Cafcass sharpens practice focus

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Chief executive Jacky Tiotto explains new practice framework prioritises showing its ‘clarity of thinking’.

Social workers create storyboards with children to help explain court proceedings. Picture: Africa Studio/Adobe Stock
Social workers create storyboards with children to help explain court proceedings. Picture: Africa Studio/Adobe Stock

The launch by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) of a new practice framework in September coincided with chief executive Jacky Tiotto marking two years in the role. Given the turmoil of the past 18 months, many leaders would have been forgiven for focusing on just keeping going, but Tiotto has forged ahead with developing the Together with Children and Families practice framework.

While admitting the Covid-19 pandemic “got slightly in the way” of the framework’s planning, Tiotto says it is crucial to Cafcass’s development because it puts key organisation values at the heart of practice.

Explaining the rationale behind the move, Tiotto says she wanted to look at how Cafcass could “stretch ourselves further” after gaining an “outstanding” judgment from Ofsted at its last inspection in 2018. “I wasn’t joining an organisation that was failing, we’re doing well,” she says, adding that the challenge was to give a sharper focus on practice with families.

“Decisions made by Cafcass are life changing – whether that child lives with their family or sees their parents and siblings – so we have a duty to ensure children and families understand what [we] do,” says Tiotto.

The organisation, which looks after the interests of children in private and public law cases in the family court, says the new framework emphasises the importance of developing trusting relationships, where listening, understanding, clear reasoning, respect and integrity are prioritised. Tiotto describes its central aim is to “clearly show our working out and reasoning” in the work that family court advisers do in preparation for a hearing. This, she says, will mean that the reports advisers produce will explain the rationale for recommendations and document the child’s response to that.

“As a family justice service we’ve got to do more work alongside [parents] rather than doing to them,” she says. “Families are often disempowered in the process: we want to make it explicit to them and the court why we’re making the recommendations. We want to bring a sense of understanding into the courtroom.”

The framework prioritises working closely with local authority social workers early in the proceedings to fully understand the family and the child’s needs and then presenting a “balanced picture” to the court. It also places emphasis on the language used by practitioners.

“The language we use as professionals is often very alienating,” says Tiotto. “We want to make our reports and communication with children and families much simpler. That’s what the framework requires.”

Getting the language right was a key message from the Family Justice Young People’s Board (FJYPB), a panel of young advisers that Cafcass sponsors and which was closely involved in producing the framework. “They told us: ‘Explain early, be clear and repeat often’,” Tiotto says.

The organisation’s focus on language – which Tiotto describes as “obsessive” – includes a monthly “word busting” exercise where members of the FJYPB are given two words that children don’t understand and asked to come up with “how we avoid these or replace them with something they understand”.

Another way Cafcass is simplifying its communication is by using storyboards with children and families to depict court proceedings pictorially. This involves social workers doing the artwork alongside the child at any stage in the process. Tiotto says storyboards are also being used by Cafcass’s corporate teams to help embed the approach.

In addition to an initial week of training and workshops on practice modules, Cafcass is identifying 500 “champions” in local teams to help ensure practitioners are using the framework. However, Tiotto is realistic that implementing the framework represents a “culture change” that will “need time”, something that is in “short supply” for an “exhausted” workforce coping with more children in the system than in March 2020 (see box).

“We are having to be very thoughtful about what we ask people to do,” Tiotto explains. “In the last nine months, managers and supervisors have had to hold more cases. It has compromised managers’ ability to push this [the framework].

“There’s never a good time not to improve but we’ve got to be realistic and recognise people are under pressure.”

FALL IN CARE APPLICATIONS

Although there are 10,000 more children subject to family court proceedings now compared with before the pandemic, there has been a fall of 12-14 per cent in care applications issued in the past year. Tiotto admits she is unsure what is behind the fall.

“I can’t give any sense of why that is, but it is worthy of exploration,” she says, adding that it could reflect a drive by councils to offer more support to families to avoid the need for care proceedings.

Despite the decline in new public law cases, Tiotto says she is concerned that the average length of time proceedings are taking has risen to 44 weeks – 25 per cent longer than pre-pandemic levels.

“We have data that tells us there are 3,000 care proceedings taking in excess of 52 weeks, while only a quarter are done in the 26-weeks target,” she says. “Delays in proceedings are not good for the child.”

A shortage of court space and difficulties in social workers accessing family homes are both factors in the delays to proceedings, says Tiotto, which in turn can see parents ask to be reassessed because they say the original assessment does not reflect their situation now.

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