The 2018 Ofsted report on Cafcass came as a shock. It’s a bit like going through the family court mill: one has to pinch oneself often to remind oneself that this is really happening and not some surreal dream.
We suggest that ‘Outstanding’ is not an adjective we would use to describe the organisation that is largely responsible for the daily horror stories that form the bulk of our mail bag. There is a huge cognitive dissonance between the heavily PR laden press releases of the CAFCASS froth machine on the one hand and the sheer desperation, woe, grief, isolation and intense frustration that flow from the correspondence we receive on the other. Something is plainly wrong and something simply does not add up.
When we checked the Cafcass site we had to strain our eyes and enlarge the screen to see the link to the actual report. We hoped that this would shed some light on the matter and relieve our migraines.
Here is a link to the 2018 OFSTED REPORT which followed an inspection between 2 February and 2 March 2018.
Here is a comparison of the principal ratings which compare the 2014 and 2018 inspections.
|The quality and effectiveness of Cafcass private law practice with families||Good||Good|
|The quality and effectiveness of Cafcass public law practice with families||Good||Good|
|The leadership and governance of the national organisation||Outstanding||Outstanding|
|The leadership and management of local services||Good||Outstanding|
This quickly reveals that overall there has been an improvement in a solitary area. ie The leadership and management of local services has improved by one notch. Therefore, in all other respects the service we receive from CAFCASS has remained unchanged.
At NAAP the bulk and focus of our work involves private law so this is the area that we will be briefly drilling down to (through an apparently superficial layer of surface gloss to see what lies beneath) in order to get a flavour of what is really going on.
Wishes and feelings
The 2014 report had this to say in para 24:
There is a good focus on understanding children’s wishes and feelings.
& in para 25.
‘Reporting children’s wishes and feelings to the court is effective, but this could be strengthened further by making children’s wishes and feelings more clearly articulated within the case analysis in addition to reporting them verbatim. This is also the case in public law casework.’
Tucked away under para 14, the 2018 report also commented on wishes and feelings:
‘Inspectors consistently found strong evidence of how children’s wishes and feelings are actively sought and how the voice of the child influences future planning. Particular strengths are direct work and engagement with children of varying ages. Children are seen and seen alone when this is in their best interests.’
The 2018 report gives no indication of whether children’s wishes and feelings are now reported verbatim. If they ever are then it would also be necessary to record the interviews to understand what questions the children are answering. We did not anticipate much enthusiasm for this in 2014. The 2018 report seems to indicate that this recommendation has been kicked into the long grass. The Ofsted report appears to focus upon what Cafcass standards require. We feel that it should focus upon what the law requires since Cafcass are prone to adjusting the rules to suit themselves.
In 2014 Ofsted said in para 28:
‘Cafcass has been successful in meeting its targets for the filing of reports in private law proceedings. The frequency of Cafcass requesting extensions for reports is reducing (from 35.3% in 2012/13 to 28% in the year to date 2013/14 April 2013 to February 2014) and the numbers of addendum reports have been reduced significantly in some areas which reflect a real determination to reduce the duration of cases in children’s best interests.’
In 2018 Ofsted said in para 14:
‘When children require a post-first hearing service, work is allocated and most reports are filed with the court in a timely way. ‘
Ofsted findings on the data presented by Cafcass are simply not borne out in reality. What does timely mean anyway? In reality 55% are received just 1 working day beforehand. 30% are received 2 – 4 working days beforehand and only 15 % are received 5 working days or more beforehand. Some even reported receiving reports after hearings.
High Conflict Cases
In 2014 Conflict in relation to families was only mentioned as a footnote on page 22
‘Separated Parenting Information Programmes are designed to help parents learn more about the challenges of post-separation parenting, including the effects on children of on-going post-separation conflict.’
