Cafcass once helped kids by resolving parental disputes, says one staffer. But now it’s all targets and pointless protection work.
“The Children And Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) has two roles: private law work with separating parents disputing the arrangements for their children; and public law work, acting as guardian of children taken into care.
I have been a family court adviser for over 20 years, on the private law side. But a mix of cuts, misdirected panic after the Baby P case, and a target-driven culture means that I now do very little mediation between parents. Managers focus on detecting the tiny number of paedophiles and child murderers who cross our path; and hence, children are not getting the service they should.
In the past, we enabled parents to reach agreement in about 70 per cent of cases without needing to prepare a full report for the courts. Most of the rest would reach agreement before getting to a hearing, leaving only five per cent as contested hearings.
Negotiated settlements are better for children because they’re more likely to work, as the parents have agreed a plan rather than having one imposed. But now we lack the resources to mediate disputes, and more cases reach contested hearings. The extra cost must be considerable, as contested hearings can also require extra police checks on parents, drug and alcohol testing results, psychiatric reports and so forth.
What’s more, workloads have increased sharply. I typically work 7.30am till 6.30pm, without a break and eating lunch at my desk. Yet despite this, I feel that the quality of our service has declined. Home visits, for example, are now frowned upon; and we’re no longer allowed to visit at weekends because it requires unsocial hours payments, though this may be the only time that non-resident parents see their children.
To make matters worse, we now have a system whereby all court applications – such as those from parents over the child’s residence – are sent by local courts to our Central Intake Team in Coventry. All telephone calls also go there, and soon all the post will. There’s huge potential for mistakes, as Coventry staff don’t know our area. Requests for checks can get sent to the wrong councils, and the personal touch is lost.
In our own office we have been given numerous different templates, recording systems and data holding systems; and we’re supposed to be a paperless office, which is a working nightmare. Some of our cases involve long statements, and most staff highlight passages and have papers spread around them when writing reports; you can’t do that on a computer. Also, when giving evidence in court, you need your report and contact log for reference.
Of greatest concern, though, is the fundamental change in our work. Since cases such as Baby P, Cafcass has become obsessed with ensuring that no child will come to harm on its watch. Yet the number of these truly shocking cases is tiny in relation to the tens of thousands entering the court system.
On the rare occasions that a distraught father has killed himself and his children during contact, the fathers are rarely known villains or drug addicts; most simply snap, feeling that they’ve lost everything. But because Cafcass has been criticised by Ofsted about our risk assessments of harm to children, all the energies of the private law team are now focused on early intervention and child protection.
This means we do criminal record checks on both parents, ask the local authority whether a family is ‘known’, and interview each parent before writing safeguarding letters on each case. This is very time-consuming, but is done on the off-chance that we will identify a paedophile or child murderer; and because so many more cases are going to court, we produce these letters on cases that we’d never even have handled previously.
Meanwhile, we now have to do full court reports in much shorter timescales, further reducing our ability to work directly with families. These deadlines are set to meet our managers’ obsession with targets – yet many targets are completely irrelevant to the aims of the job: as long as the judge has the report by the time of the hearing, it makes no difference exactly when it was written.
We no longer have the time or resources to do dispute resolution, and I feel completely de-skilled. The dispute between the parents seems of no interest to Cafcass; safeguarding is everything. As a result judges no longer find us helpful, and previously good relationships have been severely tested.
The new system does not make children any safer, and we no longer assist judges to make good decisions for children. I used to love my job and had always planned to work with Cafcass until I retired, but am now seeking alternative employment."