One of my regular readers, Boxerdog, asked me to have a look at the CAFCASS commissioned research into the work of Guardians in care cases – it has been a bit of a week, and ordinarily this would have been much higher up my agenda.
Anyway, the report is here :-
Click to access FINAL_VERSION_Cafcass_-_The_work_of_children%27s_guardians_in_care_cases.pdf
The report sets out to answer two questions
1. What work was undertaken by Guardians?
2. When in the proceedings did that work take place?
So the fact that the research isn’t particularly helpful is the fault of the persons framing those parameters and questions, rather than flaws with the research itself. I don’t think many people’s big unanswered questions with CAFCASS were these, but more about were they a genuine check and balance to the State, were they genuinely representing the voice of the child and looking at things in the round rather than the focus on “safeguarding” which seems to have crept in, was their work considered helpful and useful by other (shuddering at the word) stakeholders in the process – the children, the parents, the Judges?
But anyway, those are the questions we got. The answer to the second is “Mostly at the beginning” and in the first three months, chiefly. Of course, most of the really important stuff in care proceedings is happening at the end, as assessments are completed, decisions are being made and the views of children about the range of options for their future is being gathered, so some might think that the balance here is a bit askew. As a counterpoint to that, the meeting of the parents and relatives, reading the court papers, deciding on an expert and questions, and reading the social work files (ha!) all happens at the beginning, so I am perhaps being slightly unfair. It depends whether the ‘front-loading’ means “More at the front, but quite a bit all the way through” or “almost all at the front and very little thereafter”
The report shows that CAFCASS met with the parents in 90% of care cases (giving the benefit of the doubt, there ARE SOME parents who don’t involve themselves in any point in the proceedings, think 10% is rather high estimate of that) and met with/observed the children in 95% of care cases
Contact with the child
: the guardian had contact with the child in 95 per cent of cases. Four of the five cases in which there was no contact had some features in common, notably previous proceedings in respect of older children and the child being 0 years of age. In the fifth case the court found that the significant harm threshold was not met. The mean number of contacts per case was three, and the range was 0- 13 contacts. The type of contact was influenced by the age of the child. Thus, the guardian met with the child in 33 per cent of cases, but in every case where the child was aged 12 or older. Fifty seven per cent of children in the sample were aged four or under, the guardian observing children in this age group, in the presence of a parent, carer of foster carer, in 92 per cent of cases. There was telephone contact between the guardian and the child in nine per cent of cases
Not blaming individual workers for this, it is a shift in our times and the organisational priorities and how workloads are managed. But when I started, if a Guardian had visited the child 3 times during the course of the proceedings, they would have been SLAUGHTERED in the witness box. I remember on rare occasions seeing a Guardian ad Litem (as they then were) get completely taken to the cleaners for having made just 3 visits. And that was in the days when care proceedings were shorter (yes, before we had all of the protocols and PLOs to reduce the duration of care proceedings, they were actually quicker than 55 weeks) and more pertinently, before the Human Rights Act and article 8 was at the forefront of our minds.
What the report doesn’t look at, of course, is whether that contact is sufficient for the purpose of representing the child and being their voice in proceedings. As we diminish the role of independent experts in the court process (by a combination of cutting their fees until they don’t want to do it, and raising the bar on getting permission from the Court to instruct them), a good, solid, robust, inquiring and genuinely independent Guardian with no axe to grind other than “what does this child want, and what is best for them?” becomes a vital check and balance to the State, and this low-level of input doesn’t always provide for that.
Not the fault of individual Guardians – there are damn good ones who are very committed and work very hard, and rightly pull Local Authorities up on bad practice or decisions or unfairness, but the organisation s a whole decided to try to manage the increased volume and workloads by spreading the individual Guardians more thinly, and that has had profound knock-on repurcussions.
Back when I started, if you had a new baby born and there had been previous proceedings on a brother or sister, the first thing anyone would read from the old papers would be the Guardians report, which would tell you everything you needed to know, it would set the scene and give you all of the story of what had happened in the case. (you might agree with the final recommendation, you might disagree with it, but the report would tell you the story). I haven’t started with the Guardian’s report for many years now.