The Chair of Cafcass, Baroness Claire Tyler, has very kindly answered the questions we put to her about child welfare, social work and the social care sector.

Cafcass’s history has been a long and troubled one, which nearly saw its dismantling in 2010. Since then, having taken on board the need to look at their service delivery, Cafcass have made an effort to do so and have implemented several interesting directives to this effect. These include a stakeholder system which invites parents to offer their input and a Young People’s Board made up of children who have been through the family justice system, designed to collect feedback about their services and amplify the voice of the child.

We felt now would be a good time to check in with the organisation and see how they’re getting on. To that end we invited Baroness Tyler to chat with us about her work as Chair for Cafcass, and the other organisations she works with. We also asked some no-nonsense questions about forced adoption and what she feels is the best way forward for the child welfare sector.

Despite the often emotive reaction the Cafcass acronym invites, we would ask you please to read Baroness Tyler’s answers and comment civilly. For an organisation that has in the past shunned direct communication with an often critical public, this interview represents a wonderful step forward, and the obvious care Baroness Tyler has taken to answer our queries is evident from the length of her answers and her attention to detail. It is a generous and open response.

We would like to thank the Baroness for taking the time and trouble to respond and a big thank you to Colette for being so patient with us.

You can read our interview with Baroness Tyler below:

  1. Baroness Tyler, thank you for allowing us to interview you. As a Lady who wears many hats, including Chair of Cafcass and President of The National Children’s Bureau, your days must be very busy, and no doubt diverse. What is a typical day like for you?

My days are certainly very varied and no two are the same. CAFCASS Board meetings usually take place towards the end of the week and these are also the days that I make out of London visits to avoid clashing with the main voting business in the Lords. Earlier in the year I visited the new Family Court in Liverpool where CAFCASS are located within the court building and the arrangement seems to be working very well. I also meet with CAFCASS practitioners from across the county about 6 times a year in London so I can hear from our front line staff about what’s going well and what their concerns are. I generally spend my mornings in the Lords and doing things such as attending a parliamentary meeting on social work training, meeting with Ministers and senior officials involved in the family justice system, meeting with charities and other groups who are working on issues I have a particular interest in or speaking at and attending external events about family justice and related areas of policy. I’ve finished serving on a Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare and I speak in debates in the Lords on issues including children and families, mental health, social care and social mobility/disadvantage.

In the last Parliament I was chair/vice chair of four different All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs) – one on social mobility, one on wellbeing and two on aspects of family relationships and parenting. I chaired a Parliamentary Inquiry on Social Mobility and Parenting which was jointly sponsored by the APPGs on Social Mobility and on Parenting and Families. Outside of Parliament, I chair a charity working with adults with multiple and complex needs called “Making Every Adult Matter”; I’m on the development board of “Think Ahead” which is designing and developing a new programme to recruit and train graduates to become mental health social workers; I am President of the National Children’s Bureau and Vice President of Relate. The latter two are both Honorary roles but I like to do practical things for them such as hosting or chairing events if I can. Because of the wide range of roles I have I often get asked to speak at events which can range from a few words at a reception to giving a full speech or lectures. So all in all I’m pretty busy and it’s interesting how these strands so often intersect and I can make helpful linkages between different policy areas.

  1. What do you foresee for children’s health and welfare in the next decade?

When it comes to looking after the interests of children’s health and welfare, we know that timely safeguarding and protecting children from the immediate risk of abuse and neglect at home are of the essence. However, there is also growing recognition of the need to look after their long-term mental health. We know from research that the experiences of children in care mean that they are more likely than their peers to experience mental health problems. Likewise, those children involved in private law proceedings can also be exposed to high levels of parental conflict, particularly where proceedings are protracted, and this causes confusion and disruption to their lives. I think we will see an increased focus on the emotional support services currently available to young people and children and how these can be improved.  A CAMHS taskforce (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) set out by the Department of Health looked into how children and young people can be better supported, by exploring the way children’s mental health services are organised, commissioned and provided so that young people can more easily access the essential help and support they need.

Just before the Election, the taskforce made a number of recommendations, including simplifying structures within CAMHS and improving access to children, delivering a clear joined up approach with other services so that care pathways are easier for children and young people to navigate. It is crucial that children are aware of these services and are able to access them.

  1. Poverty is an increasing concern for children in the UK: what impact do you see it having in 2015 on our children?

Much of the work we carried out in the All Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility and Parenting looked at the wider issues affecting disadvantaged children, who are often living in poverty, and how this affects their life chances. Although it can be a contested area, a lot of the research suggests that there is a distinct relationship between income inequality and social mobility. Children from poorer families are less likely to go to university and have access to higher skilled and higher status jobs.

We are seeing that families in poverty, generally, have more difficulties supporting their children with their development in their early years; and yet, these years are essential for the emotional, social and cognitive development of children which underpins success at school. Children who do not have books at home progress more slowly at school, and those who have a parent read to them each evening have a much better chance of achieving academic success. Child poverty, social mobility and parental income are interrelated, and you cannot improve one without working on the others. I recently chaired a Parliamentary Inquiry into Social Mobility and Parenting and our recommendations included developing and implementing a national parenting support campaign, based on locally-designed trails and based on national-local partnerships.

  1. Cafcass’ groundbreaking Voice of the Child project has attracted the support of (former) Justice Minister Simon Hughes and was our “Project to Watch” for 2015. How do you envisage it developing in the next 12 months and what hopes do you have for the project as a whole?

