Free and easy

It is recognised that children and young
people rarely bother to complain themselves. So Staffordshire made
available a freephone number to encourage more feedback. Graham
Hopkins reports.

Some might argue that those working in
complaints departments can’t see the wood for the trees, and that
social services complaints procedures are cumbersome and

Despite good intentions in wanting to solve
problems quickly, sometimes things drag on. This is particularly
frustrating for young people, who tend to live their lives in the
fast lane and crave the instant. Even if legal time scales are
kept, a decision can take anything up to three months: a lifetime
away for most young people. So why bother?

A major test for those working in complaints
has been how to engage children and young people effectively.

Most councils try hard. They often have a
leaflet and poster with a sharper design, funkier images and
simpler language aimed at children and young people. But what
appeals to a 10 year old won’t necessarily attract a 12, 14 or 16
year old. Nonetheless, the reality remains that most complaints
about children’s services tend to be made by adults. So any idea to
make things easier for young people to complain must be worth a

In Staffordshire, staff looked at why children
in care homes rarely complained.

“My worry was that if a complaints form had to
be handed into the manager, or if children had to ask for one, that
was a barrier,” says Nicola Sawyer, complaints service manager.
“And if the first stage was going to be dealt with in the home –
how many kids are going to say ‘what’s the point?'”

Recognising children’s circumstances,
Staffordshire’s complaints forms (pleasingly with prepaid
envelope), ask young people: “how do you want us to get back in
touch with you?” They are given options: complaints staff can
contact children directly – “they nearly all have mobile phones
now,” smiles Sawyer – or through a carer, a social worker, or
whoever they choose. “Most say they prefer us to go through the
children’s advice and representation service run by the NSPCC. They
rarely say their social worker, which is interesting,” adds

While this had a positive impact on children
living in homes, the team were concerned that it had never received
a complaint from a child in foster care. To tackle this the team
installed a freephone line, using Quality Protects money. “But we
pay the bill,” says Sawyer. The line cost £99 plus a freephone
set-up charge of £25. “We produced little cards advertising
the line, which went into the welcome packs for children in care,”
she adds.

Sawyer was bullish about evaluating the
freephone scheme: “I don’t care if we never get a call, because if
young people know it’s there and adults know it’s there, then that
in itself may work as a prevention.”

But there have been calls. “We have some
middle-of-the-night calls and some abusive ones,” she says. There
were 24 calls in the year ending March 2001 of which half were made
to the out-of-hours voice-mail. This year, up to end of February
2002 there have been 21 calls. The numbers may seem small but the
reality is that this is 45 contacts the team might never have
received otherwise.

All calls are logged and complaints staff
liaise with relevant managers and the children’s advice and
representation service. All complainants are told on the telephone
or in writing what action has taken place. Staffordshire received
402 complaints last year.

Most pleasing for Sawyer, perhaps, is that two
complaints finally came from children in foster care. From little


Scheme: freephone line for children and young
people’s complaints.

Location: Staffordshire.

Staffing: monitored by the complaints and
representations team: complaints service manager, complaints
co-ordinator, three investigation officers and two administrative

Clients: children and young people.

Inspiration: a recognition that children and
young people were not complaining.

Cost: £355.60 each year: including annual
line rental (£38.90 per quarter) and annual freephone charge
(£50.00 per quarter); plus call charges at 8.5p per


– For more information call Nicola Sawyer on
01785 277406.

Something Gone Wrong? a Guide to the
Complaints Procedure for Young People
; freephone scheme
advertising card, and the annual complaints report available free
of charge from Nicola Sawyer (telephone above)

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