Looked-after children are often unaware of their right to advocacy and have little choice over who should represent them, writes Roisin Woolnough

Looked-after children are only legally entitled to an advocate if they wish to make a complaint.

This situation highlights a lack of proper provision for children in care, says Susanna Cheal, chief executive at the children’s charity The Who Cares Trust? “For years, looked-after children have been last on the list,” she says. “A lot of policy is predicated on the basis that children have someone there for them – parents.”

It was only last year that looked-after children gained the right to an advocate, when amendments to the Children Act 1989, contained in the Adoption and Children Act 2002, came into force. Since then, local authorities have been obliged to provide advocacy when a looked-after child, child in need or care leaver makes a complaint or a complaint is pending.

Like many others lobbying for better rights for looked-after children, Cheal welcomed this change in the law. But she is adamant that looked-after children should have access to an advocate whenever they need one, not just to help them make a complaint. “Advocates can help young people put forward their views and there are all sorts of things that young people might want to raise about their lives,” she says.

“It is very important that they have an adult who is totally trusted to put their views across. It is usually a major event in their lives like a move that they really want help with. Inappropriate moves of children is a big concern.”

Child protection meetings, reviews, the care planning process, contact with siblings, when children are about to make the transition out of care – these are all times when looked-after children might benefit from having an advocate to give advice and represent them. Or it might be that they need help with something as simple as writing a letter, says Rachel Griffin, project manager of policy and development at Voice, a voluntary organisation campaigning for the rights of children and young people in care. “If a youngster wants to request to see their pathway plan, for example, we will write a letter for them.”

Each year, Voice takes on about 700 cases following calls to its duty line. Since appointing specialist advocates for young people aged 16-plus, unaccompanied asylum seeking children and young people with mental health issues, there has been an increase in cases from these groups.

Many local authorities also believe it is important that advocates are available to help looked-after children and many of them to go beyond the legal requirement. Steve Lowe, national development manager at Croa, the membership body for advocates, children’s rights officers and participation workers in England and Wales, says local authorities tend to fall into one of two camps. “Since the legislation came into force last year, authorities have gone one of two ways,” he says. “Some see it as a starting point and provide services for whatever looked-after children need. Others do just the legal requirement. A lot of it is down to the political will of the local authority.”

Financial constraints are undoubtedly a deciding factor for many councils – and most likely also why the legislation only obliges local authorities to act when there is a complaint. However, Griffin believes that providing the legal minimum could actually cost local authorities more in the long term.

“The complaints procedure is quite complex and cost intensive so Voice would certainly suggest that, where the grievance can be resolved without recourse to the complaints process the use of advocates to aid early resolution can in the long term be more resource efficient,” she says.

The financial implications should not be the only consideration, however. The needs of looked-after children and whether they would benefit from a more comprehensive advocacy service has to be the top priority. Cheal says it is imperative that local authorities remember that they are supposed to be providing a child-centred service. “Is it not cost effective to fund a broader service to help children get a better deal in their lives?” she asks.

Cheal says it goes back to her point that a looked-after child might not have an adult to act as their advocate. It might be that their relationship with their foster carer has broken down, that they haven’t been going to school and don’t get on with their social worker. Many children do turn to their key workers, foster parents and teachers to help them in certain situations, but many do not.

The current legislation puts the onus on the young person to sort out any issues. Couple this with the fact that the complaints process is adversarial and bureaucratic it is likely that many looked-after children are deterred from lodging or proceeding far with a complaint.

And those are the ones who have even heard of advocacy and understand what it means. Phil Youdan, youth service development manager at the children’s charity NCH, believes local authorities need to work harder at promoting the service and explaining to young people what it means. “They need to sell the concept of having an advocate to young people,” he says. “Some young people might not even know what an advocate is.”

Likewise, some children might not know that their problem would qualify as a complaint, unless it was made clear to them what advocacy provides.

Youdan believes it is important that children can choose their own advocate rather than have one allocated to them. There isn’t a shortage of advocates, so that shouldn’t be a problem. What can be a problem for young people is when they are assigned an in-house advocate, says Griffin: “Young people often distrust the independence of in-house advocates because they are employed directly by the body against which they may have a grievance.”

Griffin says it is vital that local authorities remember that looked-after children with a grievance are already in a vulnerable state. This is something that the government acknowledges in its guidance on the legalities.

“Children and young people can be especially vulnerable at times when they have a problem or want to make a complaint. The emphasis in this guidance is on early detection and early resolution, so that concerns and problems are put right quickly and effectively. Complaints procedures should be devised and operated in the wider context of encouraging children to speak out and encouraging decision-makers to hear their views”, it says.

Which would suggest, Griffin says, that local authorities providing a broader range of advocacy services than the legislation requires are doing the right thing.

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