- Aims to improve outcomes for children at risk of harm, by reducing the number of cases progressing to lengthy care proceedings
- Independent "family court advisers" work in parallel with social workers to improve the quality of assessment and decision making during the "pre-proceedings" process; engaging with birth parents and relatives, scrutinising social work reports and identifying further assessments and support that parents need
- Their recommendations are outlined in a Cafcass Plus report which can be used in court, providing a time-saving head start if they represent the child in care proceedings
Cafcass Plus was first piloted by the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) in Coventry and Warwickshire between 2011 and 2013, to address concerns about the increase in care applications for children at risk of harm; the number rose from 5.9 applications per 10,000 children in England in 2008/09, to 9.8 in 2012/13, then 11 in 2015/16. The pilot aimed to test whether introducing a Cafcass family court adviser (FCA) into the pre-proceedings process could help divert more cases from care proceedings, and speed up the process for those who did end up in court. Cafcass Plus has since been adopted by six English authorities: Lincolnshire, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Cambridgeshire and Birmingham.
In Lincolnshire, the project focuses on unborn babies, referred to Cafcass by social workers when their mothers are between 20 and 30 weeks into their pregnancy. The FCA gets involved following the authority's decision to issue a "letter before proceedings" to parents, usually because older siblings have been removed.
Lincolnshire FCA Cathy Gissing visits the parents soon after referral, with their consent. She tells them she is there to ensure "the right plans are made for their baby", and hears their account of the situation. If previous children have been removed, she'll ask how things have changed for the parents since, building her understanding of what else needs to change to enable them to keep their next child. She may also liaise with the family network to find a potential alternative home for the baby with relatives, who she says may not otherwise be identified early enough.
Gissing shares her thoughts at the pre-proceedings meeting, attended by social workers and the parents, following this up several days later with a Cafcass Plus report. It includes an outline and assessment of the local authority's plans for the child and the risks and protective factors, makes recommendations including whether she believes court proceedings are necessary and details any further expert assessment or support the parents need. "Quite often, children's services won't fund psychiatric or other expert assessments, unless it gets into proceedings," she explains. "But those assessments might really inform what needs to happen for the baby and how risk can be managed. In one case where that didn't happen, the mother went into a mother-and-baby placement and really struggled. If they'd been able to fund a psychiatric assessment before her baby was born, it may have informed things differently."
Gissing says FCAs play a crucial role in identifying inadequate social work practice in the run-up to a decision on care proceedings. She cites the example of a recently-closed case that avoided court, after she uncovered some "fairly poor" social work practice during her home visit. "The parents were telling me they didn't feel they'd been properly assessed; that the positive changes they'd made hadn't been taken into account properly and they'd not had proper sessions to discuss it all," she recalls. "So in the pre-proceedings meeting, I emphasised the need for a proper assessment and opportunity to talk through the risks. This could not be done in the 10-minute visits which the parents were describing."
After the baby's birth, Gissing heard the social worker had been changed, improving the parents' co-operation and opportunities to discuss their case. Court was avoided after the family group conference agreed a supportive arrangement to ensure the baby's safety.
Gissing says Cafcass Plus gives FCAs a valuable head start if care proceedings are initiated, as they've done "all the groundwork" already. The Cafcass Plus report is usually accepted as the initial case analysis for the court and Gissing represents the child there, having advocated for him or her pre-proceedings. "It helps the family that they've already met you; that there isn't a complete stranger coming in and making massive recommendations, without being able to have a thorough discussion with them," she explains. "If there hasn't been Cafcass Plus, and children's services feel it's too risky to place the baby with the parents at birth, it ends up so rushed and urgent; we have to read documents quickly and not as thoroughly and carefully as we'd like."
Gissing says she enjoys a collaborative, open dialogue with social workers, whose role in these cases she describes as "really difficult" in weighing up risks and protective factors. "Even if parents don't agree with what's happening, if they feel they've been listened to properly and that some of what they say can be advocated for by us, it helps them engage," she says.
The May 2013 evaluation of the Coventry and Warwickshire pre-proceedings pilot, conducted by Lancaster and Bradford universities, shows 11 out of 26 Cafcass Plus cases (42.3 per cent) being diverted from court, rising to 50 per cent among the 14 Coventry cases. This compared to a diversion rate of 36.7 per cent among 30 comparator cases and an estimated national diversion rate of around 25 per cent.