Social workers and other professionals need to do more to help looked-after children achieve their potential, and to diminish the ‘stigma’ of being in care, research has found.
The report, Perceptions of Care, by the Become charity for children in care and care leavers, was based on surveys and focus groups with 170 young people. Forty-four per cent of participants said they thought social workers “were not ambitious” for children and care leavers, while 35% said they believed social workers thought children in care are not as clever as other children.
“I was a straight-A student, whose teachers wanted me to go to do a law degree; my social workers told both me and my foster parents that children in care don’t go to university and to stop encouraging me,” said one young person interviewed for the report – who nonetheless did make it to law school.
Chloe Cockett, Become’s policy and research manager, said that the research highlighted the “pivotal role” social workers play in young people’s lives and the importance of taking that responsibility seriously.
“When adults aren’t ambitious, that can have an impact on children and young people in care, which can then impact on their lives going forward,” Cockett said.
‘Challenge to professionals’
Nushra Mansuri, professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), described the report as a “must-read” for social workers and other professionals involved in supporting children in the care system.
Mansuri added: “The children in this report lay down a real challenge to professionals to have greater belief in their potential – particularly, educationally – and press hard for them to access opportunities to pursue activities they may be interested in, even if they cost a little more.”
Jonny Hoyle, a care leaver and former campaigner who is now managing a looked-after children team at North Yorkshire council said he found the study findings “saddening though not surprising”.
“Social workers have got to encourage young people to reach for stars,” Hoyle said. “If you expect people to fail they have nothing else to lose.”
‘Worn down by the system’
The report also found that only 31% of young people believed social workers appreciated what it meant to be in care. Some of them noted a “lack of understanding” about daily life for children in care and care leavers – but they also commented on observing social workers being “worn down” by the care system’s limitations and too busy to build proper relationships.
Hoyle said that he “struggled with the notion” of children being aware of the pressures on social workers. But he added that he had “massive sympathy” for practitioners who “go into the profession wanting to work with children and young people and end up spending their time in the company of computers”.
He called on social work leaders to do more to ensure practitioners have the time and energy to support young people’s expectations and aspirations. Hoyle added the team he now leads has recently sought funding to employ ‘opportunity brokers’, specifically to forge links with employers and educational institutions in order to find opportunities for young people in or leaving the care system.
Elsewhere, Become’s research found that social workers as well as other professionals such as teachers could do more to mitigate the ‘stigma’ faced by looked-after children. Young people said that seemingly trivial actions by professionals – for instance, social workers meeting them at school wearing a name badge – could mean they had much less control over who found out whether they were in care. Being treated differently by peers was a particular concern to young people.
Mansuri said the findings sent a “powerful message” to practitioners who operate within policy frameworks that emphasise the importance of respecting young people’s wishes and feelings.
“What [young people] want is professionals and the system to take much greater care in preserving their confidentiality and privacy by making essentially small but significant changes to their practice to enable this to happen,” she said. “Sometimes, it is all too easy for practice to become institutionalised, which overrides a child-centred approach.”
June Thoburn, emeritus professor of social work at the University of East Anglia, said the report was a reminder that social workers should “think twice”.
“Children should have the right to control over who knows they are in care – and they should know who knows,” she said.