Despite having just signed a workload agreement, Cafcass and the family court union Napo clashed on Friday over claims that frontline staff are struggling with soaring caseloads and low morale.
On Friday morning Napo issued a four page press release citing various performance related statistics entitled 'Cafcass in meltdown as head office expands'. Napo made a number of claims including that Cafcass central office costs had increased by threefold since 2006/07 at the expense of frontline services, and a third of sickness leave in the second quarter of 2009 was stress related.
Napo blamed much of the deteriorating situation on Ofsted for demanding that practitioners change to devoting most of their time to keeping records on files rather than seeing children.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, commented: "The Cafcass front line is in meltdown. Staff are struggling to cope with workloads and systems that are dysfunctional. Delays before completing reports are unacceptable and are impacting adversely on children. Staff complain that they are constantly being monitored and inspected, which diverts them from work with families and children.
"The threefold growth in expenditure by the centre is therefore quite extraordinary. If ministers reduce the bureaucracy at head office to the level of three years ago, this will make available 180,000 additional hours for frontline practitioners," Mr Fletcher said.
However soon after Cafcass released a press release in response, simply entitled 'Napo claims are baseless'. It defended the increase in central office costs by highlighting that Cafcass have centralized by bringing a number of functions, which were previously run from local offices, under the control of the national office.
Cafcass also said that not all stress related sickness absence is connected with work and they estimate that of the 106 sickness absence cases in 2009, 60% were connected with work related stress. Another indicator of organisational health, Cafcass argued, is the rate of staff turnover. At 11.6% for the 12 months to December 2009 it is one of the lowest in the sector but in the last two quarters of 2009 the rate of practitioner turnover fell to 7.2% and then 4.6%.
Anthony Douglas, Cafcass' chief executive, said: "Cafcass is facing an unprecedented increase in demand for its services for vulnerable children and families. That much is accepted by all those working in the family justice system.
"Blaming one part of the system misses the point that demand is at an all time high. The President of the Family Court Division introduced a new way of working so that Cafcass could work on more cases and focus on those children and families most in need of support.
"We operate a triaging system whereby we guarantee an initial safeguarding analysis for all children rather than providing a premium service for a smaller number of children. All public bodies have to use taxpayer resources wisely and as our figures show our efforts to tackle the increase in cases are yielding results," Mr Douglas added.
A recent survey by Nagalro, the professional association for children's guardians, found that many Cafcass employees are suffering from stress and low morale due to an increase in bureaucracy.