An “exceptional experience for every child, everywhere, every time”: that is the overriding objective that Cafcass has set itself in its new three-year strategy, launched yesterday.
The goal would be challenging at the best of times.
Cafcass’s workload is driven significantly by factors outside of its control, including parental decisions to settle questions about their children’s future through the courts and councils issuing care proceedings when children are experiencing significant harm.
But with the family justice system emerging from the pandemic with more cases than previously – despite a decrease over the past year – and significant delays across both public and private law proceedings, Cafcass has set itself a colossal task.
Delivering what children want
Chief executive Jacky Tiotto says there were discussions internally about whether Cafcass was setting itself up to fail. But it decided to go with the objective because it was based on what children involved in proceedings told the organisation that they wanted.
“They say, ‘I want to know who my social worker is, I want them to tell me what they’re doing, I want them to turn up on time, I don’t want to be waiting in a line’. We put that all together and said we could do that and more,” she tells Community Care.
It is ambitious, and it is going to be difficult but, we think, which children would we tell otherwise ‘you’re going to get a slightly less good version of ourselves’?”
Fundamental to achieving the objective is the practice of Cafcass’s more than 1,400 family court advisers (FCAs) and the support and oversight of their 300 or so managers.
Cafcass’s 2023-26 strategy: measures of success
Among the measures of success in Cafcass’s 2023-26 strategy are:
- Increasing proportion of practice that is rated good or better in audits, with reduced variation between operational areas.
- Increasing volume of feedback from children, with a greater proportion of this being positive.
- Improving the timeliness of allocation of public and private law cases to family court advisers.
- Reducing staff turnover and improving retention.
- Having safe caseloads.
- Reducing the number of children in proceedings lasting more than 26 weeks in public law and 52 weeks in private law.
Narrowing gap in quality
Among the strategy’s priorities is to further improve the quality and impact of social work practice, in order to deliver an exceptional service to every child.
Here, Cafcass is starting from a good base. Following a focused visit in January, Ofsted reported that the quality of practice remained strong and, overall, had improved since inspectors’ last check, in 2021.
And practice audits carried out in December last year graded 73% of work as good or outstanding, compared with 63% in 2020.
Now it wants to narrow the gap between the best practice and the rest.
This will involve further embedding its relationship-based practice framework, Together with children and families, and increasing the effectiveness of management oversight and supervision, which Ofsted highlighted as an area that had improved in its latest visit.
Improving management oversight
Since then, Cafcass has sought to increase management capacity by reconfiguring its practice supervisor role – which involved holding cases while also providing supervision to FCAs – into two new positions: assistant service manager (ASM) and consultant family court adviser. Unlike practice supervisors, ASMs line manage some FCAs.
This has been challenging, with union Napo raising concerns about the resulting workload demands on ASMs.
Tiotto says the reform has been the right one in terms of improving management oversight, but admits it has been challenging reducing ASMs’ caseloads in order to achieve this.
“There are places where those managers are still holding the cases that they were holding before they were in their new jobs,” she says. “And we’ve taken the conscientious decision in most of those cases that until the case is heard in court, the same social worker should hold that case.
“But that does mean those managers are under pressure and we are trying to accommodate what that means.”
Protecting caseloads for FCAs is also a key ingredient of improving practice, under the 2023-26 strategy.
These are now below pre-pandemic levels, averaging 20.3 for work after first hearing teams (down from 22.5 in March 2020) and 37.7 in those covering work to first hearing (down from 44.5).
However, such reductions have not happened everywhere, with 55% of FCAs carrying more than 20 open cases, which is the level the organisation believes enables relationship-led practice.
Caseloads are the vital sign of social work health, in terms of what the job is and what is required of you,” says Tiotto.
“We’re at caseload levels that are below the pandemic but are still not good enough given the expectations we have for what that work looks like.”
During the pandemic, Cafcass protected caseloads by holding them in its duty system or with practice supervisors. It also introduced a prioritisation protocol, where lower-priority private law cases in high-demand areas are overseen by a service manager until they can be allocated to an FCA.
There are further internal reforms that Tiotto says will help bring down caseloads over time. One is the use of post-assessment hubs, in which a manager oversees cases for which the work ordered by the court has been completed but a trial is at least six weeks away or not listed, removing them from the FCA’s caseload.
Otherwise, tackling caseloads will go hand in hand with addressing increasing delay, in both public and private law, another aim of the strategy.
The figures here are stark. On private law, the duration of work after first hearing averaged 61 weeks from April to June 2023, up 22 weeks on pre-Covid levels.
Tiotto says a key problem concerns the rules for managing cases, the child arrangements programme, which prevents FCAs from seeing children before the first hearing, during which time they carry out safeguarding checks and interview parents.
The private law pathfinder, in Dorset, is testing enabling Cafcass to gather much more information early in the process, with a presumption that FCAs will speak to the child before the first hearing, in order to identify the key issues in the case. Tiotto says this is leading to earlier resolution of cases.
“The longer a case is held by a social worker the more likely in the family justice system it is to have a second report ordered or a repeat report ordered – and once you are into second and third ordered work, the delay is pretty chronic,” she adds.
In public law, care and supervision cases averaged 44 weeks in April to June 2023, up from 3o weeks in 2017-18 and well above the statutory 26-week limit, under the public law outline (PLO).
With the relaunch of the PLO in January this year, the family justice system is focused on bringing case lengths down towards 26 weeks.
Achieving this will involve minimising the use of experts, keeping the number of hearings per case to three and limiting the scope of the court’s decision making to whether the care or supervision order threshold is met, permanence provisions, contact arrangements and final orders.
Alongside this, Cafcass and 25 local authorities are testing how pre-court meetings between practitioners from each agency could help address delay, by improving the guardian’s understanding of work done with the family and of the social worker’s analysis of the case. The idea is that this will reduce the need to commission expert assessments.
Tiotto is confident that the PLO relaunch will drive case lengths down towards 26 weeks over the next couple of years. Along with the work on private law, this would reduce Cafcass caseloads, “if the world stood still”.
Tough social worker job market
However, the world often does not stand still – particularly in the labour market for children’s social workers.
“It has been our experience that if we find ourselves in an area where a local authority doesn’t do well with Ofsted, they suddenly start hiking up the staffing numbers and the pay and we start to lose people,” says Tiotto. “So that is slightly out of our control.”
Cafcass compares well with councils in relation to its vacancy rate and use of agency staff. For example, its agency staffing rate for FCAs was 2.5% in June 2023, compared with 17.6% in local authority children’s services as of September 2022.
However, its turnover rate – 15.5% in June – has risen significantly to almost the same level as local authorities (17% as of September 2022). This situation has not been helped by the fact that Cafcass’s annual pay rise has lagged behind that in most English councils in six of the past seven years.
The organisation’s approach to salaries is governed by civil service pay policies, which not only constrain what Cafcass can offer as an annual increase but also prevent it from offering social workers the additional incentives councils often resort to, such as market supplements.
Improving career progression
“We’re good for two years for staff, we develop them, they do well, they get very good court experience.
“Then they’re very attractive for local authorities, who can entice them away with golden hellos that I can’t make, and I also can’t make go away because I don’t have the flexibility that local authorities have because of the civil service pay rules.”
Tiotto says Cafcass remains an attractive employer for social workers who want to practise in the courts, including because of its focus on creating a “safe practice environment”.
But she says it needs to be able to offer staff a career development pathway comparable to that in local authorities, to improve retention after two years.
“If you’re a local authority social worker at two years, in most places you mostly progress to a senior social worker grade because you’re deemed to have that skillset and that enables you to do other things for the organisation. We need to have something like that.”