Putting children and young people first in the family courts

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Tackling the care crisis: Baroness Tyler speaks at Nuffield Foundation Seminar

 

On 23rd February Cafcass Chair Baroness Claire Tyler spoke at the Care Crisis Seminar, hosted by the Nuffield Foundation. Her speech set out her reflections on the causes of rising rates in care demand application, and what the sector can do to respond. It is set out in full below. 

 

I would like to begin by thanking you all for the opportunity to participate in today’s seminar.  The contributions we have heard provide an invaluable insight into what is happening in our care system. And while ever spiralling demand continues to cause much concern, it was reassuring to hear from some of the real innovators in the sector who are looking for alternative approaches to meeting the needs of our most vulnerable children.

I have been the Chair of Cafcass for five years and in that time I have seen demand for our services increase at a relentless pace. I want to offer some personal reflections based on my Cafcass experience but also my wider roles. Every time our investment in new ways of working bears fruit, it feels like the benefits are dwarfed by a fresh wave of demand. As Anthony has set out this afternoon, our statistics show another record year for our public law work and demand is growing again in private law. New care applications are so far 17% higher for this financial year compared to last. In some areas this increase is even more pronounced, such as in Tyneside and Northumbria which has experienced a 38% increase in care applications in the last year alone.

From what we’ve heard this afternoon it’s clear that there is no simple explanation for this level of demand and therefore no simple policy solution will address it. I am also the President of the National Children’s Bureau who provide the secretariat to the APPG on Children who for the last year have been conducting an Inquiry into children’s social care. The APPG has heard a wealth of evidence about the strains on the system and the very real challenges facing families today.

The report of the Inquiry is due to be published shortly and I know from participating in a number of the evidence sessions that the themes from the evidence sessions echoed many of the points we have debated today. 

 

What is happening in the care system?

So what is happening in the care system to drive up the rates of court applications? We have already heard from Karen Broadhurst, Judith Harwin and their colleagues about children and parents who are subject to repeat applications through the family courts and it is vital that we focus efforts to break that cycle and offer better support and prevention.

The ADCS asked its members about safeguarding pressures in the study published in December. That research showed that neglect is still the most common reason for children to be placed on child protection plans but we know that masks a host of complex and inter-related problems within families. We work with children who are not getting the care they need because their parent or parents have mental health problems, are addicted to alcohol or drugs, are in a violent relationship, or often a combination of all three. We now have an increased awareness of child neglect and professionals are acutely aware of the serious and long-lasting impact it can have on children’s lives. That awareness may well explain part of the increase in these cases as we get better at spotting the signs but it by no means tells the whole story.

The ADCS research found that domestic abuse, parental mental health and parental substance misuse – the “toxic trio” – continue to be major, and increasingly prevalent, reasons for the involvement of local authorities in children’s and families’ lives. We know that these acute and complex problems can have a devastating effect with some local authorities describing domestic abuse as at “epidemic” proportions. Department for Education data suggests that half of all children in need at the end of March last year had experienced or witnessed domestic abuse. As part of the study Cafcass is undertaking with Women’s Aid we have found a staggering 62% of the private law cases in our sample involved allegations of domestic abuse. The Ministry of Justice is conducting an urgent review of the way these cases are heard in court and the Home Office holds the ring for the overall Government strategy for the prevention of violence against women and girls. So I welcome the PM’s announcement last week that she will personally oversee plans for new laws to tackle and prevent domestic abuse and I would urge her to ensure that cross Whitehall strategy is fully joined up so we can tackle this “ticking time bomb”.

We also need to consider how wider policy changes are having an impact on families, particularly those on the edge of care. The austerity agenda has been in full force for over six years now and significant welfare reforms have been implemented – statement of fact but here today to argue the rights or wrongs. The latest DWP figures show 200,000 more children living in poverty than in the previous year and over 10% more living in temporary accommodation. Now most children in families who are living in poverty will not experience child abuse or neglect – important to say that. But Paul Bywater’s study explored the link between the two and whether direct and indirect impacts of poverty can combine with other parental factors to increase the risk of abuse. While that study highlighted the need for better research and data in the UK – something I hope that the Family Justice Observatory can explore – there is a clear need for joined up thinking at national level about poverty, child abuse and neglect in the UK. 

