The huge rise in care applications dealt with by Cafcass in the wake of the baby Peter case is “overstretching” children’s guardians, according to Unison.
Mike Booth, national officer for the public services union, claimed Cafcass had failed to recruit enough children’s guardians to handle its workload. Cafcass has denied the claim.
Earlier this month, Cafcass said care applications in March 2009 hit a record 739, 37.5% up on the same time last year and higher than the 716 reported in December 2008.
At the time, Cafcass said the rise “may be explained by a lowering of the threshold of intervention by local authorities following the publicity surrounding the Baby P criminal court case”.
Booth said the build-up of cases could pose “a real danger to the welfare of children”, while “unnecessary bureaucracy” meant practitioners were “moving away from doing the job on the ground”.
“If the Baby P case taught us anything, it is that restructuring and maintaining perfect records do not prevent such tragedies occurring,” he said. “However, the insight and positive action taken by Cafcass guardians could.”
Ann Haigh, chair of the National Association of Guardians Ad Litem and Reporting Officers (Nagalro), which represents family court guardians, said bureaucratic requirements were “impinging” on the ability of staff to do frontline work.
“It’s not very helpful at a time when there are great waiting lists of children waiting for guardians,” she said, adding that staff had to be “in the office to bring files up to date” to respond to requirements made in Ofsted inspection reports.
“There are demands from Ofsted but it’s important to put back the core function,” said Haigh. “Cafcass isn’t just another social services department.”
Booth said Cafcass had failed to recruit enough children’s guardians to handle its workload, while Haigh said staff shortages could be explained by Cafcass’s reluctance in some areas to take on self-employed guardians to fill gaps in the service.
Cafcass denies making cuts
Cafcass chief executive Antony Douglas said the sharp rise in care applications meant the organisation could not allocate social workers to cases as quickly as it would like in some areas. “However overall we are allocating public law cases in 90% of cases within three days and 97% within 28 days,” he said.
“We are filling vacancies and Unison are wrong to suggest otherwise. We are also not cutting services. It is wrong to equate extra pressure with cuts, though of course we are all having to work harder as a result of increased demand. That is just reality.”
Douglas also said serious delays and backlogs were “only a problem in some local areas”. Turnover of frontline staff was “stable across the organisation”, he said, and Cafcass was recruiting 59 additional practitioners to deal with the increased demand.
Cafcass guardians look after the interests of children involved in family court cases, including care applications, adoption, and divorce and separation.