Ofsted praises quality of social work practice at Cafcass despite record caseloads during pandemic

Inspectors find quality of practice has been sustained in public and private law despite high demand and significant family court backlogs caused by Covid

Image of social worker with family (credit: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock)
(credit: Monkey Business / Adobe Stock)

By Nicole Weinstein

Ofsted has praised the quality of social work practice at Cafcass despite practitioners managing record caseloads during the pandemic.

In a report based on a remote focused visit in April, published yesterday, inspectors said the quality of practice in public and private law cases had been sustained in the context of high demand and significant backlogs in the family courts caused by Covid.

On public law, Ofsted cited family judges as saying that the quality of children’s guardians’ work in care proceedings had not been compromised during the pandemic, despite their increased caseloads.

Inspectors found that a large majority of guardians’ reports were “fair, balanced and authoritative”, with early and permanent decisions to separate children from their parents “well-evidenced and tested” by practitioners.

Guardians ‘highly attuned to children’s needs’

Guardians were “highly attuned to children’s needs, family circumstances and emotional state”, with “exemplary” examples of direct work with disabled children and vulnerable young people in deprivation of liberty applications, inspectors observed.

The reporting, analysis and understanding of parental deprivation, vulnerabilities and risky behaviours were of a “high order”, the report said. But while guardians were “sympathetic and respectful to unmet parental needs”, “children’s needs for security, nurture and care [were] uppermost in their considerations, analysis and final recommendations”.

However, Ofsted also found that, while children’s cultural heritage and identity were closely considered in most cases, this was not sufficiently consistent, a point that senior leaders had plans to address.

In private law, family court advisers (FCAs) were also praised for capturing the lived experiences of children well, in the context of increased pressure caused by the pandemic, an unprecedented rise in private law applications, and a surge in section 7 reports ordered following the first hearing.

The report said: “There is consistent and commendable evidence during the pandemic of thoughtful and creative use of direct work tools being used to help children tell their story. Most FCAs do this with skill and care, providing informative insights that are supported by research.”

Record caseloads

The pressures on the family courts saw the number of open cases at Cafcass rise from 33,640 to 44,753 between April 2020 and April 2021. The Ministry of Justice gave the court advisory body an extra £3.4m in 2020-21 and increased its budget by £7.9m in 2021-22, to tackle the pressures, with Cafcass using the money to boost social worker numbers.

Ofsted said that a critical aspect of mitigating the impact of  Covid-19  had been Cafcass’s “effective, proactive action” to address the significant court backlog, which had been exacerbated by longer case durations, fewer final hearings, adjournments and constant high demand.

The report also praised the culture at the organisation, stating: “Leaders at CEO and board member level have sustained and improved Cafcass’s track record of placing children, their welfare and safety at the centre of their work across all teams nationally and locally. Underlying these principles is a closely aligned shared understanding and passionate culture centred around doing the ‘right thing’ for children.”

The main area for improvement highlighted in the report was the need for Cafcass to make the recording and evaluation of management oversight and supervision of social workers more consistent. Cafcass said that it had incorporated this and all other areas for improvement into its national plan and strategic priorities for 2021-22.

‘The most challenging period for our history’

Cafcass chief executive Jacky Tiotto said that Ofsted’s findings were a tribute to “every single person working at Cafcass”, who had helped “sustain and improve our track record of placing children, their welfare and safety at the centre of our work”.

She added: “We are proud, that through the most challenging period of our history, inspectors found an organisation holding on to, and able to evidence, a passionate culture centred around doing the right thing for children.

“We are determined that we will do more and better but for now, thank you to all our colleagues both within and outside of Cafcass for working through this difficult time with children’s best interests at the heart of all the decisions we make and the aspirations we have.”

Ian Lawrence, general secretary of Napo, the trade union that represents staff at Cafcass, said: “Napo welcomes the outcome of the Ofsted focused visit which is testament to our members’ unwavering dedication and commitment to the children and families within the family justice system during the unprecedented challenges of working throughout a global pandemic and a workload crisis.”

He added: “Napo agrees that absorbing the exponential and consistent rise in demand is not sustainable now or in the longer term both in relation to safe decision making and our members’ health and wellbeing and demands that further action is taken to alleviate these pressures now.”

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