The case for reforms to England’s care system: views from experts

With the care system and family courts under huge strain, we ask experts from across the children’s sector what changes are needed to relieve the pressure

Statistics and costings released over the past two weeks portray a care system in crisis. Care order referrals are stabilising at numbers that are about 46% higher than last year, according to children’s guardians body Cafcass.

The Local Government Association (LGA) estimates that this rise will present councils with a £226m bill for this year alone, including the cost of care placements and court proceedings.

Meanwhile, Nagalro, which represents family court guardians, released a damning survey of members about the impact of the new duty rota system introduced by Cafcass to manage the increase in referrals to its services. The survey found that 40% of the 300 cases allocated to guardians since January 2009 had to wait more than two months for assignments, while guardians had up to 14 cases open at a given time.

The LGA has called for a debate on how the care system is organised to handle the large increases in referrals, warning that in this time of financial difficulties, councils may have to sacrifice preventative measures to meet their statutory obligations.

Kim Bromley-Derry, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said. “If care proceedings are to remain at this level, resources will need to be found to meet the demand and difficult choices made.”

Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said: “The thresholds are right – it is just that a great many children living in the community, some of them on child protection plans already, fall within that threshold. The only possible response is to give children in care greater priority.”

More on the rise in referrals plus the costs to the system


Legal profession

Stephen Cobb QC, chairman, Family Law Bar Association:

What has evolved over recent months highlights significant under-resourcing of various components of the family justice system so it is now stretched to creaking point.

This includes things such as the role and status of social workers, and the resourcing of Cafcass, which is struggling to give the service it was created to deliver. There ought to be a larger number of judicial sitting days to reduce the number of delays and backlogs.

I’m very pleased there’s going to be a review of the family justice service but you should not undertake a review without being prepared to put your money where your mouth is.

There is also much to be said for looking again at the division of the two stages of public law cases. The current threshold for a local authority having to apply for a care order to remove is appropriate. But an increase in the number of care applications does not necessarily mean more children being taken into care.

The court can also make supervision orders where authorities are happy to leave a child in a situation but need the authority of the court to force the family to co-operate in the safeguarding of the child.

Children’s advocacy

John Kemmis, chief executive, Voice:

The only sensible place to put our investment is in preventive services and rehabilitation to try to reduce the numbers of so-called “yo-yo” children. At the moment there’s not enough investment in either the system or in prevention.

However, it is also about refocusing existing money. The first place I would start is the huge amounts of money spent to create a marketplace that is uncontrolled and highly unstable. The tendering and procuring processes take up huge amounts of time and money on both sides for contracts that are between one and three years at most.

The services that suffer are those specialised and therapeutic services in the residential field because they are expensive to provide.

We see contracts of up to 30 years in health, yet for children in care it is still spot purchasing, despite the fact that what children in care need is a consistent relationship with people providing services.

Secondly, I would put more resources into the frontline and prevention. I don’t think we’ve ever actually sat down and really assessed what it costs to provide preventive services and reasonable choice.

We need to step back and look at how we can improve practice. This doesn’t necessarily require extra resources, as it’s about how we approach things, but it does require social workers being properly supervised.

Local government

Helen Johnston, programme director, Local Government Association children and young people team:

Although we are calling for this debate we haven’t really got any answers at the moment. What we would say is that the system was never designed to deal with these kind of numbers and so something needs to change.

Part of that debate could be around consideration of risk before referral to social care and that would need to take in both police departments and health professionals. It’s also about how we manage risk.

We are looking at the costing of this increase in referrals in even greater detail as well as the research commissioned on the cost of implementing the Laming recommendations. Then we would like to see cross-party discussion about these issues. It is already starting to happen but it needs to increase.


Nushra Mansuri, professional officer for children’s issues, BASW:

We’ve become too risk averse in terms of trusting our workforce. Performance management is now the imperative and what’s not being valued is the relationship between young people and social workers, yet that’s what makes the difference between good social work and the rest.

Social workers are not allowed the luxury of time to spend with young people and even though we know social workers can’t cope with massive caseloads we appear to be resigning ourselves to operating at crisis level all the time. We need to put our money where our mouth is. This is a public service and there has to be the investment to provide a proper service.

We also have to have real investment in preventive social work. Leaders at all levels also need to have the courage to change and stand up for social work and resist those pressures to control it so tightly. As a profession we need to fight our ground and say what we do is difficult and life changing and we should be treated with the respect that entails.

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