Cafcass criticised for appointment of ‘inexperienced’ practitioner to complex case

Children's guardian slammed by judge for 'inadequate' report and 'woeful' court appearance

Photo: tashatuvango/Fotolia

A High Court judge has severely criticised a Cafcass children’s guardian after she submitted an inadequate report and gave “woeful” evidence to a hearing in late August, and questioned managers’ decision to appoint her to the case.

Mr Justice Keehan also found fault with assessments by a Leicestershire council social worker who was handling the case, which concerned two half-siblings and where they should live after suffering abuse at their mother’s home.

Contrary to both the guardian’s and local authority’s recommendations, the judge ordered the half-brother and sister, named as ‘EF’ and ‘GH’ respectively, be placed with GH’s biological father, ‘CD’, and his partner, rather than separated.

Justice Keehan said the social worker and guardian, as well as a parenting assessor, had “fallen into error” in their evaluations, and had mistakenly been guided by a nonexistent ‘right’ of children to live with biological parents.

Too little thought had been given to the likely emotional and psychological harm the children, aged four and three, would experience if separated, the judge concluded.

‘Constellation’ of injuries

The half-siblings’ mother, who had suffered a severe head injury in 2011 that had caused ongoing cognitive problems, was estranged from the children’s fathers. She had only been involved with EF’s father, ‘IJ’, for a few weeks, and had subsequently told IJ that both children were CD’s, meaning IJ did not initially play a role in his son’s life.

During 2016, the children were placed on a child protection plan by Northamptonshire council relating to neglect, in the wake of domestic abuse between CD and the mother. The couple separated in 2017 before the mother started a relationship with a new partner, ‘KL’, who moved in soon afterwards, at the start of 2018.

Within a few weeks, EF began suffering injuries, which were noticed at nursery, with his mother claiming he had been hit by his grandmother while in CD’s care. A consultant paediatrician deemed most of the marks “to be obvious non-accidental injuries, probably [to] the ears by pinching, and bruises to neck and forehead by blows”.

There was at first considered to be no evidence against KL or the mother, meaning the child was discharged into their care. An initial child protection conference was convened for the end of the month, but the day before it was due to take place, EF’s mother took him to hospital with severe bruises to his genitals and other injuries to his face.

Two consultant paediatricians concluded the genital bruising may well have involved a ligature, and both EF and GH were placed under police protection and subsequently into foster care. Neither the mother nor KL admitted to causing the “constellation” of injuries suffered by EF. But with neither seeking to care for the children in future, Justice Keehan ruled it would be “fruitless” trying to identify which of them was the perpetrator.

‘Serious omission’

In the wake of EF and GH being removed from their mother, positive parenting assessments were carried out on both half-siblings’ fathers and their partners. The assessor, however, raised concern over their being placed together with CD and his partner, who already had two small girls, as creating a risk that needs could go unmet.

But, Justice Keehan found, the assessor did not take sufficient account of the potential short- or long-term harm EF and GH might suffer if placed separately. “She took the view that the consequences of separation could be ameliorated by regular contact,” the judge said. “This is a serious omission.”

The social worker, meanwhile, in a sibling assessment, “referred to and relied on IJ’s right to care for his biological son and EF’s right to be cared for by his natural father”, Justice Keehan noted. “She was wrong to do so.”

The judge praised IJ, who had only been in contact with his son since May 2018, for the “qualities as a man” that had enabled him to quickly form a deep bond with the child.

But he said he found it “almost inconceivable” that CD, who had initially cared for both half-siblings as his own, would overlook their needs. He added that CD’s partner, QR, was a “most impressive witness” who was “obviously keen” to develop a better understanding of what she and CD could do to meet EF’s needs.

‘Contradictory’ evidence

Turning to the Cafcass guardian’s report, which backed the local authority’s position, Justice Keehan found that while acknowledging possible harm if the children were separated, its analysis of potential consequences was much too shallow.

When it came to the guardian’s turn to give evidence, she claimed that having listened to other witnesses there was a “gap in the evidence” around this issue. The guardian called for the case to be adjourned so an independent expert could be consulted.

“I do not begin to understand the reason or reasons why the guardian identified gaps in evidence which she heard less than a week after preparing her final report,” Justice Keehan said.

“The oral evidence neither added to nor detracted from the written evidence from the local authority and yet in her report the guardian had raised no issue or concern; still less did she identify ‘a gap in the evidence’,” he added. “Worse, the inadequacy of the guardian’s consideration of this issue merely compounded the failure by all professionals to engage with and consider sufficiently the adverse impact and harm of separating EF and GH.”

The judge went on to rule out the guardian’s own evidence when it came to making a decision on the children’s arrangements, on the basis that it was “contradictory” and lacking in logic. He dismissed her call for an expert report as “unfathomable” and likely to cause “unconscionable delay”.

The judge also criticised Cafcass for appointing the guardian to the case.

“This guardian has 25 years’ experience as a social worker but just 14 months’ as a guardian,” he said. “She had never previously seen a case through to final hearing – why local Cafcass managers thought it appropriate to appoint so inexperienced a guardian to such a complex case, I do not know.”

