How social workers can track and boost the happiness of looked-after children

Linda Briheim-Crookall outlines the key things that matter to young people in care and how social workers can support them

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Photo: REX Shuttershock (posed by model)

By Linda Briheim-Crookall

Children in care want many of the same things other children want – good relationships with family and friends, and opportunities to have fun.

However, their well-being is affected by things other children may not experience. They have relationships with carers and social workers.

Most surveys and measures of how children are doing are designed by adults. This fails to recognise children and young people as experts on their own experience.

However, ‘Bright Spots well-being indicators’, developed by the University of Bristol and Coram Voice, measures success based on children’s views. The indicators are measured by the Your Life, Your Care survey, a new tool from the project to help local authorities explore the well-being of their looked after children based on what they say is important.

Bright Spots captured indicators of what is important to 140 looked-after children from focus groups, and from literature reviews.

The indicators provide measures of happiness, which enable comparisons to be made with the happiness of children in the general population and indicators of well-being linked to four key themes: Relationships, Recovery, Rights and Resilience. From what we have found so far, here are the indicators you should look out for and how you can address them.

Relationships

Children stressed the importance of keeping and developing relationships.

Building trust was especially important for young people. Time was essential to achieve this. This included the length of time that children knew someone and the time adults spent with them.

Young people wanted professionals to support stability in relationships – whether this was by avoiding changes in social workers during restructures or ensuring that placement changes did not mean a new school and friendship disruptions.

Children described how pets were significant, particularly dogs. Pets cheered children up and were always happy to see them. They provided children with opportunities to learn how to be caring and there is some evidence that animals can help children manage trauma. Social workers can encourage carers, including residential settings, to keep pets, but also support access to regular activities with animals such as horse riding.

Recovery

Children should be helped to come to terms with what has happened and feel valued, e.g. knowing their history.

Life story work, currently required only for children being adopted, is also essential for looked-after children. It is important that those around the child know how to use life story work, when to introduce it, how to deal with the details of their child’s history and how to ensure life story books have relevance as the child grows up.

Young people also described how being picked up from school and taken to a new family without knowing what was happening made them feel scared. One young person said it felt like being ‘kidnapped’.

They felt better when their social workers had explained what was happening.

Rights

This encompasses helping children to participate in decisions, understand rights and be free from abuse and discrimination.

Children stressed the importance of not being singled out or made to feel embarrassed about being in care by adults. For example, social workers pulling them out of class or wearing a badge when meeting them was something that could separate them from other children.

One focus group talked about the importance of not discussing things like court proceedings in public. Children described being bullied for being in care and that they sometimes struggled to explain things to friends, especially if the reason for being in care was thought of as ‘bad’.

Resilience

Children need to be helped and taught how to manage the challenges in life.

Professionals and carers should encourage learning and opportunities to have fun at weekends, spend time on hobbies and explore the outdoors. In the focus groups young people said that doing fun and interesting things boosted their confidence and gave them things to look forward to. It also gave them positive things about care to talk to their friends about.

One young person felt freer since being in care, because they used to have to stay in a lot and now they got to play out more which meant they could make more friends.

Children said they needed help to participate in activities whether this is carers taking them to groups, or making sure that taxi companies are flexible to allow children to engage in after school activities.

Ensuring that there are enough resources to support children’s activities and overcoming safeguarding or risk concerns limiting opportunities is also important.

The well-being indicators are something the whole team around the child need to be aware of to realise. With an increased awareness of the impact that decisions have on how children and young people feel everyone can seek to work together to improve children’s well-being.

Linda Briheim-Crookall is senior policy and practice development manager at Coram Voice

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