The professional body for children’s guardians has hit out at Cafcass for saying it could prioritise care applications involving children living at home over those who are in foster care.
Nagalro said the claim from Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas, which is aimed at dealing with a huge rise in care applications following the baby Peter case, showed the body failed to understand the role of children’s guardians.
Two weeks ago, Douglas told Community Care that children in foster care were safer than those “still living in situations of potential harm”, who should be given “the highest priority”.
“Difficult day-to-day decisions”
This week, Douglas said the proposal was “more about difficult day-to-day decisions on how to allocate scarce resources than matters of principle or indeed law within the Children Act”.
However, Nagalro chair Ann Haigh said: “After eight years of existence, Cafcass and its chief executive still fail to grasp that the guardian’s role… is to ‘safeguard the interests of the child’, which is not the same as maintaining the child’s safety – that is the proper role of local authorities, police and health authorities.
Children in foster care “not necessarily safer”
Haigh also questioned if children in foster care were safer than those living at home, saying placements “frequently happen on an emergency basis without full consideration being given to the child’s needs”.
She said they were sometimes placed in foster care when they should be at home or with a kinship carer, and added: “Children are often separated from siblings and others they love, and once separated this can sometimes be impossible to undo; it can be difficult to create contact where none has taken place.
“The child’s guardian needs to be in place from the start to ensure short-term fixes do not become life-changing by default.”
Haigh said Cafcass was “struggling to balance its budget and cut waiting lists – two strategic objectives that are hopelessly in conflict”.
No confusion says Cafcass
In response, Douglas said there was “no confusion about the role of Cafcass” but it “just has difficulty responding to the rapid rise in demand for our services in recent months”, and needed to prioritise.
He said: “In the family justice system, prioritising is a complex business. Our work is wholly determined by the courts and their work in turn is wholly determined by the applications by local authorities in public law and parents in private law.
“Judges and Cafcass cannot easily say we will prioritise one case over another, in the same way local authorities or NHS Trusts can determine standalone eligibility criteria.
Early involvement in cases a priority
“I agree with Nagalro and the vast majority of judges that we need to be involved in cases at the outset and that the early stage of a case is where our involvement should be non-negotiable. That is what we aim to deliver, even if we are able to do less planned work later in cases as a result. That is the inevitable consequence.
“However, we will continue to keep every single case referred to us under constant review. We do that now and we will always do that.”
In June, Cafcass received its highest ever number of monthly care applications, 774, over twice the number received for the same month in 2008.