Soho pilot scheme speeds up children's care cases

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By poppy_smith | Tuesday, October 30, 2012, 07:25

A care proceedings pilot launched between three London councils in April is already proving it is possible to dramatically speed up the majority of children's care cases, including adoption, to hit the government's target of six months.

Westminster City Council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) and Hammersmith & Fulham Council (H&F) began work on a national pilot on 1 April this year in a bid to shine the spotlight on care proceedings and speed up the family court process.

Early indications show the pilot has dramatically reduced the duration of care proceedings cases from a previous average of 50-60 weeks to just 20.3 weeks since the pilot launched. While this figure is expected to rise slightly as more complex cases come to an end, the initial results show a marked improvement in completion times for cases. The scheme is also expected to save more than £1m a year from the public purse, and the three councils are now sharing lessons and advice with 19 other interested London boroughs.

The pilot involves a new way of working between the three local authorities, family court judges and Cafcass, in which the councils' social workers agree to deliver their assessments promptly and to a set standard, and judges place the child's timescales at the heart of their decision making. The pilot is intended to try and achieve targets set out by the government for children to have a permanent care plan resolved by the court as soon as possible.

A newly-released 'six months on' progress report shows that out of the 43 cases that have started since the pilot launched:

  • Six of the more straightforward cases have already completed and a further 11 cases are imminent or have final hearing dates set.
  • So far, the average completion period for cases is 20.3 weeks, and they have involved an average of 4.4 hearings each. This stands in comparison to an average of 50-60 weeks across the three boroughs before the care proceedings pilot began.
  • A further eight cases look likely to complete within 26 weeks (the target timeframe) or only slightly over that time.
  • A further 10 cases are at the early stages or have only recently started, and it is too soon to make predictions on their likely completion dates.
  • Of the remaining eight cases, one is expected to complete in 40 weeks, one in 35+ weeks and another in 30 weeks. The other five are proving less predictable and are more complex cases that may take longer.

The pilot has also received very positive feedback from judges at the Inner London Family Proceedings Court, who say the three councils' social workers appear to have more confidence in their assessments since the pilot began. Where there has been sufficient evidence, social workers have also been robust in their recommendations for no further assessments.

There is, however, still room for improvement. The courts have commented that some social worker assessments still need better analysis and a clearer outline of the work that has taken place with the family before proceedings begin. Some social workers also need to improve the way they describe the impact of delays on individual children, and to generally tighten up written assessments.

The pilot involves the Inner London Family Proceedings Court (ILFPC), the Principal Registry, Cafcass and the three councils, and encompasses all care proceedings in respect of children who have suffered significant harm, including adoption.

It involves specially designated days at the ILFPC for tri-borough cases being heard under the pilot, and wherever possible the same judge will be used throughout a case to ensure continuity and further speed up proceedings.

In all cases, a Cafcass guardian has been appointed to the child before the first court hearing, and this early allocation of guardians has proven a successful element of the pilot so far.

A dedicated case manager also oversees and co-ordinates all care cases going through the pilot, maintaining quality and focus for each case and ensuring it is on track to meet the six-month timeframe. The manager also conducts case reviews after each case is concluded, to incorporate lessons into future best practice and continue improving the system.

Commenting on the progress of the pilot, Andrew Christie, tri-borough director of children's services for Westminster, RBKC and H&F said:

"It is still early days for the care proceedings pilot, but initial results show it is already having a dramatic effect in speeding up children's care cases and forging a more common-sense approach between our three councils, Cafcass and the family courts.

"We're optimistic that this pilot will prove it is possible to hit the government's six-month target in the majority of cases, and we're very happy to share the findings we have made so far with other interested councils across the country.

"It's also important to keep sight of the bigger picture. By hitting the six-month timeframe in as many cases as possible, we are achieving greater permanency and emotional stability for vulnerable children in our care, as well as saving almost £2m a year from the public purse."

John Baker, barrister and newly appointed Justices' Clerk for family courts in the wider London area, added:

"My first impression of the tri-borough pilot project is a very positive one. It is clear that a lot of time and effort has gone into ensuring that cases are progressed in a way that balances the need to minimise unproductive delay whilst at the same time exploring all the available care options for children.

"It is still early days in terms of detailed evaluation but signs are promising and what I have already witnessed is clear evidence of collaborative working and good practice. I am looking forward to working closely on behalf of the courts with the other agencies involved to develop the project to a stage where the good practice becomes business as usual and the lessons learned can be used to benefit the wider care system."

The pilot has since become part of a 'Whole Place' Community Budget which was awarded to Westminster, RBKC and H&F councils in December 2011 by the DCLG as one of four national 'Whole Place' pilots. The care proceedings pilot is one of the first Community Budget projects to begin showing results, and embodies Community Budget 'ideals' including pooling different agencies and ultimately improving residents' lives while increasing efficiency and saving money from the public purse.

Capital Ambition awarded a £150,000 grant to the care proceedings pilot, which not only funds the running of the pilot but also the sharing of information and findings from the pilot with other councils. So far 19 London boroughs have expressed interest and are starting to share information from the pilot, and interest is picking up in other parts of the country.

The interested London councils who are beginning to share findings are: Camden, Islington, Tower Hamlets, Ealing, Brent, Harrow, Barnet, Enfield, Haringey, Lewisham, Lambeth, Southwark, Greenwich, Bromley, Bexley, Redbridge, Newham, Waltham Forest and Barking & Dagenham.

The three tri-borough councils have each invested £30,000 into the pilot, although the projected savings for all agencies, including the councils, will greatly exceed this figure.

The three councils of Westminster, RBKC and H&F launched their wider tri-borough shared services programme in 2010, in which the three authorities combine management of their children's services, adult social care and libraries departments in order to reduce senior and middle management, save money and thereby protect frontline services for residents. The three boroughs expect to save a total of £40m a year through the tri-borough programme by 2015/16.



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