Toni-Ann case raises new concerns over guardians’ experience

The publication last week of the serious case review into the death
of seven-year-old Toni-Ann Byfield meted out a stinging rebuke to
the court-appointed guardian for failing in her basic duty of
protecting the child’s welfare.

It found that the unnamed guardian should have adopted a more
“challenging and independent” position, considering the
“questionable evidence” she had received (news, page 10, 6 May
2004). The report was prepared by a panel of experts chaired by
David Lambert, the independent chair of the Norfolk area child
protection committee.

Toni-Ann, who was in the care of Birmingham social services, was
shot dead in a London hostel last September along with convicted
drug dealer Bertram Byfield – a man who at the time was thought to
be her biological father. She had been living under a kinship care
arrangement with Byfield’s aunt in London since August.
Unsupervised contact with him was allowed.

A backlog of cases prevented the Children and Family Court Advisory
and Support Service (Cafcass) allocating a guardian at the time of
Toni-Ann’s first care proceedings hearing in December 2002.
Consequently, the guardian was not appointed until after the third
court hearing in February 2003 and as a result “never really fully
engaged with the case”, the report adds.

Cafcass has taken responsibility for the mistakes and revised its
child protection policy and procedures and reiterated to guardians
what is expected of them. A recruitment drive in the West Midlands
has also eradicated delays in appointing guardians to children’s
cases. In late 2002 there were 67 unallocated cases.

Despite these improvements, some legal experts believe the case
highlights fundamental problems with Cafcass.

The service refused to detail the experience Toni-Ann’s guardian
had, confirming only that she was a qualified social worker who had
worked with children and families.

But critics point out that when Cafcass was established in April
2001 the length of child protection experience required to become a
guardian was reduced from five years to three.

Liz Goldthorpe, chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children,
has been worried about guardians’ levels of experience, training
and qualifications for some time. She says: “There are some
extremely good Cafcass guardians, but if you lower the threshold
[for becoming a guardian] you have to compensate by having good
quality training.”

Alison Paddle, chair of guardians’ organisation Nagalro, agrees
this has led to the appointment of some guardians with less
experience, which has affected their ability to do the job.

She says: “You need to be sure of your ground and know how local
authorities work. You also need to have managers who understand
these things. For that everyone needs to have the practical
experience, knowledge base and confidence to follow that through
and justify what you are saying in court is based on

The well documented contract problems with self-employed guardians,
which developed soon after Cafcass’s inception, has also resulted
in some experienced guardians leaving the service.

Cafcass says Toni-Ann’s guardian did not have an excessive caseload
and is still working for the organisation. However, when a service
is under pressure and failing to cope with demand – as in
Birmingham 18 months ago – corners tend to be cut.

With such a large waiting list of cases, guardians were missing the
start of care proceedings, “which means you are responding rather
than shaping what’s happening and always trying to play catch-up”,
Paddle says. There are still more than 300 cases in England
awaiting allocation of a guardian.

When a guardian is appointed midway through a case, a guardian’s
“instinct” is paramount, says Goldthorpe. “You only really get that
through experience.”

She says the guardian’s role is to ask the “awkward questions no
one has thought of or doesn’t want to ask” – something the report
says Toni-Ann’s guardian failed to do.

“She should have been saying ‘what’s the story here – has anyone
checked this man out?’ It is like a jigsaw: if you don’t know what
bits are missing you can’t get a complete picture,” she adds.

Such failings rarely have the disastrous consequences they did for
Toni-Ann, but some fear ill-equipped guardians could be increasing
the risk of similar cases arising in the future.

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