 

Local variation in practice and outcomes

This afternoon we have heard valuable insights into the variation in practice and outcomes across the country. At the APPG we heard how some areas are focusing all of their resources on children who have the greatest need while others are investing in children on the edge of care to drive down the total care population. There isn’t just variation in local authority practice but right across the family justice system – regional variation in the use for different types of court orders suggests different approaches across the family courts. So the question is: why does practice differ so markedly in different geographical areas and does this matter?

I’m a firm believer in local democracy – I believe in local approaches to meet the specific needs of communities and that innovation is best nurtured through local areas devising solutions that meet the specific needs of the people they serve. But one person’s localism is another person’s postcode lottery and we can’t justify a system where children’s outcomes are poorer simply because of where they live. At the APPG, we heard that while there appears to be a loose relationship between deprivation and rates of children in need, there are many local areas with relatively high levels of deprivation but low numbers of children in care – and vice versa. The variation is not explained by demographics, suggesting the key factor is local practice. Specifically, difference in thresholds and in the interpretation of statutory duties. The lack of evidence to support these hypotheses is, I think, particularly worrying. How do we know that we are having a positive impact on outcomes for children if we don’t know what works?

It is right that local areas determine how best to meet local needs but there is in my view a clear role for national government in setting a strong statutory and policy framework of expectations so that vulnerable children and families can always rely on the protection of clear, universal entitlements, wherever they live. 

 

Resources

The growth in demand is all taking place within the context of significant funding reductions right across public services and the need to compete for resources, especially against severely over-stretched adult social care. Local authorities are managing 40 to 50 percent budget cuts but have largely protected children’s social care spending to meet the increasing demands on the system. But any protection falls well below the rates of increase for children coming into contact with children’s social care, and is at the expense of other services such as youth provision that can mean the loss of wider support networks for children and their families.

Some areas have been hit harder by the cuts than others. But the National Audit Office report last year was” intriguing” in its conclusions that higher spending is not correlating with better outcomes for children. It feels counter intuitive to me that there should be no correlation between a local authority’s Ofsted inspection score, the number of children in need and how much is spent per child in need. This might in part be down to the way data is recorded and analysed but this is clearly a relationships we need to understand better than we currently do.

Investment in early intervention services varies significantly across areas. But we have seen Children’s Centres close all over the country and those areas allocating little for early support to families are seeing a shift towards late intervention. Needs have often escalated significantly before any support is put is put in place and this can result in more children being taken into care, and ultimately in poorer outcomes for children and families.

The Early Intervention Foundation is helping to bring this into sharp focus and estimates nearly £17 billion pounds a year is spent in England and Wales on late intervention. This evidence is compelling but in this cash strapped era I guess the question we need to ask is how can we incentivise more early intervention? Surely we must build on the successes of others such as Tri-borough set up where a proportion of savings are re-invested back into early intervention and areas where effective work with families on the edge of care has reduced the care population.  

 

Productivity and workforce

We must also consider our resources beyond the pound sign and that means valuing and supporting the professionals that work right across the system. We need to strengthen the way we all work together in the best interests of children who are subject to public law proceedings. Within Cafcass, the rising level of demand is placing many of our teams under serious pressure. Our focus has been on how to introduce supportive wellbeing measures and flexible working practices backed up by better IT.

But we do need to tackle the shortage of social workers in many parts of the country. This is forcing a reliance on temporary staff and, while a flexible workforce is a key part of any successful business model, the instability caused by having a 50 percent temporary workforce in a single authority will be felt throughout the wider system. We must do more to promote social work as a profession and value the contribution social workers make on a daily basis. The DfE’s new accreditation system aims to drive up quality in social work and offer a clear career pathway. And that must be complemented by a concerted approach that promotes quality and ensures that social workers are valued and respected by all professionals right across the system.

