The body responsible for looking after the interests of vulnerable children in the family courts was exposed as "not fit for purpose" in the wake of a large rise in cases following the Baby P tragedy, MPs have said.
Children suffered as the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (Cafcass) "failed to get to grips with fundamental weaknesses in its culture, management and performance" following a 34% increase in its caseload, leading to "chaos across the family justice system".
"These problems have been to the detriment of children", the report by the Commons' Public Accounts Committee (PAC) found.
Margaret Hodge, the committee's chairwoman, said: "Cafcass was ill-prepared for the very large increase in care cases in 2009-10 which followed the Baby Peter tragedy and caused chaos in the family justice system.
"This lack of readiness was a direct result of the organisation's continued failure to get to grips with the fundamental weaknesses in its culture, management and performance. It is still dealing with a legacy of low morale, unacceptably high levels of sickness absence and under-performance by some staff."
Baby P, now named as Peter Connelly, was 17 months old when he died in Tottenham, north London, at the hands of his mother Tracey Connelly, her violent partner Steven Barker and his brother, Jason Owen, in August 2007. He suffered more than 50 injuries despite receiving 60 visits from social workers, doctors and police over an eight-month period.
The case prompted a 34% rise in cases for Cafcass in 2009/10, the MPs found, and the body was only able to respond to the demand through the use of measures "which allowed it to do less work or to delay work on cases". "Cafcass, as an organisation, is not fit for purpose", the committee said.
While the specific impact of the Baby Peter tragedy was "hard to predict", the possibility of a sustained increase in cases "was a scenario that Cafcass should have planned for". But "Cafcass did not see the crisis coming, nor did it have a contingency plan in the event of a significant increase in demand", the committee said.
Cafcass chief executive Anthony Douglas said: "We will take heed of the PAC findings, and we will continue to defend the interests of the 140,000 children who we work with each year, each of whose cases is unique and many of whose lives we improve as a direct result of our involvement."
He went on: "Cafcass is fit for purpose because we have absorbed a massive number of new cases in the last 12 months and have improved our productivity by 17%, which is a performance any organisation would be proud of. We have improved on every measure considered by the PAC and the National Audit Office, including falling staff sickness, faster filing times of court reports and quicker allocation of cases."