Tavistock service for vulnerable children at risk, expert warns

The future of a prestigious health service which helps children suffering severe abuse is in doubt because of government cuts, a mental health expert has warned.

The Tavistock’s Monroe Assessment Service provides treatment for families going through care proceedings and assesses many children subjected to sexual and physical abuse or neglect.

But a new cap on the amount of funding these expert court witnesses receive has left the prestigious service operating at a loss, and many families without adequate support, a consultant social worker has warned.

Tim Kent said: “We are seeing the highest number of applications for care orders in the family courts for a decade, but the work of expert witnesses has been hit by savage cuts.

“Cases are getting stuck in the legal system and children’s lives are on hold for longer. We fear that the risk of courts making bad decisions about the best interests of the child is growing.

“If we have learned anything from the deaths of Baby Peter, Victoria Climbie, and too many others it’s that in a caring society every child is every adult’s responsibility.”

Mr Kent, who has worked at the centre in Fitzjohn’s Avenue, Hampstead, for eight years, added: “There is the potential that the management board would have to consider whether it is viable. There is no two ways about it.”

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Under the new system, there is a strict limit to how much an expert witness appearing before a court can be paid, levied according to their profession and seniority.

A psychiatrist is paid �90 while a social worker will be on a lower fee.

This cap is set far below what it costs the Monroe Service to operate, leaving the rest of the Tavistock and Portman NHS Trust having to pick up the bill.

To plug this shortfall, the centre is considering increasing the amount of private work it undertakes, which could be as high as 49 per cent if the new Health and Social Care Bill is passed.

The changes could fuel many more early adoptions, which are not always in the child’s best interests, because of a pressure to follow the most “expedient” route, Mr Kent warned.

“There is the risk of pushing through early adoption as a resolution to difficulties in young families rather than investing more laterally in the health and well being of those families,” he said.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said the cap had been introduced as part of reforms to bring down the �2billion legal aid bill.

He added: “Pay rates for the most commonly instructed legally aided expert witnesses were introduced in October 2011, following a public consultation.

“They are based on the typical hourly rates charged across the regions and the greater availability of experts in London, which allows more competitive rates to be paid so taxpayers get value for money.”