Cafcass’s role in the spotlight: to advise or to safeguard?

Polarised opinions exist about the core functions of Cafcass. Camilla Pemberton talks to Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas and the body's critics about the clash of priorities

Polarised opinions exist about the core functions of Cafcass. Camilla Pemberton talks to Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas and the body’s critics about the clash of priorities

Under the leadership of Anthony Douglas (pictured), Cafcass has been accused of having a “bullying” management culture and of being in “meltdown”. On many occasions Community Care has reported Douglas’s defence of the organisation.

The accusations reached a crescendo with a report in 2009 by guardians’ organisation Nagalro, one of Cafcass’ staunchest critics. Distressed by what they see as a move away from a child’s right to a named guardian, Nagalro claims Cafcass is not fulfilling its statutory duties.

But Douglas has always maintained that Cafcass is doing the “best job possible in increasingly challenging times”, pointing out that staff are working on 26% more cases this year and that 96% of cases are now allocated.

He feels there is still a lack of strong understanding about the “depth of pressure” Cafcass is under. “If we are to offer a safe service to all children we simply can’t offer the traditional ways of working,” he says.

Bruce Clark, director of policy at Cafcass, says pressure was mounting on the body and the family courts prior to the Baby P case. “Even before Baby P there was an increase in the number of children being subject to care orders; the driver was already there.” Clark claims this is due to a “lower appetite for professional risk”, prompted by lower thresholds in the updated 2006 version of the Working Together guidance.

But Alan Bean, co-chair of the Association of Lawyers for Children (ALC), claims Cafcass’s structure and organisation has exacerbated its problems. “Cafcass has limited its ability to deal with increased referrals by moving towards an employed workforce. The proportion of self-employed guardians used by Cafcass is low, but they would really help in these times.”

Clark says Cafcass is now actively recruiting more self-employed contractors (SECs). He told Community Care many SECs had sought other work because Cafcass – prior to the “unprecedented” referral spike – had indicated there would not be as much work available. As a result many SECs were unavailable. Despite this, Clark says Cafcass spent £7m on 300 SECs in 2009-10, marginally down from 2008-9.

Core function

Lying behind much of the criticism levelled at Cafcass are differences of opinion over its true role. Douglas told Community Care that in challenging times Cafcass is forced to return to its “core function”, citing this as “fulfilling an important safeguarding role”. Bean, however, claims Cafcass has, “had an inspection regime imposed on it which ignores its core function as a courts advisory board in favour of safeguarding”.

Douglas points out that Cafcass’ safeguarding role was strengthened by recent legislation. “We have a statutory responsibility to risk assess, which was recently strengthened under section 16 of the Children Act. The expectation that we spend more time and resources on safeguarding is from legislation.”

One senior lawyer claimed Cafcass was “hijacked” by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2004, when legislation was updated. “Councils and local safeguarding children boards are set up to safeguard,” he said. “From Cafcass, we want sound advice on children’s welfare from experienced guardians who have met with the child and family.”

In the hope of clarifying matters, guardians, magistrates and children’s lawyers are now calling for a review of Cafcass. Margaret Wilson, chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “We can’t say what Cafcass is doing with its money or what decisions staff are making, but cases are still proceeding without a guardian and courts aren’t always getting the right advice. Something’s not right – we must get to the bottom of it.”

Bean believes that with a new government in place there is a “clear opportunity to start this important work”.

Published in Community Care magazine 27 May 2010 under the headline ‘To advise or safeguard?’

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