Allocate this

I’ve been thinking about blame lately. You lose count in this job of the number of people you meet who don’t want to take responsibility for their own actions. Husband blames wife (and vice versa) or the new boyfriend, client blames lawyer, social worker, child, the system – for failed relationships, for poor parenting, for their rejection by traumatised children, for the removal of the children they neglected. It cuts both ways, too often also social workers blame parents who never had a chance – allocating responsibility is easier than confronting or solving problems sometimes. Social workers and guardians blame lawyers for procedural delay, and for somehow making matters worse, more complicated. Today we had to adjourn a final hearing on fairness grounds. It caused delay for a child who desperately needs permanence but avoided causing more delay by prompting a pointless appeal. The lawyers suggestion but not their fault. And sometimes – dare I say it – counsel blames their instructing solicitor (as long as they aren’t sitting behind).

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It’s a shame when Local Authorities see the legal process as no more than a way of shifting responsibility for the outcomes for children – it should be a means of achieving the right outcome for the children through the collective work of all the parties and their legal representatives, but sometimes it feels like that paramount purpose gets lost in the need to make sure you aren’t holding the baby when the music stops (excuse the poor mixed metaphor). For example a Local Authority who pursues an utterly hopeless fact find against a parent suspected of abuse but where there is a complete absence of cogent evidence, that any reasonably intelligent lay person and any half competent lawyer would tell you can have no other outcome than ‘no findings’ plus months of delay for child and family. In such a case the only need satisfied by insisting on going through the motions is the need to ensure social workers and Local Authorities aren’t blamed for inaction, but the upshot is that the delay may well irreversibly damage either (or both of) the child’s relationship with parents (due to restricted contact whilst allegations are pending), and his prospects of being matched successfully for adoption (older children are harder to place and to place successfully).

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Greater vigilance on the part of local authorities is admirable and indeed essential, but the courts are there to scrutinise and approve the judgment of social workers, and contracting out common sense and judgment to the courts is no more than buck passing.

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Similarly concerning is the apparent drive by CAFCASS to allocate, allocate, allocate – even though every one of the Guardian’s I have spoken to since returning from maternity leave has a caseload of around 20 or more, plus all the Duty Guardian work. Thus the principle of a named Guardian for every child in public law cases is maintained, but as one Guardian said to me recently – all it achieves is a name to blame when it all goes wrong. A caseload of 20 means 20 families, often with several subject children with complex needs and backgrounds – a key part of the Guardian’s role is to visit the children and the households concerned and to develop an understanding the dynamic of the family and the child’s needs. I’d say along with duty work, report writing and attending court, visiting 20 families and ascertaining the needs and best interests of anything between 20 and 50 children (spread often over a considerable distance) is just not practicable. Allocation to overloaded Guardians does not in itself fulfil CAFCASS’s duty to children, but it looks better on paper and it does pass the buck down the chain.

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That’s the price of a blame culture I suppose. When it comes to the politically sensitive area of child protection, the subject of incessant and frenzied media attention on the strength of limited and highly selective information – everyone is afraid of being the next Sharon Shoesmith, the next Dr Al-Zayyatt. It doesn’t always make for good practice and it doesn’t always enhance the welfare of children.

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