Last month we were proud to see Michelle Evans, Cafcass Head of Practice, take to the stage at the Social Worker of the Year Awards. She won Silver for Team Leader of the Year: recognition of her efforts over the last seven years to improve practice across Cheshire and Merseyside, and more recently Greater Manchester.
After joining the organisation in 2004, Michelle became a service manager in 2009 and progressed to Head of Practice earlier this year. From the off she was overseeing both public law (care) and private law (divorce and separation) teams in Cheshire and Merseyside, stepping up to manage other teams when needed. She recalls her biggest challenge as a new manager: dealing with a massive backlog of cases.
“I remember we had boxes and boxes of cases all over the office. I would look at them at night, thinking, how are we going to catch up? How am I going to ensure every child is allocated a practitioner, and quickly?
To get a firm handle on the situation Michelle took a ‘systems approach’. “I created my own charts, and developed a system to manage the backlog of cases, while also ensuring timely allocation of incoming cases. It was tricky as I was doing a lot of it myself, reviewing cases and prioritising them depending on the extent of the risk posed.
“We had to take a step back and share work between public and private law teams in order to manage the huge demand. Once we had dealt with backlog of cases I made sure that my team were allocated their cases within hours of them coming in; that way, every child was represented from the moment we received their case. It also meant practitioners had maximum time to get to grips with the issues.”
While managing the high demand Michelle also worked hard to maintain relationships with local stakeholders, being open and honest about the challenge the team were up against. “I made sure to regularly update our Designated Family Judges and explain how we were managing the situation. Luckily they were very supportive – a vital factor to our success in shifting the backlog.”
Michelle was also asked to contribute to the development of the Public Law Outline (PLO) template as part of a pre-proceedings initiative in 2014. “At the time a variety of templates were being used across the country. The aim was to create one PLO form that would help standardise practice.
“Referring to the updated PLO guidance and Cafcass’ report to court template, I gave feedback to help improve the first draft. My priority was to ensure the impact on the child was the focus of the form.”
The template is now used across all public law cases. After the introduction of the revised PLO in April 2014 Michelle also played a role in supporting local authorities to adapt their practice. This involved close working with Designated Family Judges to disseminate guidance on how a case should progress.
Reflecting on her role as Head of Practice, Michelle says: “I love working with people and that feeling of being part of a team. Working closely with Cafcass colleagues, the local authorities, lawyers, judiciary – that’s what I enjoy the most about being a team leader at Cafcass. I feel like I have a positive influence in advocating for children.”