Putting children and young people first in the family courts


Anthony DouglasWelcome to the blog of Anthony Douglas, Chief Executive of Cafcass. Anthony will be blogging each month, sharing news from Cafcass and talking about the family justice system at large.

“Get ‘out there’ to find out what’s going on"

Anthony Douglas  Last week, as I do most weeks, I met with a range of people within our sector. This
  included a regular national Family Justice Board meeting, the Family Justice Council
  memorial lecture to honour the work of Bridget Lindley, given by Lord Justice McFarlane,
  and a Women’s Aid national conference.


  It is always hard to find time to get out much, as pressure of the day job keeps most of
  us fully occupied inside our organisations. But to stay inside all the time means you don’t
  so often find out what is going on in the rest of the sector. Often the knowledge I gain
  from this, I can link back into my day job and hopefully be better as a result. Some
  examples last week were finding out about the work of GlobalARRK and the work of DefendDigitalMe.


GlobalARRK is a charity supporting ‘stuck parents’ – parents who moved abroad with their children but who after a relationship breakdown find they cannot return to the UK. This is because their children have become habitually resident in the new country and subject to the laws of that country. This issue will inevitably become more complicated with Brexit.  


DefendDigitalMe is a charity campaigning to protect children’s personal data from ending up in the wrong hands. While it focuses on large scale databases like the National Pupil Database, it also draws attention to other safety concerns for children in the digital world. They told me about a new generation of smart toys, like dolls and animals, which through either fault or design can act as conduits for people to contact, track or monitor children. This digital development can be misused by anyone wishing to groom or exert coercive control over a child. It is an example of how technology and social media, without proper awareness and adequate privacy and security settings, can facilitate invasive contact even if it has been barred by a court.


Both charities, like so many others, are run by committed parent volunteers, who have experience themselves of the issues.


At the memorial lecture, Lord Justice McFarlane questioned whether our model of adoption was fit for purpose in 2017, especially for children adopted today who will in all probability live into the 22nd century. Law and policy lag behind social and digital trends, and we have to get ‘out there’ to find out what’s going on if our practice on individual cases is to be relevant and up to date.


Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 00:00

"Our challenge is to tackle the major resourcing issues at a time when the public spending outlook remains grave"

Anthony DouglasWe recently co-convened a seminar with the Nuffield Foundation, aiming to understand the reasons for the continuous rapid growth in care applications, and indeed in the number of children and young people coming into care. We concluded there was no single underlying reason but rather a number of factors over the last decade which have led to continuous upward pressure. These include:

- the media reporting of the Baby P case late in 2008

- more general criticisms of local authorities resulting in more risk averse decision-making but also better reviewing and less drift for children

- and recent case law leading to fewer voluntary agreements with parents to look after their children, and more use of formal routes into care via family courts.

Even local authorities like Essex who have reduced their numbers of children in care  through investing in early help and managing risk at home, have seen numbers increase again recently because of demographic pressures. Though we also heard from some local authorities who are managing to reduce their number of care applications. In 2016 for example, Hertfordshire reduced their number from 132 to 107, a fall of 19%. Their number of child protection plans halved, from 1032 to 530. Their school attendance was up by 36%. Some present wondered about the long-term outcomes for children who are stepped down from the edge of care, and the need for more targeted research into vulnerable groups. Looking at the right ‘big data’ was another theme of the day.

As with most complex problems, it was easier to diagnose the problems than identify clear solutions. Being in care is a safe haven for many children. For others, particularly older children, successful permanence may mean achieving stability for a short but significant period of time, say a year or eighteen months, to halt ‘a race to the emotional and psychological bottom’. We do need to make cases smaller and to make sure that children can continue to live at home where risk can be managed there. It is wholly unethical to be in care because of a postcode lottery effect because you live in an area where risk at home is not being managed well. Finally, being in care is only as good as the care plan in place and the placement for the child. Too many of those fall short of the levels of care and reparative parenting vulnerable children need.

Our challenge is to tackle these major public policy and resourcing issues at a time when the public spending outlook remains grave and there is no end to the current pressures in sight. Despite this, the seminar was positive. It was not a counsel of despair but a group of senior leaders determined to make changes where possible to improve the service children receive.

Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 00:00

Our year at Cafcass and looking forward to 2017


Anthony Douglas2016 has been our busiest year on record. Public law work is increasing by around 15% year on year and private law work by around 11%. These increases are the latest in what has now become a long-term trendline. Attention inevitably turns to how we can continue to absorb this level of increase. And in doing so still meet our unshakeable objective – to ensure that the next child referred to us receives an immediate service, and a good service at that. 


We will have to work hard to keep average caseloads in Cafcass manageable and to be able to continue to guarantee a good level of service to each child. We must allow our practitioners sufficient professional time on each case to be able to understand a child’s situation. They need sufficient time to make enquiries to inform recommended action plans for each child to a court charged with taking decisions with potentially profound long-term consequences. 


One aspect of this will be to direct extra frontline resources to those parts of the country seeing the largest increases. We already have a rapid response system in which we top up those local budgets under greatest pressure. We will continue to do that because while many parts of the country are seeing very large increases in work, other local systems are successfully reducing demand. For example, public law demand has gone down by over 30% in Coventry, 15% in Lincolnshire and 40% in Wolverhampton. This is partly through highly effective Pre-Proceedings Panels which concentrate on putting in place care packages for children on the edge of care. But also through the robust gatekeeping of potential applications rather than the practice of issuing more speculative applications which I am seeing much too often. 


