Local authorities' care plans are not always being sufficiently scrutinised by Cafcass guardians which, in the current risk-adverse climate, could lead to children being removed from their families unnecessarily, according to a survey by Nagalro.
The professional association for children's guardians conducted the survey to assess the impact of recent changes in family court services on children across the country. The survey is based on the responses to a questionnaire completed by children's guardians, all of whom carry out work for Cafcass.
The responses raise significant questions about the effectiveness of the duty systems set up by Cafcass to deal with backlogs. Respondents describe managers instructing frontline staff to undertake an arms-length, paper exercise of risk assessment where the child is often not seen.
In some Cafcass offices, guardians follow a duty advisor rota system, taking turns to provide urgent guidance to solicitors at the first hearing of a new case, but they may then hand the case on to a named guardian or the case will remain unallocated. Responses to the survey indicate that duty advisers risk making the wrong recommendations because of a lack of full information and a pressure to respond quickly.
Case examples in the survey indicate that the local authority case was being accepted uncritically, raising the fear that the wrong decisions may have been made and the options for the child not fully explored.
James Kingsley is an independent social worker and former Cafcass employed guardian who believes that Cafcass is failing to protect and promote the best interests of children.
"Under the current duty system, the guardian has probably not met the children, and almost certainly is likely to be followed by another guardian who might take a completely different view of what is best for the children but has played no part in the earlier decisions. If a third guardian is then introduced, as I am told happens, yet another view is taken of the proceedings and the best interests of the children. Knowing this, of course, the initial or duty guardian, who may be well aware that his upcoming colleagues may disagree with his assessment, plays safe", Mr Kingsley commented.
"This significant Nagalro survey comes at a very important time and must lead the thinking about how to rescue a dying service which, by the day, is losing the credibility which its professional workforce once held with distinction".
The survey also highlighted an increase in bureaucracy with over 80% amongst Cafcass employed guardians saying they had witnessed a significant increase in the administrative burden in 2009. Over eighty per cent of respondents also said that they were being instructed to prioritise tasks other than the work done with and for the child.
Several respondents to the survey said that they were being bullied by management at Cafcass. One Cafcass employed guardian in the South West responded: "Management styles - bullying. Colleagues sat at their desks in tears but too frightened to speak out. Pre-Ofsted - Family Court Advisors called into meetings and told what they could and could not say to Inspectors."
Nagalro surveyed its members during August and October 2009. The 73 respondents included employed and self-employed guardians who held 469 public law cases in total.
To download a copy of the Nagalro study click here.