Let’s hear from the experts

The adage that children should be seen but not heard is being
turned on its head by a project that wants their views practically
shouted from the rooftops. The Blueprint project in London is
informed by a belief that those in the care system are best
qualified to know its strengths and weaknesses.

The project, which started last September and will produce its
final report in March 2004, is an attempt to shift the balance away
from performance targets and funding streams and back on to

Based at the Voice for the Child in Care offices in Islington,
supported by National Children’s Bureau and independently
funded, the project has two main strands covering young
people’s views and a research programme.

The canvassing of young people’s views involves a massive
participation programme overseen by young person’s
participation and development worker Karen McBye. More than 20
looked-after young people have been trained to act as “Blueprint
reporters” who interview other looked-after young people about
their views.

Blueprint has also held a series of one-day events using drama
and role play to draw out young people’s experiences of being
looked after, what worked for them, what didn’t and what
improvements they wanted. Drama groups staged a “bad day”

scenario in which someone was berated, ignored or left feeling
uncared for. The day was recreated by the participants showing what
a “good day” could look like.

Central to this work are the events held with groups of
marginalised young people in the care system, co-ordinated by
participation programme manager Kate Gledhill. These groups include
disabled children, asylum seeker and refugee children, those in
secure units and young offenders institutions, children from ethnic
minorities, lesbian and gay young people, those in therapeutic
communities, and those aged six to 10.

Remarkably similar themes have emerged – about how children
still do not feel involved in the review meeting, about problems
with identity, about not being listened to or having views taken
into account. Young people offered many creative solutions to the
problems they identified.

The other strand to Blueprint’s work is research, overseen
by research and policy officer Jill Millar. She says: “We are
trying to come up with messages from research about
children’s views of the care system, and we started off with
eight main themes.”

These were:

  • Coming into care. What the process feels like and how it can be
    made less traumatic.
  • Where we live. The sort of placements and how they work.
  • Relationships. The importance of friends, and relationships
    with carers, birth families and so on.
  • Emotional well-being. This includes issues about identity,
    individuality and self-esteem.
  • Hopes for the future. What aspirations children have and how
    they are supported.
  • Education. Obstacles to success.
  • Health. How to help children make their health a priority.
  • Planning. How decisions are made about children’s

Millar says: “Eight local authorities [Ealing, Tower Hamlets,
Hackney, Liverpool, St Helens, Oxfordshire, Leicestershire and
Southampton] are involved in trying different ways of working
within each of those themes.”

Four key areas have come up repeatedly: relationships; identity
and individuality; choice, control and competence; and dependence
and independence.

Millar says of the first: “It is the whole issue about the
importance of friendships and how difficult the system finds
dealing with complex family relationships. The importance of having
one good relationship can make all the difference to a child.

“We’re moving away from the idea that we have to find one
‘ideal family’. Instead, we’re looking at the
idea that what many children need is a strong, positive
relationship with one person. We call them a BFG, a big friendly
giant. They’re not mentors, counsellors or advice workers,
because they’re only around for a short time. It is essential
that they are unpaid because, for many children in the care system,
every adult they know is being paid to deal with them.”

On the second key message, children often feel that their
individuality and identity become lost in the system. Birthdays and
exam results may not be celebrated, and they are left feeling they
are “service users, rather than people”, as Millar puts it. Young
people want to see more interest in their individual likes and
dislikes. As well as feeling different from their peers at school,
they feel different from the family they are living with. She
suggests children in care have to “endlessly mould and re-mould
themselves to different people and circumstances”.

The issues around choice, control and competence are taken up by
Blueprint’s project director, Clare Chamberlain. She says:
“Children in care are often expected to be able to cope with very
adult situations – they have to cope with moving in with strangers,
moving schools and dealing with professionals. They are left
without any choice or control over who their carer is, what contact
they have with birth family members.”

Millar says of the dependence and independence issue: “Leaving
care can still be a very abrupt process – there’s no room for
periods of transition. Lots of local authorities just don’t
have a budget to support people who are leaving care.”

The other side to this, McBye and sessional worker Jahnine Davis
agree, is the need to be able to make mistakes. McBye says: “People
make mistakes and take risks all the time and they learn from them.
Children in care aren’t allowed to make those mistakes –
their carers can’t let them take risks. Everything has to be
safe and secure, and that doesn’t allow people to learn from

As this issue of Community Care goes to press, about 60 people
will be taking part in a residential conference in the Cotswolds.
The conference, attended by equal numbers of children in care and
adult professionals, will draw together the main themes that have
emerged and attempt to thrash out a basic way forward.

Chamberlain says: “We’re not going to come up with
anything wildly original. It’s not about trying to get at
professionals either. We did a workshop recently where lots of
people were talking about why they came into social work. For most
it was because they wanted to help children. On the other side
there are all these children who need that help, and somehow the
system has got between them. The idea is to focus everyone’s
minds back on the needs of the child.”

‘Scale of the task was terrifying’

Karen McBye, 22, started work with the Blueprint project last
September and co-ordinates and runs participation events.

She says: “When I first arrived on the project I wanted to run
away! My job description said something like ‘to consult with
every looked-after child in England’.

“The scale of the task was so enormous it was terrifying.
Sometimes I’ve been on the road for three nights and three
days and I’ve been really tired and depressed, and then I
felt elated and enthusiastic all over again when I saw the
evaluations from the young people who took part, which were really

“Part of my ability to get young people to talk about their
views comes from having been in care myself. “I’m the eldest
of five and we all spent some time in care as we were growing up.
As the eldest, I got used to advocating for my brother and sisters
and challenging social workers on their behalf. I found it
difficult seeing them going through the same things I had.

“I would never be a social worker. As a social worker you can
make a difference to a few young people’s lives but I want to
do something on a bigger scale than that.”

Jahnine Davis, 19, works for the Blueprint project. She has been
in the care system and is well-qualified to do her job, which
involves teaching other young people to be children’s

She says: “Reporters get two days’ training and then go
out doing interviews with other looked-after young people.

It can be a very positive experience.”

Feedback from reporters was that they liked “feeling important”,
“being able to make a change”, and “learning new skills”.

In the long term, Davis is interested in looking at the number
of young people from ethnic minorities who leave care only to end
up in psychiatric wards.

She says: “I’ve got some experience of that and I was
amazed at how many young, black people from care were there.
It’s where the system just throws you out at the bottom.”

Davis is cautiously optimistic about the potential outcome of
the project. She says: “There are lots of other organisations which
sometimes do the same sort of thing but nothing ever seems to come
from it. It’s the ‘same old, same old’,
isn’t it?

“Young people get tired of never being listened to and the fact
that, even when they are listened to, nothing ever changes. But I
hope that something will come out of this one.”

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