The NSPCC has seen a dramatic increase in calls about suspected child abuse since Baby P – referrals from the NSPCC to the police or social services are up by a third in two years. I was astonished to read that between April 2008 and March 2009 the NSPCC passed on 11,243 suspected child protection cases, up 3,063 on the previous year. Action in response was taken in 98% of those cases (although I would guess that in many of those cases ‘action’ might be as limited as a quick house call and then NFA). But that is almost 1,000 cases per month that the NSPCC has taken seriously enough to pass on to the authorities and according to the information I have read a large proportion of those cases relate to children not otherwise known to social services – so children that had been falling through the net. Its good to hear that something positive has come from Baby P – perhaps people are feeling the weight of their own social responsibility more and making that call where in the past they might have just considered it someone else’s business. But it’s also frightening to think of the numbers of cases of unseen abuse and unprotected children that these statistics hint at.
The Guardian reports that 7% of CAFCASS Guardian appointments in care cases are unallocated. That is 653 of a total of 9060 cases. The only surprise there is that the figure for unallocated cases is so low. You can’t get a Guardian for love nor money round these here parts, and Judges have all but given up trying to appoint them in private law cases, along with s7 reports from either social services or CAFCASS, opining ‘but what’s the point Ms Reed, they won’t do it?’. Although I have heard of some other creative judicial attempts at plugging the gap it is truly a sorry state of affairs when a justice system that is founded on the paramountcy principle is unable to secure a Guardian to guide the court how to achieve it’s ultimate goal by making orders that are in the best interests of the children.
But what I want to know having read this article is – what portion of the 739 applications issued in March 09 (79% up on the same month in 2008) have a Guardian appointed? And in how many of those cases issued in March have the children been removed without a Guardian being appointed or at court? The new duty CAFCASS Officer system doesn’t do justice to the seriousness of urgent removals and I have done at least one ICO hearing where the application was for removal where there was no duty Guardian at court, and another where the duty Guardian had not read any of the papers.
On one level 7% unallocated doesn’t sound too bad, but I would hazard a guess that of new applications the proportion is much much higher, and of the 6090 total cases the majority of ‘old’ cases have a Guardian. Crucial – and sometimes irreversible – decisions are made at early hearings in care cases and it is vital that the children’s needs are properly protected. And of course the 7% figure does not include Guardian appointments in private law cases under r9.5 FPR 1991, or the dire situation with respect to s7 reports.
Whilst it is right to prioritise cases in circumstances where CAFCASS are simply unable to meet demand, this really does an injustice for the families which fall in the ‘serious but not that urgent’ category, particularly in private law cases where what might previously have been a short interruption in contact remedied by a swift and robust s7 report can turn into a protracted interruption in the parent-child relationship, which is a massive disadvantage to the parent seeking a contact order, and of course a failure for the children involved.
I wonder when CAFCASS leadership will stop telling us all ‘we can manage’ and admit that the system is in crisis and needs an urgent increase in its staffing levels? I don’t know what Anthony Douglass means by suggesting CAFCASS is providing a ‘proportionate’ children’s guardian service: either a child needs a Guardian or they don’t and when they do CAFCASS are ordered to appoint one – there is not then a discretion on CAFCASS as to whether or not to comply. As a matter of public policy a child is deemed ALWAYS to need a Guardian in care cases, as set out in the Public Law Outline. Under the PLO CAFCASS are ordered by the court, to appoint a Guardian before the first hearing in every care case. There is a good reason why a Guardian is required to be active before first hearing – a hasty removal in those feverish early days can have a ripple effect that can affect the direction and outcome of a case and can have a long lasting effect on a child’s life.
Camilla Cavendish writes an excellent article about (amongst other things) the tendency towards back-covering in child protection and the consequent fear of professionals that many good parents now have. She is right – I am anxious each time I take my son to the GP for a routine appointment that whatever minor knock or scrape he may have about his person will be mistaken for abuse.