In a cold climate

Despite far-reaching legal reforms the care system continues to overlook children’s fundamental rights, a survey published this week by Who Cares? Trust reveals. Mark Hunter reports on the findings while, below, a social worker highlights good practice and overleaf three care leavers discuss their experiences

Since the Children Act 1989 came into force in 1991 the principle of treating children in care as individual human beings has been enshrined in law. The Act and subsequent legislation, such as the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 and the Children (Scotland) Act 1995, also made it a legal requirement that every child in care in the UK receives adequate contact with their natural parents and be allowed to play an active role in decisions about their lives. But how do these principles bear up in practice?

A report published this week by the Who Cares? Trust attempts to answer this question by talking to the children themselves.1 In the largest survey ever carried out about children in care in the UK, the trust received responses from more than 2,000 young people aged between eight and 20 being looked after in the care system.

Following the smaller Not Just a Name study in 1992, this new survey attempts to document everyday life for children and young people living in care. It paints a fascinating picture, showing that while most children in care clearly feel that they are being well looked after, there are gaping holes in the system when it comes to meeting the legislation’s requirements on taking children’s views into account.

One of its most startling findings is that of the 2,073 children who responded, only 57 per cent claimed to have a care plan. According to Jenny Robson, the development worker at the Who Cares? Trust who co-ordinated the project, this figure is an indictment of the system’s refusal to listen to what children have to say.

“This is a very significant finding,” Robson says. “Under current legislation it is a requirement that children are involved in decision making about their future. It may well be that care plans are being used by social workers, but why are so many children unaware of them? Does this mean that the care plans are not open for discussion?”

Lack of communication also seems to have a significant influence on how children perceive the experience of coming into care. Almost half the sample and more than half of the female respondents described their entry into care as being “scary” or “confusing”. When they were asked what could have made this entry easier, the most common answer was more information and better preparation.

“They want more information about what being looked after really means,” says Robson. “They need some honesty about what’s going to happen and they need reassurance on a day-to-day basis. And there’s no reason why children shouldn’t get this information.”

One of the most disruptive things that can happen during a child’s time in care is being moved from one placement to another. Moves can be emotionally damaging and have a significantly negative impact on a child’s education. Unfortunately, the results of the survey show that being moved is a worryingly common occurrence. More than three-quarters of the respondents had experienced at least one move and a substantial minority, one in ten children, had moved ten or more times.

With better planning and more support for carers, many of these moves could be avoided, or at least made less disruptive, Robson believes. “The biggest problems come when the move is sudden and unexpected rather than being sorted out in advance. Some of the children complained that they weren’t even given enough time to say goodbye to their friends,” she adds.

And more support for the child’s carers could help nip potential problems in the bud, thereby making it unnecessary to move the child. “Foster parents and residential care workers need more support in dealing with potential problems. They should receive training in mediation work.”

Children’s right to see their natural parents while living in care is another issue that is not always fully respected. Only 51 per cent of the children reported seeing their families as much as they would like. Children looked after in residential homes and secure units were less satisfied with the level of family contact than those in foster care or other types of placement.

However, the report is not all negative. There are a number of encouraging findings which suggest that the care system is meeting many of the needs of children in care. For instance, the children’s experience of education seems to be particularly positive. Nearly three-quarters of school-age respondents stated that they always attend school and 57 per cent felt that being in care had improved their school performance.

The children’s physical and mental health also seem to be in good hands, particularly as one in eight children reported having a disability or long-term health problem. Most children felt they had received enough help and advice about health-related issues. But 40 per cent of children aged 11 and under felt that they had not received enough advice about growing up and body change, and 29 per cent of the children smoke.

Issues of race and ethnicity do not seem to play a major role in children’s experience of care. The survey, where 85 per cent of respondents were white and 15 per cent were black, shows remarkable similarities between the experiences of black and white children living in care. Fewer than 5 per cent of black children reported receiving racist treatment from adults in the care system.

“I think it’s fair to say that people are paying much more regard to black issues than in the past,” says Robson. However, she stresses there is no room for complacency and points out that while there was little evidence of racist treatment from social workers or carers, 19 per cent of the children reported receiving racist treatment from other young people at their placement.

(1) Who Cares? Trust, Remember My Messages, Who Cares? Trust, 1998

View from a residential social worker

As a residential social worker I work with young people who are often very confused. A sensitive approach is needed, as they can be unsure about their feelings, have low self-esteem and lack confidence. Communication skills are the most important skills and abilities needed as a residential social worker. Young people need to know that they are valued, listened to, and understood.

At the Grange children’s home in Coventry we have worked hard to empower young people. They have developed skills to speak and be heard, attended conferences, helped at workshops, written articles, even appeared on national television, all with the encouragement of the residential workers.

