Special Report: Guidance launched for social workers in climate of rising care applications

Social work sector leaders have been spurred into action to support social workers with the rocketing levels of care applications being made.

Cafcass and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services have agreed how social workers in both local authorities and those acting as guardians in family proceedings can better work together during care proceedings and pre-proceedings in the family courts.

Both organisations have formulated a joint agreement which sets out how social workers can work together to secure swift outcomes for children, young people and their families, confirming a ‘culture of urgency’ for young people. It acts as guidance for social workers involved in such cases.

Andrew Webb, ADCS lead on family justice, said: “This agreement confirms the expertise of social workers in the courts and the vital role they play in securing swift, safe outcomes for children at risk of harm. The commitments made by both ADCS and Cafcass will help not only on a day to day basis, but on supporting the system which is under continuing demand and financial pressure and shows no signs of easing.”

‘There is no clear strategy for meeting the crisis’

The number of care applications have risen from 11,110 in the financial year 2012-13 to 12,781 in 2015-16. Figures for 2016-17 show that there have been 12,095 care applications already this year with two more months’ figures to add before the end of the financial year.

When figures were first collated in April 2012, there were 757 care applications in a single month. However, the number of care applications peaked in November 2016 when the statistic reached 1,283 in a month.

Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas warned that the surge in the number of care applications during 2015-2016 has become a “major issue” for the organisation.

The president of the family courts division has spoken out about the “crisis” in the care system which has resulted in a massive surge of new cases coming through the courts. Sir James Munby said the courts were “ill prepared” for the rise in care applications and warned that there is no clear strategy in place to deal with the increasing number of court cases where children can potentially be separated from their parents following an application from local authorities.

“We are facing a crisis and, truth be told, we have no very clear strategy for meeting the crisis,” said Munby.

Addressing the causes of the increase in care applications, Munby said he did not believe that child abuse and neglect could rise 14, let alone 20% in a year and said that local authority behaviour must be playing a “significant role”. However further research was urgently needed to make future predictions, he added.

Supporting a culture of urgency

As a result, Cafcass and the ADCS united to produce the agreement around roles to operate as some kind of guidance for social workers working in this arena.

“Record levels of demand increase the requirement on all professionals to work efficiently and collaboratively. This also applies to all levels of management in local authorities and Cafcass,” says the guidance. “There is simply no professional time available to be spent on not communicating.”

“Legislation, regulation and legal precedents affecting children and families are dynamic. So, in addition to establishing some general principles to underpin professional practice, Cafcass and ADCS are committed to maintaining a suite of guidance notes designed to clarify organisational roles and promote the efficient use of resources when our roles are complementary,” it adds.

The joint statement highlights how the Children and Families Act 2014 introduced a 26 week limit for care proceedings, and both organisations “support a culture of urgency about reaching decisions”.

“Avoidable delay for a child must be just that – avoided,” the statement adds.

The guidance highlights the importance of local authorities and Cafcass working effectively to make sure that each child who becomes the subject of care proceedings achieves the level and type of permanence they need as soon as possible.

It states how it is rare that one agency alone is able to meet all of a vulnerable child’s needs. Given the national shortage of social workers, foster carers and other resources such as infant, child and adolescent mental health services, “the only way to achieve positive outcomes for every child is for there to be a co-ordinated approach between all those professionals who make up the team around a particular child”.

Collaborative approach

Outlining the specific roles, the statement says that the guardian representing the child in the case has a clear responsibility to be the voice of the child, and independently represents the child in family proceedings. However, the local authority social worker, the local authority as a corporate parent and the judge or magistrate in the case must also be able to understand the voice of the child in their work and decisions.

However, the statement highlights that while there is an advantage for the team around the child in court to collaborate in order to establish a clear evidence base and to be transparent with each other about what decisions need to be made on behalf of the child, casework must never be allowed to lead to a perception of collusion between local authority social workers and children’s guardians.

“Children’s guardians must be independent, even when consensus building,” adds the statement.

Cafcass and ADCS have produced a range of guidance notes to support specific processes and proceedings and also introduced compatible reporting templates to court, which emphasise the importance of an evidence base for each case, an in-depth child focus and cogent analysis in court reporting.

The guidance represents a commitment to developing a collaborative approach designed to resolve disagreements between the local authority and Cafcass about the social work evidence base being relied on in decision-making. Given social workers and guardians both have the same professional standards and training, they should be able to agree on the evidence base on which recommendations about the future of the most vulnerable children in the country will be based, the statement outlines.

The agreement:

  • Sets out the commitment by the guardian to examine the social work evidence to see if it can be agreed before putting any different positions to the court
  • Recognises that the independence of the guardian requires them to assess any other evidence, including that of the parents/carers, before reaching a final view about the social work evidence
  • States that it is in the interests of the child for the guardian to fully engage with the social worker to seek to reach a consensus about care planning for the child
  • Adds that where opinions differ, either pre-proceedings or during proceedings, this is not to be considered a failure.
  • Issues a reminder that a central pillar of the Public Law Outline (PLO) is that the combined expertise of the social worker and the guardian should be sufficient ‘expertise’ for the vast majority of cases.
  • States that use of additional experts should be limited to cases where a particular expertise from a different discipline is needed, for example a GP for medical evidence.

Working together on assessments

During assessments, the guardian role is to analyse the local authority assessments, not to repeat them. However, the guardian should always carry out enough direct work of their own to be able to give effective primary evidence in court. Where there are clear gaps in the assessment, the guardian can identify how the gap or gaps can be bridged and the local authority can take steps to bridge these gaps as soon as possible. The guardian and the social worker should be able to make recommendations about the child’s situation in the interim.

To be effective means reaching agreement if possible on the main narrative in the case, the guidance states.

Working together on care plans

For the social worker and the guardian, the court care plan should flow from the evidence base. It would be unusual if an agreed evidence base led to different conclusions about the way forward but if it does, attempts should be made to resolve differences out of court before referring the issue to the court, the statement says. Discussions about the care plan should involve the IRO as well as the social worker, the guardian and the parent or parents in most cases.

In cases where permanence for the child cannot be determined in care proceedings and when the major decisions about the identity and detail of placement/s and contact/s, will have to be taken after proceedings have finished, the guardian and the IRO should discuss the level of oversight needed by the IRO after the court case concludes.

Working together pre-proceedings

The same principles apply to the pre-proceedings period, the guidance adds. Schemes such as Cafcass Plus allow for early scrutiny by Cafcass of proposed local authority cases, aiming either to divert cases away from care proceedings by agreeing that further work with the family would be beneficial for the child, or by narrowing the issues and agreeing an evidence base for a potential care application, so that if the case does go to court, case management can be as straightforward as possible.

The joint statement concludes that the main mechanism for social workers, IROs and children’s guardians working together is through discussion, using a learning circle methodology. A learning circle is a mechanism for organising the collective wisdom of a group. Whatever the mechanism, a problem-solving and solution-focused climate and culture should be established in the meeting.

Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said: “Over recent years we have built up our resources to help social workers and guardians determine what is best for each child facing care proceedings. This agreement reaffirms the positive working practices already in place across most local authorities and Cafcass.

“Cafcass has also made a commitment to sharing data with local authorities, to help with planning and managing resources.”

The agreement is available here.



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