Children involved in care and divorce proceedings are being failed by the Government agency responsible for protecting their interests in court, it is claimed today.
A dramatic increase in child care cases and resignations among frontline social workers has led to severe delays in reports reaching the courts, the trade union Napo alleges.
Family court adjournments for reports on the best interests of the child usually take between 12 and 14 weeks. Now some areas in the Children and Family Court Advisory Support Service (Cafcass) are reporting delays of 20 weeks or more. Merseyside reported that it took up to 38 weeks to complete investigations.
The Napo report highlights the impact of stress on Cafcass staff, who have had an increase in workload since the Baby Peter scandal triggered a flood of new cases from local authorities last year. In the last 12 months there has been a 21 per cent rise in care proceedings.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, today says the service is in "meltdown". "Staff are struggling to cope with workloads and systems that are dysfunctional. Delays before completing reports are unacceptable and are impacting adversely on children. Staff complain that they are constantly being monitored, which diverts them from work with families."
Some staff have made official complaints of bullying by managers as they try to solve the problems, the report says. Mr Fletcher is calling on ministers to reduce the bureaucracy at Cafcass head office to the level of three years ago, which he said would free up 180,000 hours for frontline workers.
A spokesman for Cafcass said there were "massive increases" in workloads since the Baby Peter case, but insisted the agency had made inroads into the backlogs, which peaked last year, and had taken steps to improve the quality of decisions made by staff.
He said: "There is no magic solution, there's simply no spare workforce of social workers and so everyone must find ways to jointly manage the problem within the family justice system."
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