by a parenting advocate at Mind in Croydon
The right to an independent advocate is enshrined in various laws for many adults and children receiving social care support. Yet there is a significant gap in support for parents involved in one of the most sensitive processes in social care – when local authorities bring statutory & legal care proceedings.
At our parenting advocacy service we work with parents or those in a parenting role who have mental health problems. A snapshot survey of 14 parents we carried out in February, found that most had come to us for support after the local authority had reached a stage where care proceedings were being considered or initiated. The vast majority of parents sought help because they felt they’d not been involved in the local authority’s decision-making and did not feel they’d had the care proceeding process explained to them in a way they understood.
As an advocate, my role is to try and help address those issues and ensure my client feels their voice is being heard in the process.
So how do we work? Well, take an example of a case I worked on involving care proceedings. My client’s children were in long-term care arrangements and contact with them was limited. We first met when they had contacted our service for support ahead of a meeting with their children’s social worker.
How we work
My first job was to meet-up and explain my role as an advocate. We held an hour-long meeting where I set out what we do. I explained that we work specifically to client’s instructions. I always say to clients that, as advocates, we do not give advice or mediate. Instead we try to provide options to help you make an informed choice, support you to express your views and wishes, and to support you to be part of the decision-making process.
At the meeting my client became quite emotional. It is completely understandable. People can feel at their most vulnerable and isolated when care proceedings begin, particularly if they feel excluded from huge decisions that have an impact on their lives and their children’s. I supported my client to focus on the meeting with the social worker and get clear what questions they’d like to ask in order that we could make the meeting as productive as possible.
In the end, we put together a list of questions to present at the meeting. My client instructed me to prompt them with the questions during the meeting so they could raise them directly with the social worker.
Meeting with social workers
The next stage was the meeting itself. My client was able to raise their questions – why could contact not be supervised? Could contact be moved from a contact centre to a more child-friendly environment that might improve the quality of the contact? Could the local authority consider the impact of the venues of meetings on the ability of my client to attend? Could the social worker explain what is meant by ‘Parental Responsibility’ (a legal term in the Children Act)?
They also raised several issues with the process, including the fact that they felt excluded from decision-making. In particular, they were frustrated at not being provided with the dates, times and any minutes of looked-after children meetings or any updates on their child’s progress at school or their health, education and social needs.
The social worker answered my client’s questions. My client came away from the meeting with minutes of the last looked-after-children meeting, an agreement that they would be given dates of future meetings, and an agreement that the next two contact visits would take place outside of a contact centre in a more child-friendly environment. The social worker and my client also arranged a method of contacting one another that they felt would work better in future.
After the meeting, my client and I discussed how they felt it had gone. They told me that having an advocate helped them feel much more confident and in control, it helped them feel listened to and more involved in the decision-making process.
Our snapshot survey found that 13 out of the 14 parents felt that having an advocate had made a difference to their experience of the system. We also asked professionals, including social workers, for their views. Nine professionals responded and all but one of them said they felt independent advocacy should be available for all parents going through care proceedings.
When we do our job well, advocacy can really make a difference to an extremely emotional, often distressing, process. It is about empowering parents at a time when they can feel most vulnerable. It is about their right to know about – and understand – complex, difficult decisions that have been made by social workers, courts and local authorities. And, ultimately, it is about their right to be involved.