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Cafcass could have responded more quickly and cost effectively to the large and sustained increase in care cases from local authorities following the Baby Peter tragedy, had it fully resolved known organisational challenges, according to a report today by the National Audit Office (NAO).
Although the NAO's accepts that Cafcass's could not have predicted the sustained increase in care cases from November 2008, it criticises the advisory service's management for only reacting to the problem in April 2009.
Cafcass had to deal with an extra 200 new care cases each month from November 2008 - around 40 per cent more. Simultaneously, the courts needed advice on hundreds more children involved in family breakdowns. Consequently, the allocation of dedicated family court advisers to children's cases slowed, and delays in providing advice to the courts increased. Between November 2008 and July 2009, the number of children involved in care and other public law proceedings without a dedicated family court adviser grew from around 250 to 1,250.
In the report, the NAO claim that Cafcass was not well placed to respond efficiently and effectively because it had only partly resolved known organisational challenges around management information, IT systems and staff engagement by the time demand started to increase.
Cafcass increased its capacity and, between August 2009 and June 2010, reduced the proportion of children without a family court adviser, from 10 per cent to 2 per cent in care cases and from 34 per cent to 5 per cent in family breakdown cases. The Department allowed Cafcass to bring forward £4.6 million from the 2009-10 and 2010-11 budgets and gave Cafcass an extra £4.8 million.
Following the publication this week of their annual report, it is clear that Cafcass continues to face enormous challenges in meeting the needs of vulnerable children and has responded with a major rethink of how it manages its cases. It is now implementing a £10 million transformation programme that should allow it to improve how it deals with future fluctuations in demand. In order to be successful, these changes will require greater organisational cohesiveness and improvements in staff morale.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said today: "Cafcass's ability to respond to the surge in demand for its services was limited by the known problems within the organisation which, had management made more and faster progress in dealing with them, could have reduced the negative effect of the rise in demand.
"Cafcass's transformation programme brings together plans for major organisational improvements and offers the opportunity to improve its capacity and responsiveness to future fluctuations in demand. However, the programme needs further work if Cafcass is to rise to the enormous challenge it still faces and improve how it serves vulnerable children and families," Mr Morse added.
In response to the NAO's report, Cafcass chief executive, Anthony Douglas, highlighted the advisory service's progress in increasing its caseload citing figures from Cafcass' Case Management System showing that in June 2010 there were 11,243 care cases allocated to a Cafcass Children's Guardian, a 28.5% increase on the 8,747 allocated care cases in July 2009. Cafcass were unable to provide like-for-like figures for June 2009.
Mr Douglas said: "As the report rightly states, all organisations working in the family justice system are interdependent and it is crucial that we continue to work together in facing the challenges ahead. The implementation of the President's Interim Guidance and our own new operating priorities and ways of working have been critical in helping us to provide a service to many more children. I am hopeful that these collaborative working relationships with the courts and our other partners continue.
"Our work on the transformation programme this year will help us to tackle the ongoing challenges facing us. We'll be developing and improving the way in which we work with the rising numbers of children and families referred to us and ensuring that we have the right support in place to assist our Family Court Advisers who work with them," he added.