Care applications to Cafcass continue to soar

The continuing increase in care applications by England’s local authorities, following the Baby Peter case, could cause a “catastrophe” in children’s services unless central and local government put in place joined-up strategies to deal with its impact.

That is the warning from the British Association for Adoption & Fostering after family courts body Cafcass revealed a near-50% rise in section 31 care applications in the second quarter of 2009/10, compared with the same time last year.

In the three months from July to September 2009, Cafcass received 2,147 care referrals, up from 1,459 in the same period last year. Applications have been rising since November 2008, when news of the Baby Peter case broke. If the trend continues, the family courts could receive 2,000 more care applications this year than last year’s total of 6,471.

Private law referrals to Cafcass have also gone up 17.4 per cent between April and September of this year compared with the same period last year.

John Simmonds, BAAF’s director of policy, research and development, said the shortage of foster carers and adopters could have a “profound impact” on children entering the care system and called for a national strategy to alleviate the problem.

Robert Tapsfield, chief executive of the Fostering Network, said the continuing rise in admissions to care this year makes the need to find, train and support, more foster carers “more urgent than ever.”

“We believe that the best place for most children in care is with a foster family, but given the shortage of foster carers and fostering services reporting pressure on vacancies, we are concerned that the system will struggle to cope,” said Tapsfield.

The chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) children and young people board warned that all children’s services were at risk from the knock-on effects of the rise in applications.

Councillor Shireen Ritchie said: “Some councils are already diverting funds into the care system from other parts of children’s services to provide the additional spaces in children’s homes and necessary foster placements, at a rate that could rapidly become unsustainable.

“There is absolutely no question of money being a factor in deciding how a vulnerable child is cared for, but there is clearly a cost to be paid if it means a reduction in the help and support councils can offer to other families.”

The Association of Directors of Children’s Services and the LGA have asked the National Foundation for Educational Research to examine in more detail the possible causes and impact of the rise in applications.

Ritchie said: “If it is decided that, as a nation, we must play a bigger role in how families raise their children, there will have to be a debate about how to fund and manage a system which can do this properly.”

Cafcass’ chief executive Anthony Douglas, said greater complexity of cases was having a multiplier effect on the rise in referrals and agreed that the care system as a whole needed to “gear up” to cope with the higher volumes of referrals.

He called on social workers and agencies to “regain confidence” in their professional judgements and assessments. “Rises in applications to courts directly follow on from recent steep rises in child protection referrals to local authorities. This has been partly caused by some agencies referring lower level concerns in case they make a mistake by under-reacting.”

Douglas said the reasons for the rise in applications were “multi-causal”, adding that the Baby Peter case had “undoubtedly” heightened awareness and led to a greater focus on individual cases, while the recession was “more than likely” to have had an influence on private law referrals. 

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