free speech image courtesy of fengergold on flickr
I have been informed today that CAFCASS employees have been forbidden by CAFCASS management to submit their own individual responses to the Family Justice Review. It is one thing to collate individual responses into an organisational response: it is quite another to seek to bar the participation of employees in this review individually. If this report is true it represents a dangerous development. If it is a misunderstanding by staff of a genuine attempt to ensure a well coordinated response it still raises concerns about the effectiveness of communication within CAFCASS. Whilst of course CAFCASS will have real practical difficulty in preventing employees from submitting their own response in anonymised form, the very fact that they may have to do so in a clandestine way (or that they may feel that they have to do so) does not suggest a healthy management culture.
I struggle to see how such an approach could be justified - CAFCASS has been the subject of much and varied criticism from diverse stakeholders in the family justice system for some time, and staff morale is known to be low. Suppressing the views of their own staff will not help either of those problems and will do nothing to promote the interests of justice, public confidence in the system, and will not assist in the promotion and safeguarding of the welfare of children. CAFCASS' main asset is its skilled officers. The Family Justice System is in crisis and facing further crisis as a result of the public spending cuts - crowdsourcing ideas about how we reform our family justice system so that it can survive and renew itself is crucial, and to exclude or sanitise the views of those at the coal face is not ultimately going to be helpful to anyone, including CAFCASS management.
Thank Goodness for that - the new(ish) President of the Family Division has decided not to renew the guidance and may scrap the duty guardian scheme. See this article extracting an interview reported fully in Family Affairs.
On another note, a proposal to scrap CAFCASS and to reallocate it's responsibilities to local authorities. Clearly something pretty radical needs to be done, but I'm no fan of that as a solution - whatever arrangements are made it is crucial that arrangements for the provision of Guardians, and to a lesser extent for reporting in children matters to be independent of local authorities.
Jacqui Gilliat on the Family Law Week Blog highlights two concerning practice developments here in her post about CAFCASS.
Firstly that CAFCASS officers in some areas are being encouraged to express a view about disputed allegations of domestic violence. In my experience some CAFCASS Officers don't need much encouragement to do just that, but that such practice is being promoted by CAFCASS management as an expediency measure is most concerning. I have seen a preliminary report locally which appeared to do just that - reporting the results of police and statutory agency checks as fact when they were clearly disputed and had not been investigated at all. At the time I had thought it might well be an simple failure to use clarity of terminology due to pressure of time when drafting the report, but I now wonder if it was an example of what Jacqui describes. It sounds rather too close for comfort to an operating assumption that there's no smoke without fire.
Secondly, that the new CAFCASS analysis and recommendations pro forma omits the welfare checklist. It has not gone unnoticed - frankly it's a mystery to me why any pro forma is required in the first place. All CAFCASS officers need to do is follow the welfare checklist - that's the statutory 'pro forma'. The headings in the new pro forma are often not apt to the case in question ('the child's story so far' being a case in point), and can be a distraction from the more important checklist. They do not promote the rigorous analysis that these cases require and deserve, but tend to result in a stream of consciousness report that is both difficult to follow (and hence ill thought through) and superficial in its analysis of the issues. The welfare checklist should be at the heart of everything CAFCASS does and that management have 'forgotten' to ensure it features in every report is of great concern. It's classic fodder for cross examination and exposes CAFCASS Officers to sometimes unnecessary challenge.
The other unfortunate feature of the pro forma is that reports are often circulated to parties with 'click here to enter text' in an uncompleted box or with information relating to another case in a box which has not been amended as the CAFCASS Officer has proceeded through the form. Although it may not reflect reality the use of a pro forma like this tends to promote a style of working which looks like families are being provided with nothing more than a 'cut and paste' pro forma answer, rather than the individualised recommendation that each child deserves. It does not promote parental confidence in the ability of CAFCASS to do the job.