As the Care Matters green paper hints at raising the profile of advocacy for looked-after children, the first national study of advocacy services considers their impact and benefit for developing children’s services, writes Christine Oliver
There has been a rapid increase in the number of advocacy services for children and young people in England over the past 10 years or so. Most are targeted at children in care and those considered “in need”. This development has been prompted, at least in part, by the risk of their exclusion from important decisions about their care, such as where and with whom to live, which school to attend and whether they may remain in contact with family and friends.
Many children who grow up with their families can expect to have a say in such decisions, but this is not always the case for children in care. It has been claimed that an advocate can be a powerful ally, helping children to have a voice in matters of concern to them.
The government’s green paper, Care Matters, aims to transform children’s experience of the care system and to “put the voice of the child in care at the centre both of our reforms and of day-to-day practice”.(1) In so doing, it proposes to “revitalise the independent visitor scheme” to provide independent advocates for children in care.
While in principle this may be a welcome development, there are doubts over whether the green paper demonstrates a clear understanding of advocacy. But an equally important question is: what evidence is there that advocacy can make a positive difference to the individual lives of looked-after children, and promote positive change in children’s services more generally?
The green paper uses the terms “mentor”, “independent visitor” and “advocate” in an almost interchangeable way. While it is true that, as a result of befriending a young person, a mentor or independent visitor may help that person to address a problem or complaint, this is not necessarily part of their role.
By contrast, advocacy focuses on relationships and tasks. Furthermore, children’s advocacy is guided by a specific set of principles, as set out in the national advocacy standards.(2) Findings from our study – Advocacy for Looked After Children and Children in Need: Achievements and Challenges – also show that effective advocacy requires training and supervision in order to achieve the professional credibility, skills and knowledge to challenge social care professionals on their decision-making.
In interviews, most advocates defined their role as representing or empowering young people to speak up on their own behalf. The young people themselves saw an advocate as someone who would “be on my side”, “fight my corner” or “back me up so that others listen and take notice”. They also placed a high value on the confidentiality, independence and professional status of advocacy services.
Findings from the survey of advocacy services and interviews with young people showed that complaints about placement decisions represented the most common reason for young people in care to contact an advocate. Marlene, aged 17, told the survey: “Social services took me out of care for no reason and put me into the home of a person who was supposed to be my cousin. Nine people already lived there, and the conditions were filthy. I was eight months’ pregnant at the time.”
Other key issues raised by young people concerned (in order) their safety from abuse, bullying and harassment, and their wish to maintain contact with family and friends. These problems were followed closely by complaints about social workers or residential care staff, problems with housing, welfare benefits and access to education services.
In relation to individual children, a key question was: how successful are advocacy services in helping young people resolve their problems? Findings from the survey of advocacy services showed that more than one-third had achieved decisions in young people’s favour, mostly in relation to placement issues. Advocates also reported that they had achieved better care packages for young people, and prevented unwanted placement moves.
One advocacy service had lobbied against the use of temporary agency placements and won compensation for one young person who had experienced 24 agency placements in two years. Advocates also assisted children to gain access to needed services, such as play and leisure facilities, health services (including GP and drug rehabilitation services, sexual health advice and support for dealing with self-harm), education and training services.
Overall, young people reported a high level of satisfaction with advocates: on a scale of one to 10, 86 per cent of young people gave their advocate between eight and 10 points. Thirtyeight per cent of young people interviewed reported that their requests had been fully met, such as retaining custody of a baby against the wishes of the local authority, resolving contact arrangements with family and friends, and tracing siblings.
Most young people obtained part of what they wanted, or reported that they benefited in other ways from being involved in the advocacy process, such as feeling less stress because their views were taken more seriously. Some of these benefits appeared to have a positive impact on other aspects of their lives. For example, one young woman said that, once contact arrangements with her mother had been resolved, her school work improved considerably.
To have maximum impact, the lessons learned from individual advocacy casework need to be applied to strategic developments in children’s services so that other young people do not experience the same problems over time.
In the survey of advocacy services, more than half could identify policy changes that were achieved as a result of advocacy, such as improvements in the conduct of review meetings, better financial support and accommodation for care leavers, and simpler procedures for overnight stays.
However, 21 per cent of advocates were frustrated by local authorities’ resistance to learning from the lessons of individual advocacy. Barriers to achieving better outcomes for children were identified as an over-reliance on bureaucratic procedures on the part of social care professionals and professional resistance to young people’s participation in decision-making.
● Click here to download a copy of the report Advocacy for Looked After Children and Children in Need: Achievements and Challenges
CHRISTINE OLIVER is a researcher at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London
Training and Learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.
This article reports on the findings of the first national study of advocacy for looked-after children and children in need. It concludes that, to have a maximum impact, individual casework advocacy should inform strategic developments in children’s services and that greater receptivity is required towards the benefits of involving children in decisions about their care.
(1) DfES, Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care, 2006
(2) DH, National Standards for Agencies Providing Advocacy for Children and Young People in England, 2002
Thomas Coram conducted the research on behalf of the Department of Health. Stage 1: a telephone survey of 75 advocacy services for children and young people in England. Stage 2: face-to-face interviews with looked-after children and children in need (48), parents/ carers (13), advocates (18), and social care professionals (40) from 10 advocacy services across the country.
The Thomas Coram Research Unit has also evaluated the advocacy services of Voice, a voluntary organisation for children in care.
This article appeared in the 14 December issue, under the headline “‘There to fight my corner'”