This year has tested our resilience, as individuals, as teams, as an organisation and as a family justice system. Despite these pressures, we have not fallen over. There are lessons in that though. If we are to stay on top of the work, we will have to take steps either to increase capacity or to find smarter ways of working which use fewer resources. That is hard when all obvious savings have been made already. However, there is always scope for innovation and one of our main challenges in 2017 will be to innovate in safe and professionally sound ways. This will be through a combination of safely diverting cases from court and finding ways of progressing cases more quickly and effectively when they do come into court. I believe there are programmes we can introduce to do just that, building on what we have all been doing in 2016. For example our out of court helpline pilots and our faster section 7 report programmes in private law cases. 


Finally, I encourage everyone working in the family justice system to take a well-earned break over Christmas and the New Year. We all need to come back re-energised for the undoubted challenges ahead next year.


Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 00:00

The needs of children in cases featuring radicalisation

Anthony DouglasEarlier this year, Cafcass published findings from the 54 cases featuring an element of concern about radicalisation we were involved with during a six month period, from July to December 2015. So far this year, we have worked with a similar number of cases. Some of these have involved children being at risk of harm by exposure to extreme online material, and a new and sophisticated form of online grooming of teenagers has been identified.


Our cases cover a wide yet still mostly urban geography across England. Radicalisation concerns feature in as many cases in private law and public law. In some private law cases, allegations of radicalising by one parent against the other are forming part of the separation weaponry. These claims are often proving just as hard to substantiate as other more customary types of allegation. In most cases, we find that such allegations are dropped by the parties or are subsequently discounted by the court.


Where the concerns are about a child – rather than an adult – being radicalised, these children and their families are generally not previously known to the local authority. This sets them apart from most other cases that feature within Cafcass’ exploitation strategy, which also covers child trafficking and child sexual exploitation (CSE). To assist in understanding the needs of children in these cases we use our CSE assessment tool – because of the grooming element of radicalisation – and standard risk assessment. Risks are assessed in the round as part of an overall balancing exercise and welfare evaluation.


Very few children have needed to be removed from their parents as a result of concerns. Where they have been removed, they have either returned home with concerns receding or been placed with relatives who have kept them safe. A small number of teenagers have come into the care system and stayed there. Most children have been supported or monitored in the community. This is sometimes as children in need but more frequently as children falling within the local authority’s Channel Statutory duty or under the Statutory Prevent Duty Guidance.


These statutory duties need to be set alongside children’s legislation which emphasises the welfare of the child. Each case requires a balancing exercise to be carried out before taking action, unless the risk is immediate. Primarily this is when there is a duty to take action to prevent parents removing their children to war zones. In some ways, the balancing exercise is the same as we have to carry out in other areas where family and civil law intersect, such as a decision about deportation. We are building up our knowledge of these cases as more come to light and as the forms radicalisation evolve. We will be producing specific materials for staff in the New Year in light of recent cases and of events around the world which have an impact on vulnerable children in the UK.


There has not been a case which has attracted the attention of the media since July this year. It shows how a huge issue at a point in time can fade from public view without a new angle. All the while, professional work is ongoing in the background to gain better understanding of the issues.


Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 00:00

"Why I am supporting the power to innovate"

Anthony DouglasThe best social work has always been innovative, trialling new ways of working in advance of policy and legislation catching up. Understanding the damage done to children through neglect and abuse and also their powers of recovery in a therapeutic family or care environment, were innovative in their day. This understanding challenged a ruinous orthodoxy and a conspiracy of silence about how poor the care was for too many vulnerable children at home and often in care. Social work theory and practice also helped to lift the lid on what was happening to vulnerable adults subject to forms of domestic abuse at home or institutional abuse in ‘care’.


In today and tomorrow’s world, where the pace of life and the pace of change is ever faster, innovation needs to be continuous to keep up, identifying and responding to contemporary need. Seeking to encourage innovation in children’s social care is a proposed new ‘power to innovate’ clause under the Children and Social Work Bill. If passed, it would allow councils to request exemptions from legislation and statutory guidance with the intention that they can trial innovative practice models to improve services for children. The proposed power to innovate will help to strip back bureaucracy to a safe minimum level, so that the professional time of social workers and social care staff is spent on delivering services and programmes that make a positive difference to children and families in England today.


The power to innovate is a crucial requirement if the mainstream social work and social care services of the future are to successfully manage demand, improve quality and provide value for money under ever greater public and political scrutiny. Much of social work in England is world class, and the social work that isn’t, and that must improve, will be helped by an expectation to innovate. Workforces who are engaged by their leaders in constructing solution-focused innovations, can also move mountains and this can stop internal spirals of decline within hard-pressed organisations.


Pressures are real and increasing. Innovation is harder in tough times, especially when the job of social work is as over-prescribed as it is now, which makes taking a different approach seem far too risky. The proposed power to innovate clause is not a magic solution and will need safeguards, but it will undoubtedly help to change practice and cultures over time for the better – as innovation always has.

Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 00:00


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