in other agencies. I doubt whether inexperienced guardians have the credibility or confidence to do this.”

Elizabeth believes that credibility rests on being up-to-date with research findings as well as grounded in working practice, and challenges the level of training offered by Cafcass. “Staff who were serious about maintaining their professional standards had to take training at their own expense and in their own time,” she claims. “Out of three necessary external training events last year, I gained approval from Cafcass for only one.”

She cites a general demise in morale at the organisation, with the more experienced and newer guardians alike looking to work elsewhere. “The demands for ticking boxes and of poor supervision have become counter-productive and a waste of time,” she claims.

Explaining her own decision to leave, Elizabeth cites increasing conflicts arising in the role. “There was conflict over accountability to the courts and to Cafcass,” she says. “Cafcass senior management lacked respect of the basic requirements of the guardian’s tasks within the courts. Time was consumed in meetings and paperwork to the detriment of casework. The impossibility of the role became all too apparent to the extent that I could no longer represent the best interests of the children in my cases.”

Elizabeth* was a guardian for around five years until recently leaving. Prior to this she was self-employed as a guardian for over 10 years.

*Not her real name

Cafcass’s response:

Cafcass has strong diversity policies and values the contribution of older and younger staff members alike. There is no evidence that staff are leaving Cafcass in significant numbers and, indeed, only 17 family court advisers left Cafcass in the three months to June 2007.

Our staffing profile shows that only 4% of the Cafcass workforce is under the age of 30. Indeed 41% of our total workforce is aged between 50 and 60, with 16% of our 1209 family court advisers predicted to reach retirement age in the next five years. This does not match the picture being painted of a young and inexperienced workforce.

In terms of training for staff, we have major training programmes, such as a domestic violence programme devised and delivered by children’s charity Barnardo’s. We also sponsor staff to complete post-qualifying awards and have set up an award in management at Birmingham University. Our in-house training programme is also extremely comprehensive and this year includes training for our ten national standards and a major overhaul of our safeguarding framework.

In addition we have provided staff with access to an online library, operated by Barnardo’s, with the latest research available. We also have an annual research conference and have a new intranet to transmit the latest research-based evidence. We are also a pilot organisation for the Community Care Inform tool.

Cafcass is taking steps to improve working conditions for frontline staff by looking to reduce bureaucracy. This is a difficult area as outcomes need to be measured if we are to demonstrate our value to the children and families we serve. We are investing heavily in information technology and our case management system to ensure practitioners have access to the latest case information and can record their work efficiently and effectively.

All changes to procedure and policy are tested using pilots in Cafcass. A notable example has been the introduction of family group conferencing as an early intervention measure. It was piloted in London and is now being introduced across the country this year.

In addition we have established a children’s right’s team who work to identify the latest evidence-based research. Our Young People’s Board are a trailblazer in our sector and have directly influenced policy and practice.

For Cafcass’s operational workforce, there have always been a complex web of accountabilities – professional, legal, ethical, organisational – matched by an equally complex range of people to whom practitioners feel varying degrees of accountability. This includes the children we work with, the children awaiting a service, the families of children we work with, other professionals, the judiciary and the court, and Cafcass colleagues and managers. So difficult questions can arise and these will be investigated by the accountability review which we began in September 2007 and which will report in January 2008.



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