There are 60,000 looked-after young people in England. Relying on the state for part or all of their upbringing they represent the client group with the greatest exposure to children’s services. But despite their numbers and insight their voices are seldom heard.
The Care Matters reforms want to change this by involving these children in shaping the services they receive. A key part of the plans is the pledge for looked-after children outlined in both the Care Matters green and white papers. Under this, each council will make a pledge setting out what looked-after children in their area will receive.
Since the green paper was published in October 2006 many local authorities have been working out what their pledges will contain. In the document the government put forward suggestions for what a pledge’s core offer might look like. These include a choice, made with a social worker, of high quality placements, an independent advocate, 24/7 support from a young person’s social worker or an out-of-hours contact and the right for young people to have their voices heard and influence the work of the local authority through participating in a children-in-care council.
Lucy Sweetman, projects manager at charity Rainer Crime Concern, says, that while the government’s list of suggestions is helpful it is important that councils also talk to looked-after children about what they want.
“The risk if you start having a list like that is it encourages local authorities not to start from their own baseline. We would want local authorities to really start out by listening to young people about what they would like to see in the pledge,” she says.
A National Voice, the organisation run by and for young people with experience of the care system, consulted 201 young people on the green paper. The most popular part of the pledge among the group – a choice of good placements – made it into the white paper but the second most popular – access to support from a social worker all day, every day – did not.
Maxine Wrigley, national co-ordinator at A National Voice, sees this as a mistake. She says it’s important such a service is included in councils’ pledges, so vital is it to young people and care leavers in particular. While all councils have emergency duty teams she says that looked-after young people are often turned away unless it’s an emergency.
“When I was 16 I was dumped in a horrible high-rise flat and it was often out-of-hours that you needed help with something,” she explains.
Other changes between the green and white papers include a new pledge suggestion of supporting young people to maintain relationships with family and friends. Wrigley sees this as a positive change. She says that such support is mixed and that young people may also want to stay in touch with their foster brothers and sisters which is even more problematic.
“There are some young people who have made friends with their foster brothers and sisters but they aren’t even given support to stay in touch with their own siblings let alone foster brothers or sisters,” she says.
While the content of councils’ pledges is important, professionals argue the process by which they are created and the level of looked-after children’s input is key to getting them right. There are reports of some councils rushing the procedure or forming a group pledge.
Rob Dunster, development manager for leaving care at Warwickshire Council, says that if done properly the pledge takes time to develop and should be specific to each local authority.
“How you get there (in terms of creating a pledge) is almost more important than what you get in the end. It’s not a quick thing to set up. Authorities in one part of the country got together to write a pledge that was common to their region. I find it hard to know how young people in those authorities will relate to that,” he says.
Tokenistic and patchy
Campaigners say the involvement of looked-after children in services can be tokenistic and patchy. A survey of councils in England in 2007 by the Children’s Rights Alliance for England found that only 17 had a collective mechanism for gathering the views of children in care.
Carolyne Willow, national co-ordinator at the alliance, says many of those that do exist are inadequate and have no dedicated budget.
Children-in-care councils, outlined in the green paper, aim to change this. They will involve a rotating group of looked-after children through which the group’s views will be collected and passed to the director of children’s services and have an impact on services. Willow says the councils’ link to the director of children’s services is an important part of the plans – many of the existing bodies having no guaranteed access to decision-makers.
“We want them to be an integral part of local decision-making about the services and support available to children and young people in and leaving care. They must have the resources and status necessary to make them a powerful partner in making change happen, not simply a consultative body,” she says.
“We wanted the bill [the Children and Young Persons Bill currently going through Parliament which contains the Care Matters policies] to set out a legal requirement on local authorities to fund these councils. We hope the statutory guidance [which is due to come out shortly] will require this.”
The councils will also inform an annual national stock-take – another Care Matters’ reform – on how local authorities are doing in supporting looked-after children, led by ministers and reporting to parliament.
New statutory guidance will make it clear that all local authorities must have children-in-care councils and is also likely to require pledges being created but the inspection arrangements are not yet finalised.
If the correct accountability framework is put in place campaigners are confident the policies have the potential to improve services for looked-after children and finally give them a voice.
Care Matters green paper
The Warwickshire experience
What Makes the Difference?, a multi-partnership project led by Rainer Crime Concern working with care leavers, began working with Warwickshire Council on their pledge in March 2007. The project has since merged with the National Leaving Care Advisory Service to become the National Care Advisory Service, which is supported by Rainer Crime Concern.
A series of workshops with looked-after children and elected members in Warwickshire have taken place. The director of children’s services has also been involved in the work.
“We were determined we should do this from the ground up and go to the young people first,” says Rob Dunster, the council’s development manager for leaving care.
The group came up with 26 areas that could be improved and these were then whittled down into 14 promises about service improvement.
Dunster says it is essential that the pledge is applied individually in each child’s plan and valued by staff across the local authority to have an impact.
“The key point for us with the pledge is it must inform care and pathway planning at an individual level.
“We want to make sure workers themselves see how it might influence these. We don’t want it to be something that is on the wall at the council’s headquarters that nobody knows about or uses,” he says.
This article is published in the 14 August edition of Community Care magazine under the headline “Councils take the pledge”