How Cafcass Manchester is tackling increased caseloads without cutting corners

Children's guardians in Manchester explain how they are tackling increased caseloads without cutting corners and compromising the quality of their work. By Camilla Pemberton

Children’s guardians at Cafcass’s Manchester office are taking a quick – and, by all accounts, rare – tea break to tell Community Care about their new ways of working. Rare, because guardians – appointed by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service to advise courts on children’s welfare who are under more pressure than ever as demand for them rockets.

The past 18 months have been turbulent for Cafcass. When care order applications began to soar in November 2008, following the outcry over the death of Baby P, so too did the pressure on the family courts. Cafcass struggled to meet the increasing demand and backlogs began to mount.

Now, the services’ latest quarterly figures have revealed the pressure is still on. March 2010 recorded the highest number of referrals (832) for a single month to date, while referrals to Cafcass Greater Manchester hit 91, the highest in three years.

Cafcass’s reliance on emergency measures – which permit cases to be allocated to duty teams rather than a named guardian – has attracted strong criticism. Although chief executive Anthony Douglas has said the system is “essential” to clearing backlogs, critics fear Cafcass is trying to eradicate the named guardian role, set out in the Children Act 1989.

They should welcome news that, according to Douglas, the future will see Cafcass relying far less on duty guardians. Instead, Douglas says the service is developing new models of “proportionate working”, using £10m awarded before the election.

He says Cafcass is looking at “every aspect of the professional task: attending court; attending reviews; reading files; doing viability assessments – and deciding what proportionate working is”.

Shabana Jamal, head of service in Greater Manchester, is convinced this style of working is the key to clearing backlogs and handling more cases, without relying on the duty system. In March 2010 – when referrals were highest – her team were working on 796 allocated care cases, compared with 598 in July 2009.

Nearly all cases in Manchester are allocated a named guardian within a week, according to Jamal, who says this has been made possible by “new, more time-effective ways of providing the same service” and good local agreements with the family courts.

“With each case, the issues are different so we have to be proportionate in the way that we work. It’s not about compromising the quality of service, it’s about cutting back on work which doesn’t add to the case and re-prioritising,” she says.

Sarah Nathan, one of Greater Manchester’s nine service managers, says: “We’ll work out the timeframe our guardians are working to and narrow down the meetings that aren’t essential, because they can read the minutes or talk to the child instead. Those are the decisions we’re making. We’re certainly not cutting corners which would put children at risk.”

How they cleared the backlog

July 2009 was a critical time for Cafcass Greater Manchester. “We had cases where there was no guardian involvement for months,” says Jamal. “We knew we had to find a way of offering a service to all children, not just to a few.”

Not only have the team managed to clear all the backlogs, they’ve also managed to take on 200 extra cases since July, meaning that in March this year their total number of allocated care cases was 796. “Our council and designated family judge were key to our new ways of working, which is important,” Jamal says.

“One of the agreements we’ve got is that our guardians are not expected to attend every directions hearing. We’ve also agreed that they don’t have to attend every looked-after child conference. They attend the first, to meet other professionals involved, but after that they can get reports sent to them by the independent reviewing officer.

“We have regular liaison meetings with the local authority legal team so they can give us a heads up about any cases they’ve got that may be coming to proceedings. This allows us to look at what capacity we’ve got within our service area. If we don’t have sufficient capacity, we can alert the local authority that there may be a delay and will allocate it to a service manager temporarily.

“We’re developing central allocation and training across the whole of our service area, which includes Rochdale, Manchester, Bolton and Stockport, so that when one team has a peak in referrals we can absorb those cases across the whole service.”

Referral increase

● Total care applications for 2009-10 stood at 8,684, compared with 6,496 in 2008-9, up by 34%.

● The 832 cases recorded in March 2010 was the highest care demand figure for a single month ever recorded by Cafcass. The figure for January was 656 and 725 for February.

● In March 2010 Cafcass staff were working on 11,509 care cases – a 26% increase on the 9,128 cases they were working on in July 2009.

A day in the life of a children’s guardian…

Linda Middleditch is a children’s guardian at Cafcass Greater Manchester. Here she talks Community Care through a recent working day, although she is keen to point out that two days are “rarely ever the same”:

“I spent the morning in Wigan at an issues resolution hearing involving two children who are being placed for adoption. After lunch I interviewed a grandmother who wants contact with her paternal granddaughter. The case involves domestic violence from her son to the child’s mother so it’s complicated. There will be a fact-finding hearing soon to discuss the issues.

“I then visited a young mother living in supported accommodation. She has battled drink and drug addictions, during which her eldest child was taken into care. She now has another child and is sorting her life out. She’s stopped taking drugs, has cut down her drinking and is engaging with services. She’s doing her best to get her eldest back and it’s a pleasure to see.

“My day finished with a meeting about a case myself and a colleague are working on, involving a number of children from an Eastern European family of travellers. We believe the children need to be taken into care, so we’ll be challenging the council’s decision. There are significant concerns over their safety, including the risk of sexual exploitation. It is a difficult case because each child has separate needs and there are cultural and language barriers. We have identified an academic who may be able to help us.

“I try to structure my days, with interviews and visits on one and court hearings on another, but it can be hard because new cases are flying in all the time. With a long-standing case it’ll be in my diary in advance but other cases might come in during the morning and you’re in court that afternoon.

“Good support from my team and service manager is key. We discuss our cases regularly with our managers and try to be creative and flexible in the way we work.

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