Why we need a reset for children’s advocacy

I was really pleased to be able to share the final report from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care last week. The messages and recommendations from the review are the culmination of thousands of conversations, hundreds of meetings and many months of work. Thank you to everyone who contributed to the review and shared their story – I appreciate what this asked of you and hope it will lead to change.

There’s a lot in the report. There’s also a lot of other documents and material that we published on Monday. That’s why, as part of the review winding down, we will be hosting a few open explainer webinars where people can hear about the recommendations and ask questions. You can sign up to the webinars here.  

There are over 80 recommendations in the report that government, public services, businesses, charities and the public will need to consider. Government made clear last Monday that they will respond to the review by the end of this year with a comprehensive and ambitious implementation plan. 

Amongst the many recommendations, the proposal for a new Independent Advocacy Service has been a topic of real debate so I thought it would be helpful to pull out the details on this recommendation from our various reports. If this is something you are really interested in then please read the relevant parts of the reports in full. 

Making sure children’s voices are heard

The starting point for me was listening to children and young people who clearly stated that too often they aren’t heard when professionals make decisions about their lives. Children told me and my team that they had to tell their stories to lots of different professionals, often when they didn’t know who they were or what they were responsible for. 

For example, a child who has just been through a family court process and who now lives in a children’s home can have a social worker (who might change often), an advocate, an Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO), a Regulation 44 visitor (someone who inspects the home) and have recently had a Cafcass Guardian. 

Despite – or in fact because of – so many overlapping roles, children are often left confused and reliant on professionals they don’t have a meaningful relationship with to advocate for them or assess their best interests. Rather than lots of roles making the system ‘safe’ or better at protecting children’s rights, having overlapping professionals around a child in care can in fact dilute professional accountability for decision-making and solving issues. 

Advocacy support is only available if children opt-in, but many children and young people don’t know that they can ask for an advocate. Even when children do ask for support, they may be told there are no services available or get offered an advocate for just a few hours as their time is heavily rationed. A recent study of 129 local authorities  found 70 percent of advocacy services fail to meet national standards. They are also commissioned by local authorities and therefore lack independence. 

Many IROs, who have a different role in making sure that children’s care plans meet their best interests, have more than the recommended upper limit of 70 children to work with. They usually only see children once every six months and as they are council employed staff they too lack independence. IRO services have been criticised by previous reviews and are often singled out by judges in court hearings. I’ve met excellent IROs during this review and they are some of the most experienced and skilled social workers in children’s social care. But they do not have the capacity, remit or independence to ensure children’s voices are heard or that their best interests are met. 

The current system isn’t working well enough in the round for children. We set out the evidence for this in some detail on pages 137-8 of the main report (here) and on pages 103-5 of the recommendation annexes (here).  

Imagining a better system

The review has set out recommendations for England to build a leading advocacy service for children in care. While job titles would need to change, this future system would be designed to give children genuinely independent professionals with clearer roles and the opportunity to establish relationships so that their views really can be heard and so that their interests are given paramountcy.

The review has set out some simple principles that we think should guide a reset of how children’s voices and best interests are understood (pages 141-2 of the main report). They are:

 

1. We should trust social workers to act in the best interests of children. When it comes to reviewing the care for a child, social workers have the relationship with a child and alongside their manager they should be supported and be responsible for making a best interest assessment. Other recommendations made in the report which take action on the use of agency social work and which create social work career pathways which keep social workers in practice, should also mean greater longevity in the relationships social workers hold with children. And of course, releasing IROs into other front line positions will also help improve the stability of relationships.

 

2. Genuinely independent advocacy for children in care should be opt-out, not opt-in. Children in care should have access to an adult that is unequivocally on their side and solely focused on making sure they are heard, which is particularly important when things go wrong with the care they receive. Inherent to this principle is that we are not simply expanding the existing system of advocacy we have now in England. Instead, we expect advocates to be truly independent, work with a manageable number of children and have access to training which means they have the best knowledge of children’s rights.

 

3. The gravity of the decision to remove children from their parents needs an independent second opinion. Therefore the role of an independent Cafcass guardian is needed.

 

Applying these principles would mean that all the current functions would continue in the future system but the roles to undertake them should be changed so that they are clearer and more independent (annex page 109): 

Click here to enlarge the above image

The recommendations made by the review would mean spending about £100 million per year on advocacy services for children, provided in a way that would give children regular contact with a skilled advocate who could focus independently on their views. It is a model that would allow the building of a trusting relationship before the advocate has to represent a child’s views in a meeting. This improves the child’s ability to properly understand the decisions that might be made and feel comfortable to share what they actually want to happen. It also makes the role of the social worker, and their manager, much clearer when it comes to care planning. 

Of course changing things is difficult and it can also bring risks. Children in residential and secure settings will need to speak with an advocate (page 141) at least every month, providing an important safeguard to ensure children’s voices are heard and that children’s homes are mointoried based on the direct experience of children living there. The review also emphasises that these proposed changes need consultation and that the nature of how opting out would work (particularly for very young children, for example) will need to be worked through carefully. I also recommend that these changes will take time and that they wouldn’t be implemented until 2025/26 so that the transition can be carefully managed. 

The system for ensuring children’s voices are heard and that their best interests are met is not working. I’ve made my recommendation, based on the evidence we have collected and heard. It’s right that these ideas are debated and discussed ahead of the government making their decision. Is there a better way to achieve the same principles set out above? Is there a completely different way to think about this? The answers might be ‘yes’, but if we agree that the current system isn’t working then that means things do need to change. 

 

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