Cafcass practitioners' time is being absorbed by huge increases in paperwork driven by Cafcass' fear of further critical reports from Ofsted, according to Nagalro, professional association for court guardians and independent social workers.
As a result of the increase in workload, Cafcass waiting lists for court guardians are rapidly mounting across the country - 237 children are on the public law list in London, 40 in Bolton, 37 in Rochdale and 35 in Hertfordshire.
Nagalro Chair Ann Haigh said today: "Our members now have to spend much more time filling in forms and ticking boxes. Managers in some teams have instructed Cafcass practitioners not to attend court hearings but instead to spend time rearranging their files according to new guidelines."
"Cafcass and Ofsted need to appreciate that it is sound professional judgment that protects children, not over-regulation. Money that should be spent on professional time is spent on ever more managers, new logos and replacing the furniture."
"If Cafcass is serious about providing a timely service to children they must reduce the bureaucratic burden. They also have many highly skilled and experienced self-employed guardians they can call on to cope with peaks of demand like the current one."
Nagalro believes that Cafcass is failing to make use of this vital resource. Haigh said: "Cafcass inherited the most experienced workforce in social work but has steadily driven these valued professionals away."
"People whose reports are described as exemplary are told they will no longer be used because they did not tick a box, or their handwriting is not good enough."
Last Thursday Swindon District Judge Byron Carron summonsed the Cafcass Chief Executive, Anthony Douglas, to explain the delays in preparing reports for three cases before him. The judge held a live conference call with Mr Douglas lasting for 70 minutes and said: "No parents or children should have to wait many months before knowing the outcome of their proceedings. It makes a mockery of the words 'access to justice'."
Ms Haigh added: "Anthony Douglas states that there is a large increase in court care applications in March 2009 compared to March 2008. However from April - September 2008 there was a big decrease in applications - a consequence of changes in procedures - and overall the numbers for 2008-9 are comparable to previous annual figures. There is therefore no excuse for Cafcass providing a significantly worse service as compared to previous years."
Judith Timms OBE, Nagalro's policy officer and until recently a Cafcass Board member commented that "knee-jerk over-regulation risks masking bad practice, as in Haringey where boxes were ticked but Baby P still died. Compliance must not be confused with competence."