You have a visitor

Independent visitors
are an invaluable source of companionship for children and young people in
residential care, says child and family services manager Elizabeth Ewart-James.

“It was my 13th
birthday and I was spending it in a police cell. The whole of the next day and
most of the following day I was locked up. Then I went on a very long journey,
mostly in the dark, and only when I was in the car did they tell me where I was
going. I was used to the care system but this was scary. The new residential unit
was OK and I liked the staff, but I felt very homesick so far away from my

“After a few weeks
this lady came to visit – an independent visitor, they said. The lady looked
shocked when she heard about my arrival from up north. She asked if I would
mind her writing to social services to ask how it had come about that I had
spent such a long time in a police cell. Strange, I thought, her wanting to do
this for me. The staff told me she doesn’t get paid. All the people who look
after me get paid. She comes quite often, brought chocolates once – she likes
to just chat. She’s nice.”

Under the Children
Act 1989, independent visitors are supposed to be available to children who
have no family contact or are placed a long way from home. They are there to
befriend, act as an advocate if necessary, and be part of the protective
process. The importance of their role has increased as local authorities depend
increasingly on private organisations, such as ours, for very
difficult-to-place children. These children are exceptionally vulnerable, most
are far from home, and often their placing authority and hard-pressed social
workers struggle to visit regularly. Also, home visits are often infrequent and
many parents visit rarely, if at all. In addition, the children’s behaviour
makes it difficult to judge whether their complaints about their treatment are
justified. Most have low self-esteem and have been so let down by adults in the
past that it is difficult to trust anyone. And some have been used to being badly
treated by their families and the care system, so they have no concept of

At Marlowe Child and
Family Services, we have recruited six visitors – one for each local
residential unit. References and police checks are done, and staff are trained
in issues such as confidentiality and disclosure. Also, they are invited to
attend the induction course, which covers areas such as restraint training, so
that they know what is and what is not acceptable. In addition, we ask them to
attend lectures on attachment disorders and child protection, and arrange for
them to visit the local authority inspection unit to receive advice about

Later, the visitors
form groups and meet independently. But the process has not been without its
problems. For example, one unit manager’s experience of independent visitors
was of ex-employees with an axe to grind, so he was dubious about their value.
Another insisted that his residents were unlikely to want to talk to their

Visitors are very
reliant on managers and staff to encourage them to visit. They need to
facilitate this or the volunteer will become discouraged and an important
safeguard will be lost. Similarly, they need to be asked to team or house
meetings, invited to meet new residents and become known to the children before
they can expect to be trusted. If the staff are suspicious, the children are
unlikely to confide in them.

I always suggest to
potential placing authorities that they contact the independent visitor before
placement, but few take advantage of this. One social worker says that visitors
could not be independent if they only received expenses rather than being paid.
But if a visitor is paid then – rather like inspectors – there might be a
temptation to find fault to justify the wage. He also says that he uses central
organisations that pay independent visitors to travel widely. This, however,
can be costly, and visitors have sometimes become lost and not turned up.
Besides, there are advantages in visitors being local. They can visit
unannounced and frequently.

As an organisation,
we are extremely grateful to these volunteers who give up their free time to do
this work. All children in the public care system should have access to a

Elizabeth Ewart-James
is the manager of Marlowe Child and Family Services, a therapeutic community
with a range of projects for children aged from eight to 18.

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