In para 17 in 2018 Cafcass said:
Cafcass has continued to work collaboratively with judges to ensure that only the most complex cases are dealt with in this way. It is trialling new ways of working, using a more structured intervention for children and their families in these usually high-conflict cases. This is intended to help parents understand the emotional harm to children when conflict is unresolved and to promote more timely case resolution. Early findings from this new approach are promising.
When one considers that parental alienation has been recognised in the courts by name since 2003 and as implacable hostility since 1983 the sudden interest in PA is welcome if not glacially slow in arriving and long overdue. Awareness can only be positive even if the cherry picked focus flies in the face of expert opinion, the experience of survivors and research.
In para 27 in 2014 Cafcass said:
Most work in 16.4 appointments is strong…
In para 18 2018 Cafcass said:
Most work in rule 16.4 appointments is strong…
No changes. It seems that cutting and pasting is very widespread. However, around 2009 Cafcass wanted to have s41 of the Children Act 1989 changed. The proposed changes involved appointing Cafcass as opposed to individual guardians by name. This met with a wall of opposition from Nalgro (the guardian’s professional association) and many others who wanted to preserve the independence of Guardians. The role of guardians arose from the Maria Colwell inquiry during the 70s. Maria was brutally killed by her step-father and the inquiry found that her voice was not heard. Hence the concept of named guardians came into being. NAAP ask, ‘Is this same level of independence and practitioner autonomy necessary or even desirable in Private Law where a detailed knowledge of phenomena such as PA is of greater importance than the level of ignorance and lack of applied training which has been engendered by independence?
How are children seen?
In para 14 in 2018 Ofsted said:
‘…Children are seen and seen alone when this is in their best interests.’
If the legislature and the courts frown upon alleged victims of domestic abuse being interviewed by or in the presence of their alleged abusers then why are they not up in arms at the prospect of alienated children being interviewed in the home of, within earshot of and even in the presence of their emotional abusers. Children are the most vulnerable members of society yet their interests have been subsumed by or conflated with others. NAAP want children’s interests to be properly recognised, elevated and given an appropriate degree of long overdue priority.
In para 20 in 2014 Cafcass said:
Cafcass practitioners are consistently well prepared for the FHDRA, professional in manner and confident in their advice to the court. Both parties and judges told inspectors they valued the work of Cafcass practitioners at court.
…in excess of 97% of private law cases are allocated to a family court adviser at month end, which is good.
In 2018 Cafcass said in para 12:
Work prior to the first hearing dispute resolution appointment (FHDRA) is good. Children are allocated to an FCA without delay. The local EIT prepares safeguarding letters.
No substantive changes reported
In the sphere of private law the detail in the Ofsted findings confirm that life at the coalface, for the average consumer or Cafcass practitioner, has remained essentially unaltered since 2014. The hurried and reactive nature of the introduction of the high conflict pathway has meant that early experiences have been described as both ‘chaotic’ and ‘shambolic’. This is surprising since PA has been widely recognised by the courts since at least 2003 and possibly as far back as 1983. Anthony Douglas tells us that he has personal experience of PA yet it has taken him 13 years and much case law since 2003 before even acknowledging or beginning to address it.
I wonder whether Cafcass, as a public body, might bear some responsibility for failing to act in order to prevent the inhumane and degrading treatment of the children that it bears a statutory responsibility for safeguarding? By failing to educate their social workers and turning a blind eye to or mischaracterising the emotional abuse of scores of children Cafcass may have breached the article 3 rights of the children it is statutorily responsible for safeguarding.
Commitments to ‘mandatory training’ give us all a warm feeling but when the basic premises are seriously flawed and the means of getting autonomous officers, particularly guardians, to follow the training given have yet to be adequately addressed we must remain sceptical until such time as there is less emphasis upon PR and greater attention given to the duties Cafcass have a statutory responsibility for fulfilling.
At NAAP we think that Cafcass need to avoid resorting to their echo chamber and start looking at the real issues involved if they are to begin addressing the welter of problems that lay beneath a thin coat of surface gloss.