Elaine Chase, senior research officer at the Thomas Coram Research Unit and John Kemmis, chief executive of Voice, report on the recent evaluation
of the Voice advocacy service.
Voice is a voluntary organisation working and campaigning for young people in public care.
The evaluation conducted by the Thomas Coram Research Unit (at the Institute of Education, University of London) has highlighted several key themes. First, young people participating in the research reported that they had received a high quality advocacy service from Voice, which at times fundamentally transformed their life circumstances.
Two further themes emerging from the evaluation were the need to extend the access to independent advocacy services for young people and the importance of providing advocacy services which correspond to young people’s increasingly diverse and complex circumstances and needs.
Using a combination of one-to-one interviews with young people, interviews with advocates (matched with young people’s interviews where possible), and an analysis of evaluation forms completed by young people at the point when they finished working with their advocate, the evaluation was able to capture the advocacy experiences of more than 80 young people who had used the service.
The overwhelming majority of young people involved in the research reported that having an advocate had been very valuable, that they had learned a great deal throughout the process and that on many occasions experienced being listened to properly for the first time during their lives in care.
Interviews with young people provided detailed testimony of how the advocacy service has successfully responded to young people’s highly diverse needs.
The circumstances requiring the support of an advocate described by young people and advocates covered a broad range including negotiating contact with family or siblings; placement factors; immigration status and entitlements for young people seeking asylum; contesting a court order; unmet entitlements to provisions under the Children (Leaving Care) Act (2000); access to housing and a wide range of complaints procedures in situations where social services departments were failing to meet their duty of care to the young person.
The evaluation served to show the extensive skills of advocates in their roles as mediators, diplomats, independent listeners and facilitators, and demonstrated their unique position vis `a vis the young person and other key professionals, adults and organisations who make decisions affecting young people’s lives.
Frequently the advocate emerged as the only person truly concerned with the rights of the child or young person, most notably with respect to article 12 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child – the right for every child to have a say in decisions that affect them.
The study concluded that Voice provides an accessible, young people friendly and high quality service to young people in and leaving local authority care and to young people in need and constitutes a vital safety net for many young people that knock on its doors.
Importantly, it offers a level of independence and neutrality not guaranteed (at least in the eyes of young people) through other children’s rights services aligned to social services departments.
Areas for development of the service identified by the research included broadening access to advocacy services, particularly among young people in foster care and residential settings as well as those defined as children (and young people) in need; and working to ensure that more specialist and complex needs of young people are adequately addressed.
With this in mind, recent re-branding of the advocacy service has shifted the organisation’s sole focus on the child in care towards one that encompasses a wider spectrum of other vulnerable young people who may require advocacy support.
Similarly, specialist teams have been established within Voice to provide guidance to young people shown to require expert support including unaccompanied young people seeking asylum, young people leaving care and young people experiencing mental health difficulties.
In addition, Voice is committed to exploring how best to extend advocacy to young people with learning and communication difficulties.
The research has pointed to the importance of building and sustaining mechanisms to safeguard the quality of advocacy services as they expand and diversify. This can in part happen by ensuring that advocates are required to participate in approved training and that they work from organisations providing adequate supervision and support.
Voice’s work is strongly embedded within the National Children’s Advocacy Consortium (an umbrella group of agencies providing advocacy services to children) of which it was a founding member.
This body has continuously lobbied for resources, while trying to develop advocacy services in partnership with local authorities. Voice, in conjunction with the consortium, lobbied for over two years for advocacy to be a legal right for children and finally succeeded in getting it into the legislation for representation and complaints procedures.
The evaluation has strengthened the case for extending the access to advocacy services for children. The consortium should be tasked to oversee such an expansion of the service and to ensure that national standards for advocacy are embedded within all advocacy services.