As I have explained here previously, I don’t usually write about ‘public law children matters’ as we lawyers term them (i.e. child care cases), as it is a very long time (getting on for twenty years) since I did any public law work. However, I think the President’s words in his latest View from the President’s Chambers regarding the current crisis in the care system require some comment.
The first thing of note is that this is the second time the President has published one of his Views on the subject of care cases in just over a month. This is clearly an indication of the gravity of the crisis.
So what is the crisis? Well, for those of you who have not been following the monthly care application figures published by Cafcass, it is the pressure on the system caused by the huge increase in the number of care cases in recent years. The President sets out the yearly figures, since 2005-6. These show that during the four years from 2005-6 to 2008-9 the figures remained quite stable, at about six and a half thousand new applications a year. Since then, however, there has been a sharp and continued rise in the number of applications, with the figure for 2015-16 approaching thirteen thousand. It is estimated that the figure for this year could exceed fifteen thousand. Looking ahead, if the current rate of increase were to continue, then the figure could reach twenty-five thousand by 2019-20.
Let’s just stop and think about those figures for a moment. The same system that used to deal with six and a half thousand application is now being asked to deal with twice that number, and could in just four years be asked to deal with nearly four times that number. Remember, all of this is happening in a time of economic restraint, with few or no new resources being made available. The pressure on those working within the system, from social workers to judges and lawyers, must be immense, and must surely be close to breaking-point.
So what is causing this increase? Well, the standard answer is the ‘Baby P effect’, i.e. it is a response by local authorities to the fallout which followed severe criticism of Haringey Council over the death of baby Peter Connelly in 2007. Anxious to avoid similar criticism local authorities are being ultra-cautious, issuing far more care applications than previously, rather than risk the chance that a case will ‘fall through the net’, with similar tragic consequences to the Baby P case.
The President suggests three possible causes for the increase. The first is that that the amount of child abuse/neglect is increasing. The President does not believe that this is the sole explanation. The second is that that local authorities are becoming more adept at identifying child abuse/neglect, and the third is that local authorities are setting more demanding standards, in other words, lowering the threshold for intervention. The President believes that these changes in local authority behaviour must be playing a significant role. This is surely correct, although the issue really needs to be looked at in much more detail. The President suggests various questions that should be posed, such as whether there have been changes over time in the breakdown of care cases as between cases of physical abuse, sexual abuse, neglect and emotional harm, and whether there have been changes over time in the numbers of children involved in each care case. These are important questions, but sadly there don’t appear to be the resources available to look into them in detail.
And what is to be done? Well, this is where the President’s View seems to go a little flat. He only really comes up with two ideas, neither of which is new. The first idea is to improve the way in which we handle care cases. This involves such things as reducing the length of documents and subjecting applications for expert reports to more stringent scrutiny. The second idea is to concentrate on solving underling problems, rather than just providing solutions. This, he says, can be done by greater use of Family Drug and Alcohol Courts, and by developing projects such as Pause, which looks at the underlying problems of women who find themselves losing successive children in repeat care proceedings. The problem, of course, with these solutions is that they cost money and resources, which may not be available.
The child care system seems to be heading inexorably for a car crash, which these measures will do little or nothing to prevent. Apart from pumping in substantial new resources, and somehow I can’t see that happening, I don’t know what the answer is. I do know, however, that if an answer isn’t found then the consequences for the welfare of children will be far more serious than anything that has happened previously.
The 15th View from the President’s Chambers: care cases: the looming crisis can be read here.