Home from home

People are always more likely to achieve their potential when there is continuity and consistency in their lives. And there are few things more disruptive in life than moving home – you lose your friends, school and neighbours, and swap them for the unknown and for possible isolation. In the UK, up to the age of 18, a young person can expect on average to move home twice. And yet in one year alone (2001-2), one in seven children in care moved home three times, according to Social Exclusion Unit figures.

“Moving placements is one of the most hated aspects of life in care. Multiple schools, homes and social workers affect the chance of stability and support. Having someone or something you can rely on is vital,” says Maxine Wrigley, director of care leavers’ charity A National Voice.

The Who Cares? Trust, a national charity that aims to improve the lives of children in care, is now providing that something: CareZone. It is the world’s first secure range of online services for looked-after children aged 10 to 18.

Set in a virtual town, CareZone requires a young person to log on using high-level security – including passwords, security questions and smartcard technology. A guide or “smart agent” helps them to navigate the town, answers questions and provides support. They can explore areas such as the library, the campus, the health centre, the leisure centre and the bank.

With 47 per cent of children aged 16 leaving care without any qualifications, CareZone aims to support mainstream learning. Its “grid for learning” features the first 1,000 hours of educational material across four key stages. This convinced Kitty Ferris, head of children’s services in Wakefield, west Yorkshire, to encourage their young people to pilot and develop the site. “It was also a great opportunity for young people to learn new skills. And they were rewarded with a sense of achievement as they made a significant contribution to its development,” she says.

As children in care often suffer from isolation and estrangement, CareZone gives them a place to talk to others of their age and experience. Chatrooms run after school and at weekends. Young people can choose to communicate with their peers or with authenticated adults – whose backgrounds are checked – who act as moderators. They can talk to each other about the things affecting their lives that all young people share – music, places to go, clothes, and so on.

They can also discuss subjects specific to those in care – such as social workers. The following thread is published with the permission of the young people involved:

  • “i understand how hard it is when the contact is cancelled. its not very good and the social workers don’t do much about it.”
  •  “Not all social workers r bad. its probably a hard job cuz kids cud be upset if contact wiv family is cancelled. or maybe their family didn’t turn up for contact.”

Another excellent development for young people is access to their own “digital vault”. Here, a young person can store items such as photos, records of achievement, GCSE project work, and life-story information. It is a space that only the young person can enter – although if access is needed under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, this can happen. The contents can be downloaded onto a CD.

Security and protection are locked into CareZone. For example, the digital vault has individually encrypted files behind 10 layers of security including virus-checking, content-filtering, and physical and geographical security measures. Only an authentic user will even know which bits of data are theirs to access, and only they will have the key to unlock them.

As Susanna Cheal, chief executive of the Who Cares? Trust, says, “Wherever the child ends up in care, CareZone will be theirs: personal, safe, stable and private.”


Scheme: CareZone – a secure website for young people in care.

Inspiration: To respond to the frequent requests from children and young people for privacy, a voice, real choices and confidentiality, while aiming to prevent young people in care becoming an information technology.

Cost: £1m through the Department of Health and Department for Education and Skills; £427,000 from the Community Fund (UK) for staffing costs.

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