Practitioners I have spoken to have drawn my attention to the different ways in which children can feel involved in court proceedings. Some will want to communicate their views and wishes to the judge overseeing their case, whether that means meeting with the judge, or if more appropriate, writing a letter or making a drawing to express their views. Younger children may feel more comfortable just seeing the court setting, or speaking to a solicitor. Cafcass has been monitoring the ways children communicate with the court at present, which I understand has been of great assistance to those in MoJ charged with developing the VOTC commitment to date. I’ve heard great things about a court app – watch this space!

I’m also looking forward to hearing more on the progress of the Family Justice Young People’s Board’s (FJYPB) National Charter at what will be their third Voice of the Child Conference on 20th July. I cannot speak highly enough of the insight – and, quite often, the healthy challenge – that the FJYPB makes to the Cafcass Board; a member attends each Board meeting which means we have a live reminder of what Cafcass is here for and keeps us focussed.

  1. A 2014 report suggests that children may not want to have their cases reported in the national media, fearing journalists may wish to sensationalise their experiences rather than seek out the truth, and many feel it would be embarrassing for them, even if reporting was anonymised as there might be a risk of recognition. At the same time, the judiciary is pushing for more transparency within the family courts by way of reporting cases publicly. Do you think there is a workable middle ground and do you have any concerns about the transparency process?

I spoke about transparency at the Family Justice Council Debate. I believe that the transparency of decisions made about children in the family court is important for evidence-informed reasons so that the process can be used to ensure better practice and outcomes for children. However, it is clearly unacceptable if the impact of increased exposure is detrimental to a child. There will be some difference in what transparency means to a two year old and what it means to a 16 year old, and this must be taken into consideration. Transparency is also of real importance for later life. It is vital that the identity of children is safeguarded both at the time of the proceedings and in later years and that the files each organisation holds on a child have a well written, well analysed and well organised record that is maintained for a period of time so that when adults want to look back, they can find out the reasons for the decisions courts made about them which have such a major impact on their lives.

  1. Sometimes cases result in children being placed in care or adopted when families are deemed no longer able to care for them. The adoption process is heart-breaking for the families involved, and must affect practitioners working in the sector too. Do you feel that adoption without the birth family’s consent is a regrettable but necessary practice or do you think there might be other ways of working with separating families and children?

The number one focus has to be on protecting the welfare of every child, and making sure that they have a stable upbringing. For those children who cannot return home, adoption is one option for providing a permanent, safe environment to grow up in. It is about determining what is right for each child. The role of the Guardian is to ensure that the local authority’s plan for the child is not only the best available, but also that it is likely to be viable and to provide the child with a stable home. This is especially important in cases where returning home is appropriate, and the child is returning to an environment which was previously abusive or neglectful.

  1. A recent survey suggests that social workers have become too stressed to work effectively – are Cafcass officers also feeling the strain of now limited resources and if so what can be done about this?

Cafcass’ practitioners are all completely focused on making vulnerable children’s lives better and I know that their value base keeps them going despite the challenges they face. I also know Cafcass has worked hard to have a strong operational culture of risk sharing between practitioners and managers, meaning that practitioners are supported. Importantly, when I meet with front-line staff they tell me that they feel their input and expertise are recognised, which in turn helps them in what is a difficult professional role.  The efforts and innovation of Cafcass’ Human Resources team in assisting practitioners were awarded last year with a number of awards, including ‘Best HR team in the Public Sector’ at the Personnel Today Awards 2014. There are some practical measures which have made a big impact, including introducing a health and wellbeing plan that includes a telephone counselling service which is available to practitioners 24 hours, seven days a week. A good talent management strategy is in play, and most important for many staff these days, practitioners have flexible working, which means they are able to do their work in the office, when they’re at court or at home. It’s an area that needs continual focus, but I was pleased to hear that a recent survey measuring staff resilience levels found that Cafcass’ staff had strong resilience levels. I hope that others in the sector can learn from what Cafcass has put in place.

  1. Child welfare is obviously one of your passions – do you have a defining mantra or sentiment when it comes to children?

It’s short and simple: I believe that every child, irrespective of their background, deserves the very best start in life.

  1. And finally- who or what do you think will be your “ones to watch” this year in terms of child welfare policy or people?

With the introduction of the Child Arrangements Programme (CAP) in April last year, we are now seeing more focus on directing separating parents away from the family courts, where this is possible and safe. Signposting parents towards mediation, which is generally less stressful, should help to make the process of separation shorter and less distressing for parents and children. Currently, we are seeing organisations within the family justice sector working towards supporting this policy change. We are likely to see the development of more out of court programmes to support separating parents, and wider collaboration between agencies and organisations within the family justice sector. For example, Cafcass has extended the Supporting Separating Parents in Dispute (SSPID) programme in five areas of the country: York and North Yorkshire, Kent, Bristol, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire, and Norfolk. It offers services to help parents who are in dispute with their ex-partner about arrangements for their children following divorce or separation, helping them to access information, guidance and support about the most appropriate dispute resolution pathways available to them. The Cafcass Parenting Plan is a very helpful resource – it is a tool that works to focus parents on what will work for them to give their child the very best after separation.

We’re going to see a continued focus on mediation. After fairly recent changes, like parents attending a compulsory Mediation Information Assessment Meeting (MIAM) before court proceedings, introduced as part of CAP, many more families will be involved in the mediation process. It will be interesting to see how the service develops, particularly in terms of the voice of the child – I know that the FJYPB is hoping to see more child-inclusive mediation.

Baroness Claire Tyler

Baroness Claire Tyler