Interview with Susan Bindman, the former head of
“I was brought up on the McCarthy trials,” says
Susan Bindman, the former head of the national association of
children’s guardians (Nagalro). Growing up in a politically
active family from the US east coast during the 1950s “reds
under the beds” era, it was inevitable she would find herself
involved in meaty political issues at some point in her life,
writes Derren Hayes.
The grilling that Joseph McCarthy and his henchmen gave the
Hollywood community during their investigations into alleged
communist links may have been at the back of Bindman’s mind
when she was asked to give evidence to the committee of the Lord
Chancellor’s department – now the department of
constitutional affairs – during its investigations into the
Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service
The inquiry was set up after a series of high-profile problems with
Cafcass – an amalgamation of the probation and child welfare
services – began to raise fears among MPs that poor
performance and funding difficulties were putting children’s
safety at risk. This culminated in the deaths of two children
awaiting the allocation of a guardian.
Bindman’s appearance before the committee in May coincided
with her stepping down as the chairperson of Nagalro after four
years. It proved a fitting end to that period of her career.
“Cafcass is something that has defined my four years in the
job,” she says. “It started off in 1999 setting up task
force teams and stakeholder groups and aiming to be inclusive and
involved. However, they hardly used any of that work. What sticks
in everyone’s minds is that it was a lot of wasted time,
energy and money [it cost £9m].”
She says the transition from separate government agencies to a
unified service could have been easier if more time had been taken
over it. The fact that the government wanted to set up Cafcass
quickly has resulted in major disruptions to the service in some
parts of the country.
Delays in appointing guardians to children under local authority
care orders have dogged the organisation since it launched just
over two years ago. The delays became progressively worse last year
to the point where some children were waiting three months for a
guardian to be appointed.
For Bindman that is unforgivable – “I get angry when
people muck about with the lives of vulnerable kids” –
and a problem of Cafcass’s own making.
Bindman first locked horns with Cafcass in early 2001 over a
dispute about the employment terms and conditions that the new
organisation was offering to self-employed guardians. These
independent guardians are the mainstay of Nagalro, and the public
law system Cafcass took control of. Before Cafcass, many guardians
worked freelance with several employers. This changed when Cafcass
reneged on an understanding that it would have a “mixed
economy” workforce, and demanded all guardians become
salaried employees because of changes in tax status.
Despite a high court ruling that Cafcass had acted unlawfully,
hundreds of guardians felt disillusioned and left the service,
creating a void that remains today.
Bindman believes the tax issue was an excuse for the Court Welfare
Service to drive through its plans for an “employed and
managed service”. “Cafcass believed it would be liable
for paying back tax for some self-employed guardians, but the
Inland Revenue never gave a ruling on that.”
Although many did sign full-time contracts with Cafcass, Bindman
says many of her colleagues were “driven back to the security
of local authority employment”. She believes that until
Cafcass proves its commitment to a mixed workforce “through
actions not just words” the organisation will continue to
“Independent guardians are not picking up the extra work
because the will has been lost. Whereas before they may have given
100 per cent of their time to Cafcass, they are now giving
less,” she says. A recent Nagalro survey showed that the
number of guardians spending 80 per cent of their time on Cafcass
work has dropped by 50 per cent in the past two years.
Bindman blames this on Cafcass “trying to impose structures
on guardians”, and the fact that its chief executive,
Jonathan Tross, “does not regard the initiatives he gets from
us as fitting with his vision for the future”.
She admits she still has a “difficult time” working
with Tross in particular and with Cafcass in general, adding:
“I’m not sure they know how to use our
Like most frontline practitioners, Bindman has a straight-talking
style and hates bureaucracy. She criticises Cafcass for being
management heavy, an issue the Lord Chancellor’s department
inquiry also picked up on.
“One thing we’ve found difficult to cope with is the
more leisurely pace with which Cafcass appears to work.
There’s little continuity of those working there and if
someone is on holiday nothing gets done until they return,”
says Bindman. That’s an alien concept for professionals who
must think and act quickly. It also says much about Bindman’s
own style of leadership.
By her own admission, her strengths are motivating others, keeping
people involved and sharing concerns. These are attributes she
links to her mother – a former teacher with a keen interest
in US politics – and lawyer father, who was also a
philanthropist who hired Madison Square Garden for functions.
After teaching in New York, newly married Bindman moved to London
in 1964. She qualified as a social worker in 1973 and became a
guardian in 1984.
During her time as chairperson of Nagalro, the organisation’s
profile has risen and it has become more involved in policy
initiatives. She says she is “direct but not rude” and
takes umbrage at suggestions she could be seen as an aggressive
negotiator. “I don’t believe in conflict. I tease
people more than anything else.”
However, her New Yorker’s instincts for fighting her corner
have had to be curbed during the tricky discussions over Cafcass.
“I’ve had to learn how to speak in the subjective. I
always accepted US politics as being rough and ready, but I have
been really surprised that in a much more subtle way the same
machinations are here – it is far more Byzantine
though,” she adds.
Despite stepping down, Bindman remains passionate about the
guardian service and the need for it to retain professional
autonomy in a climate of “government mistrust of health and
social care professionals”.
“People still recognise that Nagalro represents a certain
professional standard. Guardians continue to be quality assurance
for critical and robust analysis of interviews and observations in
relation to specific children. In those local authorities where
social workers come and go regularly, the guardian may be the only
person to hold the threads of the case,” she says.
Cafcass has started to step up its recruitment of family court
advisers to work in public and private law cases fulfilling the
roles of children’s guardian and family court reporter.
Bindman says Nagalro is not opposed to this, but feels the three
days’ training provided is insufficient.
“The issue is about having experience of child welfare and
understanding the functioning of social services
departments,” she says. “We have to be reflective
practitioners. Without that it is easy to make mistakes and lose
the ability to analyse issues with the necessary care.”
Bindman, at 61, still has a busy caseload and, although she is not
“thinking and worrying about Nagalro morning and
night”, she still feels “enormous responsibility to
The LCD select committee report on Cafcass is due out next week.
Bindman thought the inquiry “extremely robust”.
However, unlike the McCarthy trials, she hopes it will “make
those that matter think about what needs to change”.