The Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) could have responded more quickly and cost effectively to the large and sustained increase in care cases from local authorities following the Baby Peter tragedy, had it fully resolved known organisational challenges, according to a report today by the National Audit Office. But Cafcass’s management could not have predicted the sustained increase in care cases from November 2008. In April 2009 they realised that the flow of care cases was not slowing and that they had to act.
Cafcass had to deal with an extra 200 new care cases each month from November 2008 – around 40 per cent more. Simultaneously, the courts needed advice on hundreds more children involved in family breakdowns. Consequently, the allocation of dedicated family court advisers to children’s cases slowed, and delays in providing advice to the courts increased. Between November 2008 and July 2009, the number of children involved in care and other public law proceedings without a dedicated family court adviser grew from around 250 to 1,250. Delays in allocating family court advisers can cause stress to children and families.
Cafcass was not well placed to respond efficiently and effectively because it had only partly resolved known organisational challenges around management information, IT systems and staff engagement by the time demand started to increase.
Cafcass increased its capacity and, between August 2009 and June 2010, reduced the proportion of children without a family court adviser, from 10 per cent to 2 per cent in care cases and from 34 per cent to 5 per cent in family breakdown cases. The Department allowed Cafcass to bring forward £4.6 million from the 2009-10 and 2010-11 budgets and gave Cafcass an extra £4.8 million. The cost increases do not represent a failure of value for money.
Cafcass continues to face enormous challenges in meeting the needs of vulnerable children and has responded with a major rethink of how it manages their cases. It is now implementing a £10 million transformation programme that should allow it to improve how it deals with future fluctuations in demand. In order to be successful, these changes will require greater organisational cohesiveness and improvements in staff morale.