Page last updated at 05:06 GMT, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Alarm over Cafcass's 'child court crisis'

By Paul Burnell
File on 4

A senior family judge has warned of an "alarming deterioration" in the protection of vulnerable children in care proceedings.

A young boy holding his head
Cafcass insiders claim its official caseload figures mask the true picture

Judge Graham Cliffe, who is based in York, told BBC File on 4 that support for children from Cafcass (Children and Family Court Advisory Service) was at a crisis level in his region of North Yorkshire.

"Make no mistake about it, vulnerable children are being sold short and many of us are very concerned," he said.

He believes that a backlog of cases means there are delays in children's cases coming to court.

Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas rejected these claims and said that North Yorkshire was the only court area out of 40 where the service did not have a working agreement on caseloads but he hoped to have one soon.

The service, which acts for children in care and those at the centre of dispute between divorced couples, is facing an unprecedented caseload.

Critics claim children are being affected by emergency measures introduced last summer to reduce the backlog of cases.

Each child should have a Cafcass guardian who investigates the child's case and speaks on its behalf to the court.

Guardians have a statutory responsibility to scrutinise a local authority's plans to make sure the children's best interests are safeguarded in care proceedings.

Emergency response

Courts wait until they receive a guardian's report before they make crucial decisions which affect children for the rest of their lives.

Last summer Justice Sir Mark Potter, the President of the Family Division and Head of Family Justice, announced interim guidance to allow Cafcass to take emergency measures.

But family justice practitioners have told File on 4 of their concern that the new procedures are putting children at risk.

Judge Cliffe said: "The service we used to have in York was a very good one but it has deteriorated at an alarming rate."

Staff shortages and a massive workload have meant that some children do not get a guardian until four to five months into the legal proceedings.

John Griffith, who resigned from the service's Stoke office in December, alleged that cases were allocated to workers regardless of their caseload.

Abused child (posed)
Cafcass has faced an increasing workload

"Cafcass will say they are managing to clear their backlogs but the only way they can do that is to put a guardian's name against a case.

"I know of cases where four to five months into a case there is no guardian allocated."

He said his workload had been doubled but there was no way he could have completed his caseload.

And Cafcass insiders claim the service's official caseload figures are concealing the true picture of the crisis because staff members are being given a massive caseload.

Harry Fletcher of the union Napo, which represents people who work in the family justice system, claimed that cases are also being given to managers who cannot do front-line work.

Data seen by File on 4 reveals that more cases are being allocated to managers in areas which have a high backlog of cases.

For example, in South Yorkshire one manager had 116 cases, one in Exeter 119, a London manager had 135 while one in Northampton had 207 against his name.

It is really unproductive to blame one agency out of many for the pressures on the whole system
Anthony Douglas
Chief executive, Cafcass

Cafcass dispute the figures.

Mr Douglas described suggestions that managers were being given extra caseloads as "completely fictitious".

He added: "Of course there are cases that sit with a manager to have first look at them before they are allocated, sometimes it takes a week before they are allocated, sometimes two weeks but what is important for me to get over is that thee cases are not sitting for long periods of time with managers and that managers are not becoming quasi practitioners, it is simply not true."

"I can guarantee you would find no more than five who have had at times more then 20 cases to care take."

He told File on 4 that cases had to be subject to triage, with the higher priority cases getting urgent attention. He added: "Unfortunately, some of the lower priority cases take months to deal with."

He said that the service was working on 30,000 cases, with the number of unallocated cases down to 400.

"That is still too many but we are no different from any front line organisation trying to manager this increased demand."

Mr Douglas added: "It is really unproductive to blame one agency out of many for the pressures on the whole system.

"We have got 20% less time per case because of the increase in cases but that still leaves a lot of professional time and in the cases that we look at day in and day out we still save children's lives and improve their outcomes."

Children's Minister Delyth Morgan told File on 4: "We need to make sure that guardians are in place when pivotal decision are being made and I would want to hear about cases where that does not happen."

File on 4 is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 23 February, at 2000 GMT, repeated Sunday, 28 February, at 1700 GMT. You can listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.

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