Children need someone to listen


Are children’s complaints officers the key to
responding to the concerns of looked-after children? Academic
Caroline Ball and researcher Jo Connolly look at evidence
suggesting that children still find the procedure

As chief inspector of social services, Sir William Utting
regarded the complaints procedure under the Children Act 1989 as an
integral part of the system of safeguards for looked-after
children. Yet research evidence suggests that the procedure is
still failing to provide this safeguard, largely because of the
difficulties that looked-after children face in accessing it.

In 1995, we reviewed the (then relatively new) statutory
complaints procedures in 23 local authorities. Two key issues
arose. First, there were substantial variations in the way local
authorities were interpreting the procedures. Second, there was
concern among several designated complaints officers (DCOs) about
the lack of complaints about children’s services from
children themselves, rather than from adults.

Respondents blamed the powerlessness of children in relation to
their carers, a lack of knowledge about complaints procedures among
looked-after children and the vulnerability of young children or
those with disabilities wanting to complain about their treatment
in the absence of dedicated support systems.

Following recommendations in Sir Ronald Waterhouse’s
report on abuse of children in north
Wales,1 the government accepted that
“the report and the raft of other current child abuse
investigations across England underline the need to consider
whether these procedures are working as well as they

Several developments have followed, including amendments to
section 26 of the Children Act 1989, to the Adoption and Children
Act 2002 and publication of National Standards for the Provision of
Children’s Advocacy Services.3

The authors of this article undertook a further review, funded
by charitable trust The Nuffield Foundation. We conducted in-depth
interviews with DCOs or children’s complaints officers (CCOs)
in 15 local authorities, exploring key variables including:

– The extent of information and support available to children in
all types of placement.
– The robustness of complaints training for all relevant staff,
including foster and agency carers.
– The involvement of and support for children in the statutory
review process.
– Mechanisms for gaining access to disabled children or those with
special needs.
– Provision of advocacy services and children’s rights

Key points that emerged from these interviews were surveyed
using a questionnaire posted to DCOs in all other local authorities
in England and Wales. Nearly two-thirds responded.

The findings suggest that the most important component of an
effective, accessible complaints procedure for children is the
appointment of a CCO, who should deal solely with complaints under
the Children Act. CCOs publicise the complaints procedure, making
contact with looked-after children and supporting them during the
process. They work either on their own or with children’s
rights officers or independent advocates and their post should be
in addition to the statutorily required DCO.

Despite this, our research found that, three years after
Waterhouse recommended that every authority should appoint a CCO,
only 22 per cent in England and Wales had done so.

When analysing the data, each authority’s performance was
rated on a scale of one (non-existent) to five (comprehensive and
proactive). The disparate nature of practice was confirmed by the
fact that, in the 15 authorities, scores range from nine to 34 out
of a possible 35. Authorities with a CCO in post – or where
the person responsible for dealing with children’s complaints
had direct access to information on looked-after children –
recorded more complaints and had much higher scores across the
range than those without.

The appointment of a CCO has significant other advantages. They
are able to respond quickly, either personally or through an
advocate. According to one: “I work closely with the
children’s rights officer (employed by a voluntary
organisation). I advise him of any complaint I have received and he
writes to that young person and offers them an appointment to
follow up, which is really a safety net around children feeling
that they have been listened to and their complaint has been
responded to.”

In somewhat stark contrast to these child-centred strategies, in
the majority of local authorities, not only will there will be no
CCO but the DCO who deals with children’s complaints will
either not have a professional background in social work (more than
50 per cent), or may only have worked in adult services.

In three of the sample authorities the CCO or DCO had negotiated
direct access to information on looked-after children, rather than
having to go through a third party. This was particularly useful in
that it allowed them to make contact with children early on –
yet this arrangement is only in place in 13 per cent of local
authorities in England and Wales.

Most complaints under the Children Act are still made by adults
either about the level of service provision to the child (often
about the needs of the adult), or the manner in which child
protection investigations were carried out. In our sample,
complaints by children outnumbered those made by adults in only
three of the 15 authorities; in all three there was a CCO in

Although most of the DCOs and CCOs interviewed expressed
confidence in the way information about the procedures was provided
for children in residential accommodation, they were much less
sanguine about children in local authority and particularly agency
foster care.

The relatively high proportion of complaints made by children in
residential homes endorses perceptions that they may be both more
aware of the procedures and more easily able to use them. It may
also reflect the fact that residential care staff appear to receive
more training in regard to the procedures than foster carers or
social workers.

Advocacy services and other support to children wishing to make
representations or complain are available in most authorities, but
it appears that accessibility and quality is variable. It is to be
hoped that the new national standards will raise the quality. But
it is not yet clear whether the forthcoming regulations will
prescribe the nature of the representation services to be provided
(section 119, Adoption and Children Act).

One of the roles for the new statutory children’s
commissioner envisaged in the green paper ‘Every Child Matters’ is
to “work with the relevant ombudsman and statutory bodies to
ensure that children have quick and easy access to complaints
procedures that work”. It appears that the appointment of a
complaints officer specifically to enable children to access and be
supported through the complaints process is, as Waterhouse
suggested, the key to the procedures fulfilling their function.

Caroline Ball is a reader at the school of law and Jo
Connolly is senior research associate at the school of social work
and psychosocial studies, University of East Anglia. More
information from 01603 59 2521/2520 or


1 Sir
Ronald Waterhouse, ‘Lost in Care’, The Stationery Office,

2 Listening to
People, Department of Health, 2000
3 National
Standards for the Provision of Children’s Advocacy Services,
DoH, 2002

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