A failure of leadership

A House of Commons committee has just published a damning report on
the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, which
appoints guardians to represent children in care proceedings. It
blames Cafcass for failures which have left vulnerable children
helpless at critical times in their lives. And it calls for a
“fundamental review” of the membership of the board which runs
Cafcass, adding that it lacks the experience and expertise to get
the service back on track.

The most shocking indictment of Cafcass is its responsibility for
delays in appointing guardians to children under care orders. Its
high-handed treatment of guardians two years ago so poisoned its
relations with them that there are not enough guardians willing to
work for the service. Although Cafcass has moderated its initial
insistence that all guardians, many of whom had traditionally been
self-employed, should become salaried employees, a presumption in
favour of salaried status and a corresponding legacy of bitterness
remain firmly entrenched.

Consequently, court delays are rife. Last year they worsened to the
extent that some children were waiting three months to be allocated
a guardian. Before Cafcass was established just over two years ago,
the aim was that guardians should be appointed on the first day of
a case. The Commons committee rightly pours scorn on the service’s
current target of allocating a guardian within seven days in 80 per
cent of cases, insisting that all should be allocated within 48
hours and sooner if necessary. Hardly a surprising conclusion,
given that one of the reasons for the committee’s inquiry was that
two children had died while waiting for a guardian.

During care proceedings a child’s fate often rests on a knife-edge;
the child’s family may be cut in two as the child begins an
uncertain career through the care system. Or the child may be
returned to his or her birth family. Either way, court delays can
only prolong the child’s sense of insecurity and further damage
fragile relationships with the birth family.

Cafcass must act swiftly to set its house in order. Sweeping
changes in the management and culture of the organisation will be
required and it must embrace the “mixed economy” of employed and
self-employed practitioners much more vigorously. Children deserve
no less.

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