Obviously today is about the care system but Cafcass also supports private law applications and we have seen demand in private law increase by 10 percent so far this year, and as high as 38 percent in some northern counties. The temptation is always to view the two systems separately but they use the same family court structure, engage the same professionals and take place in the same buildings. They even involve some of the same individual cases with safeguarding a risk in a high proportion of the private law applications Cafcass works with. I have already talked about domestic abuse and there is a clear overlap between cases associated with domestic abuse in both public and private law. I think we need a shift in the culture of viewing these two systems as entirely separate, even at national policy level. Our data suggests that just over a third of private law cases could be safely diverted away from family courts, releasing precious resource that could be used to manage some of the additional demands in the care system. 

 

Culture of sector led improvement and innovation 

Finally I want to say a few word about some of the positive innovation and success that is happening up and down the country that we must build on. Local authority children’s services are under intense scrutiny through inspection, legislation, policy and reviews. And I know this can sometimes feel like an unwelcome pressure at a time of intense demand for services and shortages across the budget and workforce. But as we have heard today, local authorities have a strong track record of learning from each other and we at Cafcass value our partnership working with local authorities to share knowledge and identify best practice.

The DfE’s innovation programme has brought in much needed resource to nurture innovation and encourage partnerships that are finding solutions to some of our knottiest issues. The Innovation Fund has been crucial to support problem solving approaches in the family courts with Pause working with mothers who have had multiple children taken into care and the Family Drug and Alcohol Courts finding new ways to disrupt patterns of behaviour associated with substance misuse.

My contention is that there is something the wider family justice system could learn from sector led improvement and the discipline of comparing performance against peers and statistical neighbours. The local Family Justice Boards will be looking at this and we must be challenging across the sector as a whole – for example can the model of peer challenge be extended across the system?

And my hope for the Family Justice Observatory is that we can begin to plug the gaps in evidence across the system and have a much better understanding of what works. We need to understand more about outcomes for children and how we can have a positive impact. And the funding case for early intervention and prevention needs to be better understood beyond local authorities.

In conclusion, I would like reiterate my “calls to action” across the system including at government level.

Firstly I want to see a strong focus on the better use of resources, considering how we invest right across the family justice system – public and private law - with a clear plan of investment for early intervention and a focus on children on the edge of care. There is evidence that early intervention is starting to have an impact and it is a false economy to back away from that to meet the austerity agenda.

Secondly we must continue to build our culture of learning from the best, not just in local authorities but across the whole family justice system. That means embedding a culture of sector led improvement in local authorities, in courts and among professionals throughout the system. Research and analysis through the Family Justice Observatory could support that. We cannot make tough decisions to meet unprecedented demand within resources available if we do not have the evidence to drive our thinking.

And finally, we need a better offer for vulnerable children and a relentless focus on their needs and outcomes. I have spent the last couple of days in the Lords debating the challenges of Brexit and I am well aware how hard it will be to maintain momentum in the policy areas we have been discussing while the legislative timetable and political agenda is so focused on withdrawal from the EU. Without a clear framework setting out what children should expect we risk poorer outcomes for children in some areas simply because of where they live. I am pleased that the Children and Families Bill – in which I have played an active role – will ensure a local offer is in place for care leavers to support them in preparation for adulthood, and call on government should seek to build on that approach that with a set of expectations and clear offer for vulnerable children. 

This will all require an unwavering push from a wide range of agencies and experts, many of whom are here in this room. The “care crisis” can only be tackled if we pool our skills, knowledge and influence. And to that end I am delighted to announce today that Cafcass will be participating in a sector-led inquiry currently being established to help answer some of the questions we have grappled with this afternoon and to consider what can be done to stem rising demand. So far, our “coalition of the willing” includes Cafcass, ADCS, Nuffield, Family Rights Group and the Children’s Commissioner. I am sure that the list of willing partners will quickly grow and that the content from today will give us a blueprint to build on.

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