When we find ways to communicate effectively with young people it not only teaches them to communicate appropriately with others, but allows us to listen to their needs. This has been achieved largely by committed and dedicated residential workers developing more personal skills and an understanding of the needs of young people in care through our in-service training.

Communication with young people is more effective when you work with trust, value and humour. Four years ago we formed a group known as the Coventry Kid’s Club, primarily as a summer activity group. As it became established it was also found to be a useful tool to look at issues important to young people in care. Most of the time issues are combined with activities, such as singing, dancing, drama, role-plays, art and craft and all types of sport, making the learning process, and therefore communication, much more effective.

The effect on the relationships between residential social workers and the young people has been very positive. It is always rewarding and encouraging to see a young person develop self-confidence, self-awareness and begin to explore their own networks.

Young people can only benefit from being given the opportunity to experience success and to develop the skills to cope with the difficulties they may have encountered in their lives.

Teresa Mosey is a residential social worker at the Grange children’s home, Coventry

Michael Harvey

As a young person in care I always felt that reviews were a chance to get my fears or problems answered or put to rest. Most of the time, however, they were more about listening to the carers. The social workers and carers would come to numerous decisions and talk as if I was not in the room. It also distressed me that there were often a lot of people involved, some I had never even met. This can make it slightly disconcerting to any young person who wants to speak their mind.

In these reviews, they usually dwell on a young person’s bad points more than their achievements. The meeting environment could also put a young person off participating. I was constantly told that it was not a meeting, merely a discussion, but most of the rooms that these “discussions” were held in looked more like prison cells.

If young people don’t want to participate, social workers can often make them feel like they are doing something wrong. I remember someone telling me: “If you don’t speak, we won’t be able to help you.” So young people always feel they have to reveal their entire business to everyone in the room. If they want to keep something to themselves, that only their foster carer knows about, nine times out of ten it will suddenly pop up in meetings. Sometimes a problem with the placement, or a young person might seem to be disinterested. Or it might be that they are not fulfilling their potential at school. Then it seems everyone jumps on the counsellor bandwagon, mentioning dozens of different support groups. Or a decision might be made which appeals to a young person, but either the social worker can’t get permission to carry it through or they give the excuse that it’s not practical.

Personally, I noticed that any options I suggested were deemed impractical.

All social workers need to know what it is like to be reviewed, because the way they deal with young people sometimes leaves a lot to be desired.

· Michael Harvey left foster care last year after being looked after for six years from the age of 11

Robbie Brown *

To help young people in care make the most of their education, foster parents and social workers need to fully understand the emotional and psychological baggage young people are carrying. They need to show a sincere and genuine interest in their education and encourage them to do well at school.

All young people need nurturing and guidance, especially those in care. Not only do they have to cope with the growing pains of adolescence, but they also have to come to terms with what being in care means. Usually, it means that in the past they have been tragically let down. Many feel lonely, unloved and very angry. With self-esteem so low, it is no surprise that they do not feel motivated to study hard at school. They feel nobody really cares for them, so why should they care about their own future?

Being brought up in care myself, I know that at times we can be very demanding and difficult. But I believe social workers and foster parents gain an immense feeling of achievement when a young person, who they have put the time and energy into, does well at school.

My foster father is a perfect example of how the care system can be more effective. He took a keen interest in my education, bought me books and sat down and talked to me about those issues and topics of particular interest.

Social workers and foster parents have to show young people that their intentions are sincere, and that they are not just “doing their job”. Only then will young people in care believe their future is worth going to school for.

· Robbie Brown * went into care at the age of three and left at 18, four years ago. Last July he graduated with a BA Honours degree from London University

* Not his real name

Debbie Taylor

Entering care is a very daunting experience, made more confusing if young people are not told why they are there. These reasons alone can be enough to make a young person feel isolated. It is vital, that, wherever possible, they are supported and have their wishes and feelings taken into account.

When they first arrive at a placement, a young person can feel immense pressure. They sometimes feel they have to be what they are not, and that they should conform to behaviour that does not suit them.

But social workers need to recognise that having time to adjust is very important to a child in care, whether it is a short- or long-term placement. Co-operation between the social worker, residential workers or foster carers, the child and their family should be maintained at all times.

As a care leaver myself, I understand how difficult it can be to move somewhere new and have to adapt. When I was living at home my “roles” were firmly set and I expected to carry these on wherever I was living. While staff have to remain in their caring role they should be careful not to diminish the role that has already been established in the young person.

The Children Act 1989 offers guidelines to take into account the wishes and feelings of the young person, but it also states that they should be told their rights when they go into care.

If I was entering care now, I would expect to be treated with respect in the same way as the workers would expect. This does not only involve being “nice”, but having good policies that work in practice and that offer the best possible services to me. Then, I too can develop as an individual in every aspect of my life.

· Debbie Taylor left care four years ago. She was in both residential and foster care in Sheffield between the ages of 14 and 17


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