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Earlier this year, Cafcass were rated “outstanding” by Ofsted. We speak to Chief Executive Anthony Douglas to find out what this rating means to them, and how they are continuing to develop their services to support those in need.

What is your top priority towards the latter part of 2018 and moving ahead to 2019?

Our top priority for next year is the same as this year – to do our day job to the highest possible standard. This means ensuring the service we provide to each child referred to us by a family court – 140,000 children last year – is good or outstanding. For the next child referred to us, it may be their only chance of a decent future.

You’ve recently undertaken some high-profile appointments (Edward Timpson as Chair, Sir Andrew Macfarlane as President of the Family Division) – how would you like to see them using their experience to guide and support Cafcass’ work?

Appointing Edward Timpson and Andrew McFarlane to key roles within the family justice system will help to give confidence about the system’s future direction. Both are popular in the sector, highly committed and approachable, and proven reformers.

Future change in Cafcass will be wrapped up with systemic change in the family justice and child care system. Private law reform is the obvious starting point, particularly diversion from court and more targeted interventions in the most serious cases of domestic abuse, high conflict and parental alienation. A successful future system mostly depends on leadership on the front line by individual social workers but leaders at the top are also crucial to set direction, to problem solve and to build public and political confidence.

Earlier this year, Ofsted rated you as “outstanding” – a far cry from 2009 where you were deemed “inadequate”. How have you transformed your services within such a short time frame?

Improvement was mostly due to developing a high-quality workforce and strong workforce cultures around the country; cultures where the narrative in teams and throughout the organisation was how best to support the children referred to us.

We have developed various tools in-house to improve quality whilst managing very high levels of demand over a number of years. It was important to work as a united team of over 2000 staff and Associates. Working with the power and wisdom of crowds is not well understood as a building block for change but I believe that all major change has to achieve a consensus that it is the right way forward. We harnessed that. We also gave and maintain a strong commitment to flexible working. We give staff the technology and tools to carry out a complex and demanding role which is ‘emotional labour’.

The only way we can give children maximum support is by doing making sure we do the same to the staff supporting them.

Ofsted praised your “culture of continuous learning and improvement”. How do you help staff work to the best of their ability?

It is crucial that staff feel the risks they run are shared by management. All social work decisions and judgments carry with them a risk.

Good practice leadership brings with it a strong oversight of cases, but also a teaching role for less experienced staff. Good social work managers are educators, regulators, role models and counsellors – four in one management.

Staff also have access to bespoke internal training including regular webinars and ‘off the shelf’ sessions. I take part in interactive webinars, which gives me the chance to engage with staff and for them to ask me questions. Our ‘off the shelf’ sessions address issues that arise locally and are delivered by a practice supervisor or manager in group supervision or team meetings.

External stakeholders also play a key part in how we work. Recent partnerships include the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust who delivered some advanced training around mental health in the family court, and the Royal Literary Fund who have worked with us on undoing some of the ‘professionalese’ that creeps into written work from time to time.

Ofsted also praised your senior management team for a “clearly articulated vision”. How do you ensure solid communication amongst such a large workforce?

The key to this is open channels around and throughout the organisation, plus an understanding of how to engage effectively. If it is not in place, it is an urgent requirement. After all, social workers have to articulate and communicate a clear vision of change to families, especially to parents. The same level of clarity is needed inside organisations about the professional task. Making that task clear and manageable as far as possible helps staff to manage the numerous and often unrealistic expectations they face. Communication should be measured – not too much, but enough to maintain a momentum of belonging and involvement.

How are you using advances in technology to support and improve social work practice?

We’re always looking for better ways of working and ensuring the vulnerable child’s voice is heard in the clearest possible way. Sometimes this isn’t straightforward but our innovative apps, ‘This Much’ and ‘Backdrop’, have helped children and young people to express themselves through visual, graphical and pictorial content.

Our Voice of the Child app, in its initial stages of development, will help Family Court Advisers understand in greater detail what the child is thinking and feeling. Children can use drawings, stickers and writing and scaling tools to illustrate what’s important to them, while ‘My Journey’ helps them to share their lived experiences, how they feel about their current situation and explores their vision for the future.

This is an exciting project for us and once completed, we’re hoping to make it available to local authorities and other agencies.

How does your High Conflict Practice Pathway differ to previous tools relating to parental conflict and what can social workers expect from it?

We realise the damaging impact high conflict and parental alienation can have on children and their families. Our Cafcass Assessment Pathways will address this by incorporating guidance, evidence-informed practice tools, and relevant academic references and case law to help social workers assess the impact on children of these issues and domestic abuse. The pathways are being developed in collaboration with our own practitioners and will incorporate feedback from a wide range of stakeholders including therapists and parental groups.

How will you be sharing this new tool with practitioners across the sector?

As is the case with our existing Domestic Abuse Assessment Pathway, the new tools and guidance will be accessible via our website. We also plan to work with ADCS and the Principal Social Worker Network regarding the best methods for sharing and dissemination of the resources. Many LSCBs and Family Justice Boards are also interested in the tools and guidance.

We see these forums as good opportunities to promote awareness of the emotional harm caused to children in family court proceedings and to improve assessment of child impact and methods for improving outcomes.
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