‘Stronger management oversight needed’

Responding to the judgment, Cafcass’ chief executive, Anthony Douglas, said: “We thought the appointment of the guardian was sound having considered the issues in the case and her experience.

“The complexity of the case did increase throughout the proceedings,” Douglas added. “With hindsight, stronger management oversight was needed. We acknowledge the judge’s comments and will continue to develop our model of case oversight.”

A Leicestershire council spokesperson said the authority was “carefully considering” the judgment.

“We will ensure that any learning from the case is taken forward in our future practice,” the spokesperson said.

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13 Responses to Cafcass criticised for appointment of ‘inexperienced’ practitioner to complex case

  1. Tom J October 10, 2018 at 11:20 am #

    It will unnerve some local authorities that fourteen months is deemed as being in experienced! All I can say is that there wont be many experienced workers left by this definition.

    Moreover, anyone reading this who is experienced (aka I guess 3years plus) will be nervous as I assume that this means all ‘complicated’ court cases must now all go to you, which is easier said than done when there are very few social workers who hang around for a long time in heavy end court and cp work.

    • Deedee October 10, 2018 at 7:13 pm #


    • J October 11, 2018 at 7:25 am #

      Well said Tom J

    • Alicat October 11, 2018 at 8:44 am #

      Having had some…er…history with Cafcass – questioning their gendered risk averse approach at times – I was amused when I was a locum and an agency called me mistakenly when trying to recruit for a Cafcass office. I highlighted my ( nearly 7 years) Cafcass experience in both public and 16.4 cases and he said ‘ actually they want someone who’s not done guardian work before’. My cynical view is that independent thinkers don’t really fit in. Nonetheless it IS a different role to LA social worker and complex cases require a solid skills base and analytical thinking.

    • Erin October 11, 2018 at 5:55 pm #

      Spot on. Teams where I worked had majority of nqsw as workers with years of experience walked after putting up with never ending crap. If people aren’t supported and valued there’ll be no one left who wants ti do the job.

    • John October 11, 2018 at 7:58 pm #

      No problem with your comments Tom. They do make a point, as I think everyone tries to do, when offering an opinion.

      While I agree the Judge could have been more explicit in his choice of words, and that on the face of it inexperience is not the issue, I think the fundamental points were made. The work done was poor and with a day’s experience or 10,000 good work is good and bad work is bad.

      We as social workers need to understand and accept when our work is not good enough. It sounds like the Guardian’s input was unhelpful and would lead to further delays for the children if her recommendation of more time was taken up.

      I would have liked to hear that the judgment also led to clear direction around contact between EF and his father, IJ, about how EF would benefit from having 2 fathers and so on. The point here is that bridges are seriously needed in the lives of these 4 children and their care givers.

      Whatever the excuses, however easy it is for Judges. I, for one, have enjoyed receiving their positive feedback and would not want my work in court to be considered shoddy, particularly given the implications for the children and families that our work so immeasurably affects.

  2. Eboni October 10, 2018 at 3:16 pm #

    I could not agree more. 25 years experienced turns into an inexperienced 14 months as a CAFCASS Guardian has huge repercussions for Children’s Services. Might it be more appropriate to say the Guardian got it wrong in those proceeding. Clearly Judges never get anything wrong of course. The judge also said that the SW experience did not include concluding court cases. Therefore the SW had 25 years experience but none in Care or PLO proceedings which is entirely different omission altogether. So did Cafcass appoint a SW who did not have experience of PLO or Care Proceedings ?

  3. Annoymous October 10, 2018 at 10:26 pm #

    Lots of critics about social work and carcass anyone working in child protection can get it wrong and dealing with such complex issues we can all reflect and improve but it worries me the harshness of judges and other critics that they want to make oh so public the mistakes of those working in pressure stress lots of paperwork no time often too many cases and yet they still want to punish in the most public way. It is like a public flogging but rather than physical it is emotional now. And they wonder why there is a shortage in child protection social workers

  4. Anonymous October 11, 2018 at 8:03 am #

    You said Tom J. It is worrying to find out that a SW who has practised in front line for 25 years and nearly two years as a Guardian is inexperienced. That about covers more than 2/3 with far less experience both with front line and court.

  5. Anon October 11, 2018 at 9:15 pm #

    I’m simply pleased to learn that there’s a judge out there who understands the long-lasting importance of sibling relationships. Both Cafcass and LAs should take heed – we’re too quick to recommend separation of siblings.

  6. Maria October 12, 2018 at 8:14 pm #

    The seperation of siblings has life long & detrimental negative effects on children, sometimes they only ever have each other!

  7. LA social worker October 13, 2018 at 8:38 pm #

    How do you do 25 years as a social worker and 14 months as a guardian but have never seen a case through to final hearing?

    Also – experience doesn’t equal quality. It doesn’t sound like the social workers in the la and cafcass were inexperienced, it does sound like they weren’t very competent.

  8. sw111 October 17, 2018 at 11:38 am #

    Sibling relationship is enduring and long-lasting one and it is a significant factor in considering long term plans. Good, the judge pointed that out and LA and Cafcass should learn from such directions.