Putting children and young people first in the family courts

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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.

"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

Helping children understand the decisions made about them

Anthony DouglasAnything as potentially life-changing as social work or judicial intervention into a child’s life needs recording and for that record to remain accessible for the child concerned – and often for those around them.


When I was a frontline social worker, I sat with a lot of people who had been in care and who wanted to look back at their records. It was too often an embarrassing exercise, ploughing through only partly comprehensible reports and case recording, trying to tell the story – as simply as possible – of what happened and why decisions were made.


As Albert Einstein said, ‘everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler’. And on that note, I was pleased to read a recent child and parent-friendly judgment about a complex case written by Mr Justice Jackson.
 
Mr Justice Jackson has condensed a complex story into an easy to read 11 page judgment. For the individuals involved, they will have access for the rest of their lives to a clear narrative about why profound decisions were taken in respect of the individual children. 
 
Growing up unhappily, for whatever reason, can have a lifelong impact. However resilient you are, the demons can come back to haunt you in different ways at different times. Coping with the pressure this brings is like managing any long-term condition. You have to learn to live with it as best you can. Often people don’t have total recall or understanding about what happened, which is how myths and fantasies can set in and distort the reality. Having your story understood and then recorded for your personal posterity is a valuable front line service for children, not just an administrative afterthought. Our challenge is to leave our written records in that accessible form.

Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 16:30

The big questions that matter to children (and family courts don’t always ask)

Anthony DouglasQuality improvement starts with understanding the big question (or questions) for each child we have to answer, if the outcome for the child is to be the best one possible. The big questions are often not framed within the court application, either by a local authority in public law or a parent or carer in private law. For example, after a parent has fought for being able to spend time with their child, the child themselves may neither want nor enjoy the experience. The rationally-judged outcome of a court case may not connect with the child’s experience, or hopes and ambition.

 

Best practice is to reduce the potential disconnect between the court and the child. A joint pilot project between Cafcass and ADCS in Sussex, is basing a section 7 report in a private law case on a child impact analysis and the professional evaluation of that impact. This focuses all concerned, particularly those with parental responsibility, on what it is like to be that child in the situation they are living in. Once the child’s quality of life – or lack of it – is clear, it becomes easier to see what needs to change and how that might be achieved.  A child who is quite happy with their life is more likely than not to benefit from stability and not change, even if one or both parents want change. Similarly, a child who is hurt, unhappy or both, will probably want that misery to be brought to an end and to be helped out of that situation. The bigger and the more unwelcome the change, the more the child has to be worked with directly to understand whether to leave things as they or whether to make changes, is in the child’s long-term interest.

 

Basing our work on children’s experience also helps us to understand which children are naturally resilient; which are resilient but only as a negative adaption to stress; and which children need support because they feel their world is collapsing. Care plans and agreed ways forward in both public and private law cases should be clear on what steps are being taken to strengthen a child’s resilience.

 

Even though family court cases are about children, the way cases are conducted can too easily focus on peripheral issues, or spend too much time on the pre-occupations of parents and not the issues which matter most for children. This is understandable. We have family courts, not children’s courts. Children live in families and supporting their families means in general that they will feel supported. But in the end, the irreducible minimum standard in any public or private law case is that when it comes to its decision, the family court understands the child’s daily lived experience in sufficient depth to know what, if anything, needs to change and why. It is a relatively simple litmus test, but one we still need to work hard on to achieve in every case. This is not just because of the volume of new work, but because it is so easy to lose the focus on the child.

 

 

Interested in Cafcass and our work with children and families? Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 00:00

Shining a light on issues impacting children and families

Anthony DouglasThe latest series of Behind Closed Doors, called ‘Contact’, aired recently on Radio 4 and focused on a High Court case where a sperm donor was seeking regular contact with his biological daughter. The girl’s mother is in a same sex relationship and insists she doesn’t want Harry, the donor, to be directly involved in her daughter’s life. We advised on this series and also on the Archers recently, in which coercive control by one parent against the other led to a violent and family fracturing outcome. Both programmes had a good balance between factual accuracy and storytelling with a dramatic licence.

Supporting programmes like this and being open about our work, makes a significant contribution to increasing public awareness of the work of the family courts. Along with access to an increasing number of published judgments on Bailii, anybody who is interested in what the family courts do and how they reach decisions, can get a pretty good idea.

Harry’s application raises an important issue. A child of a sperm donor is likely in this day and age to be interested in who their biological father is and how many brothers and sisters they have – which could be a large number indeed. With children often seeking this information later in life, professionals and families should give thought to how children are supported to understand their family background as they grow up in a way that meets their needs and understanding. When people make arrangements they should be absolutely clear about their expectations before they start and be completely focused on the child.

Turning to the Archers’ plot, the devastating impact of coercive control inside a household is clear. This storyline helps to shine a light on it, especially the fact that it is now a criminal offence. New and quite shocking criminal offences are being committed inside families every day. Victims only sometimes want a prosecution; they mostly want to escape but often can’t, even if the door is wide open.

Working with the media, production companies and scriptwriters, could highlight issues as diverse as radicalisation, female genital mutilation, special guardianship, parental alienation and the invisible emotional harm children suffer living in families turned toxic by problems like high conflict between the adults, family violence or significant drug and alcohol misuse. These programmes are hard to put together, hard to get funding for and hard to get to screen, but once there, they are accessible forever and play an important role in public awareness, education and prevention.

Interested in Cafcass and our work with children and families? Sign up to our monthly newsletter

Written by Chief Executive Anthony Douglas at 00:00

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