Baroness Pitkeathley, the chair of the Children and Family Court
Advisory and Support Service, believes the organisation has been
treated unfairly by the press during its turbulent three-year
So it seems one of those strange ironies that Cafcass’s head office
is in Newspaper House, a 1960s-style office block just around the
corner from Fleet Street.
Cafcass will be moving to new offices later in the year and
Pitkeathley hopes it will signify a move away from the negative and
demoralising media attention that has surrounded it.
“Cafcass has been an organisation in a defensive mode and the press
hasn’t helped that,” she explains.
“Even from afar [she joined the organisation in December 2003] I
was aware that Cafcass had an unfair bad press and been blamed for
difficulties not of its own making.”
But in many ways this has increased her appetite for the job. “I
relish a challenge and this was a job that needed doing. I was
privileged to be approached for it and I really wanted to do
something to help.”
You would expect a new chair to be this upbeat, especially one as
experienced as Pitkeathley. She has been a chair of two other
non-governmental public bodies and is about to relinquish her role
as chair of the soon to be scrapped New Opportunities Fund. Since
1997, she has been an active peer in the House of Lords.
Pitkeathley works two days a week for Cafcass. Her contract runs
until December 2005, and by her own admission, “we won’t achieve
everything in that time”. Nevertheless, she plans to draw on her
strengths to transform the organisation.
“I am a dogged campaigner and good at getting issues discussed and
getting them on the agenda. I have an inclusive style and recognise
the importance of team work,” she adds.
Maybe Pitkeathley was picked for the job because she is someone
with political influence and a track record in taking the fight to
the media. She was an active campaigner for carers’ rights in the
1980s and went on to become the first chief executive of the Carers
She will have to draw on all her skills if she is to change the
image of Cafcass. Last year’s damning Department of Constitutional
Affairs select committee report into Cafcass was the culmination of
two years of problems on operational, managerial and organisational
levels. One of its recommendations was for the make up of the
Cafcass board to be reviewed mainly because many of its members
lacked knowledge of front line practice in children and family law.
Last October the chair and 12 other board members resigned. Six
months on, a new board has been recruited, made up of professionals
with credentials in legal and children’s matters, answering those
who voiced fears the drawn-out process reflected difficulties in
attracting quality candidates.
“Any appointments that have to be signed off by the government take
longer than anticipated,” says Pitkeathley. “They have a tremendous
commitment to children’s issues, have a great deal of experience
and come from a variety of backgrounds. They have an understanding
of what a board’s role is.”
However, there was no place on the new board for the one former
board member praised by the committee for giving an insight into
the failings of Cafcass. A parliamentary inquiry earlier this year
showed that the decision to suspend Judy Weleminsky from the board
– she refused to resign – had been partly influenced by her giving
evidence to the select committee.
“I’ve known Judy for many years,” says Pitkeathley. “There was a
long list and short list and she didn’t appear on either. I don’t
know if she applied but I am very happy with the board I have.” It
transpired that Weleminsky had reapplied.
New board appointed
One of the central issues in Weleminsky’s case was whether she had
a responsibility as a board member to act corporately, and whether,
by whistleblowing, she’d failed to do that. However, Pitkeathley
believes Cafcass needs a board which is “strong but corporate” in
While Pitkeathley is understandably keen to look ahead, she
recognises the mistakes of the past cannot be brushed under the
carpet. However, she has a point when saying many of the problems
highlighted by the select committee were representative of
Cafcass’s first year.
“It was unfortunate timing and dredged up a lot of things. It had a
devastating effect on the organisation’s morale and the
resignations followed. This was unprecedented in many ways,” she
Many of the problems highlighted were already being addressed, she
says. Delays in guardians being allocated by Cafcass to children
have come down substantially in the past year.
Despite delays now standing at around 300 in England – it was
running at double this in late 2002 – “we’re not complacent”, says
Pitkeathley. “Any delays are too much, but they may depend on
levels of demand and throughput of the courts. I think Cafcass has
been blamed for things that have a wider genesis.”
According to the select committee, Cafcass needs to attract back
former self-employed guardians that left the service over a
contract dispute. Guardians’ organisation Nagalro has welcomed
Pitkeathley’s appointment and constructive approach – she has
written to self-employed workers urging them to come back.
“Our relationship is much better and I am constantly in contact
with Nagalro. I’m not saying all the problems of the past can be
wiped out but I am confident we will attract more back,” says
Cafcass is also working with the Department for Education and
Skills – it transferred to the DfES in late 2003 – to clarify the
boundaries of its relationship. It is also currently negotiating an
increase in its budget – £95m last year – with the DfES for
Another major criticism was the training of Cafcass employees. This
was brought to the fore recently with the criticisms of the Cafcass
guardian in the Toni-Ann Byfield case. Some believe that
inexperienced guardians are being given too much responsibility
because Cafcass has reduced the amount of experience professionals
need to become one and are multi-skilling guardians so they can
work on public and private law cases, instead of specialising in
one or the other.
Pitkeathley admits people are right to be concerned. “It is a very
difficult issue. On the one hand, we need more people but on other
we are saying there is not enough training. But it is not just
Cafcass that has workforce problems – the whole social care sector
“Convergence is where we’re aiming for but you don’t converge
people overnight. You need to have support so people can figure out
what their needs are. Some people may come into the organisation
with those skills while others need training and development,” she
says. A new training programme currently being rolled out should
help with that, she adds.
Over the next 18 months Pitkeathley wants to develop links with the
Association of Directors of Social Services and local authorities
“because we’re fishing in the same pool for workers”, and increase
the amount of preventative work Cafcass does.
“Contributing to the preventative agenda is where Cafcass has
always intended to be, but we can’t be doing that at the expense of
our core business of looking after vulnerable children.”
She has written 10 books on a range of social work, health and
carers issues, as well as one on age gap relationships – “it’s out
of print and before you ask it wasn’t based on personal
She believes she has been able to apply the discipline of
completing a project to her writing. “I get things done – I’ve
never missed a deadline in my life.”
Cafcass will be hoping she is true to her word.