Interview: Jacky Tiotto, Cafcass chief executive


Derren Hayes speaks to Jacky Tiotto, chief executive of Cafcass.

After four years turning around children's services in Bexley, Jacky Tiotto joined the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) in September. She replaces long-time chief executive Anthony Douglas, who stepped down in April. Whereas Bexley was struggling when Tiotto left Ofsted to become its director of children's services, Cafcass by contrast was recently rated "outstanding" by the inspectorate.

There has been a consistent fall in care applications for the past year. Will this continue?

The volume of applications is roughly the same in public law proceedings but there are four per cent fewer care applications for children to be removed from their parents. But that drop is replaced by other public law proceedings. They will be things like deprivation of liberty [orders], secure [accommodation] orders or emergency protection orders. What's been understood from that drop in care applications is that the public law system is less busy - but it isn't. Behaviour is changing in terms of what [orders] people are going into court for and we need to understand why that is. We will be prioritising work to understand that.

Is there a correlation between the fall in care applications and rise in other types of public law proceedings?

Yes. This is hypothesising, but I think in enough authorities people are looking for different solutions for children that may not be public care. I'd be surprised if that's not what we find when we look at the data. Is it positive? Yes, in the sense that there is more awareness of the principles of the Children Act 1989 that children remain with their parents, or connected to family members, where it's safe to do so, but it won't be good for the system or children if they are still needing judicial interventions. We've got to this point because we've been asking ourselves why are we not less busy? The answer is that we're seeing different public law proceedings.

JACKY TIOTTO CV

  • Sept 19 onwards - Chief executive, Cafcass
  • Feb 15 - Director of children's services, Bexley Council
  • Sept 11 - Deputy director for social care, Ofsted
  • Dec 09 - Professional adviser to the Munro Review
  • 2008 - Head of safeguarding unit, the Department for Education and Skills
  • 2006 - Regional director, children and learners, Government Office

Cafcass has received just 20 referrals in the past decade from independent reviewing officers (IRO) over concerns about a looked-after child's care - and acted on none. Are you concerned about that?

It's interesting to think about an IRO escalating a case to Cafcass and what adversarial feeling that would introduce into a child's life and if more would be good or not? We try and resolve everything through negotiation between the IRO and local authority and invariably children in public law proceedings are in difficult circumstances so having further feuds around them may actually not be helpful. If you believe, as I do, that councils are acting in the best interests of all children but sometimes make mistakes what is the value of escalated adversarial behaviour?

A consultation on the future of the family courts has just closed. What's come out of that?

A big part of the public law working group is what happens to families pre-proceedings with a local authority. I think the working group is right to say we need a conversation about what happens in that very important period where we're saying this is your path into court or this is your path of hope where we'll help you as much as we can to support your children and protect their welfare. Which of those is dominating in the system is a very serious question and I don't think we know enough about that phase nationally. I'm very interested in it and Cafcass's role in it. Maybe Cafcass [should] get involved in pre-proceedings but we can't do that because we don't have the social work resource.

We want to be involved in the conversation about what up-stream looks like and what evidence would be expected to be brought to court about the pre-proceedings phase.

Section 23 of the Children Act 1989 says if you have to consider removal your first point is whether they can stay with family members or people connected to them. What extent do we know if that is happening? That is definitely pre-proceedings work.

Is there an appetite among policymakers and children's leaders to reassess where the balance lies between early help and removal powers?

Definitely. Isabelle Trowler's paper Clear Blue Water has been debated a lot and I think if the chief children's social worker for England is saying let's reflect on the purpose and reality of family proceedings, the judiciary is saying we can't take any more demand, local authorities are saying they are finding upset families and children they need to support, and Cafcass is saying we're at absolute peak, then the system has to ask itself some questions and what the outcomes are for children.

I've come to Cafcass with a new lens. I question why care proceedings look this frequent in that place and less frequent in another. Why do they look like this in under ones here, and they look different in a similar place? We have to know about this.

The state's intervention with a child at risk of harm is a reflection of that society, but equally there's an accountability that goes with that power which we aren't necessarily describing well enough at the moment.

What is it about this role that attracted you?

One of my deep interests is the state's involvement in family life - whether that's through public or private law proceedings. We are going to need a conversation in the system about the extent to which courts engage in having to mediate contact that parents have with their children and the resource that's invested in those mediations. It's the same debate in public law - at what point do you intervene in family life because the experience of the children isn't good enough. That's been a debate for years but it is fluid and it changes depending on the decade you're in.

The system is full to bursting and there are some children in need of more help and we may need to redefine what the court does with its time and where the line is for state engagement, if there's no risk of harm to them.

In September, Cafcass published a three-year strategy, setting out plans to work more closely with partners and families. Why is that important?

Cafcass is an "outstanding" organisation and it comes with a big responsibility to retain that. I've been doing some work about how organisations retain their effectiveness because I did some similar work in Bexley. One of the things we're going to prioritise is how we learn from feedback from families and children an extent to which we haven't before. That's no criticism, but it's to say the next phase of our strategic planning has to be to hear much more from the families we're working with and the children we're representing.

We're setting up a families forum early next year. It will be a really serious part of our DNA.

Cafcass is the largest employer of social workers in England. How will you develop the workforce?

We have 1,500 social workers permanently employed and 200 as associates, but we want to develop a serious workforce strategy that puts our social work practice much more transparently on the development of the national agenda for social workers. For example, do they all pass through Cafcass to get that court experience, do we have some kind of academy, how do we remain an employer that is attractive and where people stay - we have stable turnover but that won't remain the case if we get to the point where demand is crippling.

I don't want to sound competitive to the sector but we need to be a significant employer and what does that look like for us when there aren't enough social workers to go around? I want to have that conversation in close partnership with local authorities.

It is a place where experienced social workers come and that is important - there's good reasons why you need to have three years' experience before you come to Cafcass. I've been here a month and the quality of work I've seen from guardians in court is impressive. It's quite striking the level of experience and confidence they have.

It's also the case that if we have that many social workers that are experienced, we share that and that the sector benefits because court is a scary place for anyone and we could be doing so much more in partnership with local authorities who are also struggling to retain social workers. I want to help lubricate the conversation about what that looks like.

I'm interested in having a creative conversation about how we develop our own practitioners in partnership with the sector.

This sounds a very collaborative approach. Is this reflective of your approach to leadership?

My style is directional but as I've worked longer I'm persuaded about the power of bringing people with you and encouraging open debate. While I do direct and steer I do encourage that with teams. One very powerful learning for me in the last decade is people have to be left intact when you have debates about these things because social work is a really difficult job and people have to feel you're supportive and kind about how difficult their jobs are. Kindness is missing a lot from our system and I think the children feel that to.

In the sector, Nigel Richardson [former Leeds DCS] is someone I admire because he led the way in helping families and for his role in the Care Crisis Review and asking about what we are doing with families and resetting the power balance. Also Helen Lincoln [DCS in Essex] is another person whose passion as a DCS has helped me.

My most favourite quote I think a lot about at the moment is Albert Einstein's "Make things as simple as they need to be but not simpler". It plays to the point about the complexity of our decisions and the fact we have a duty to make those decisions as clear as they can be but not so black and white that anyone thinks they are simple. I love that sort of thinking.

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