Cafcass chief Anthony Douglas has admitted that he and other senior managers should have kept a closer eye on its North Yorkshire and Humberside service, which has been rated as “inadequate” by Ofsted inspectors.
Douglas said he had “taken for granted” the family court body’s service in the area because it had hit key performance indicators and had underspent its budget in previous years.
“While we had bigger overt problems to deal with elsewhere in the country we took our eye off this area and assumed it was OK,” he said.
The “lean” management structure of Cafcass area services meant they could suffer when key individuals had personal difficulties and could not “function at their peak”, Douglas added.
He declined to comment further specifically on the situation in North Yorkshire and Humberside, which was inspected last month. But Ofsted pointed out that new interim managers had been appointed to the area only a few weeks before the inspection and had “taken some appropriate steps in a short space of time” to improve performance.
Inspectors found that Cafcass services in the area were inadequate in several key areas, including user engagement, case planning and recording, and capacity to improve.
The contribution of the service to improving outcomes for children was also rated inadequate, as was assessment, intervention and direct work with children.
Latest in string of critical reports
Douglas revealed that 11 of Cafcass’s 93 local teams were on the organisation’s “critical team list”, which identifies local teams that require the most support and are at “sudden risk of a deterioration in services”.
Inspectors said management’s failure in North Yorkshire and Humberside to implement the Cafcass accountability review, which aims to identify best practice, was a “significant strategic error of judgment which has disadvantaged staff and managers in addressing accountability in their service area”.
In addition, a recent increase in demand had led to “some growing delay in allocating cases”, some of which had “significant” associated risk factors, such as adult mental ill-health or serious offending.
However, services were rated as satisfactory in several measures, including workforce development, value for money, service responsiveness, and reporting and recommendations to the courts.
Most children said they were satisfied by the service they received but that their views had “little effect on what happened”.
Douglas said he “fully expected” the area’s new management to resolve its difficulties “within a few months”.
He also said Ofsted inspectors “sometimes underestimate the positive impact of our work on children in both public and private law cases”.
“The Ofsted view is that if it’s not written down, it never happened,” said Douglas. “But when you are under huge pressure it’s hard sometimes to sit back and focus on what we do in each case.”
However, he said it was Cafcass’s responsibility to produce better evidence to show the value of its work.
Douglas also revealed that Cafcass continued to face increased care referrals following the baby Peter case, with care applications already having reached record levels in June.
In addition, he pointed out, Cafcass also received its highest ever number of private law referrals in June.
This could be “partly linked to the recession”, Douglas said, with relationships under stress and some people finding it easier to access legal aid funding if they have lost their jobs.