Looked after children get confidence boost from advocacy project

Good practice piece p20 7 August

Young people in Sussex are training social workers and changing policies. Sam Thorp reports

Receiving a standing ovation is not a run-of-the-mill experience when you’ve grown up in care. But that’s exactly what 19-year-old care leaver Jamie McKay received after giving a talk about his life to hundreds of guests at last year’s Children’s Society annual ball.

Jamie admits he was “really nervous” about the daunting task but after he’d finished felt “really pleased to have done it”.

Jamie wasn’t always so self-assured, but he says his involvement with the West Sussex Participation, Advocacy and Rights (PAR) project has helped boost his confidence. Attending consultations for young people in care and helping to recruit practitioners are some of the activities Jamie has benefited from over the last three years. “It’s helped me out in many ways – I feel a lot more confident talking to adults,” he says.

Run by the Children’s Society in partnership with West Sussex Council, PAR aims to promote the rights of children and young people in the care system. Set up in 2000, the project now runs one of the largest independent visitor schemes in the country as well as an advocacy scheme for looked-after children in trouble with the law and has developed a pilot scheme for supporting children who run away from care.

PAR has succeeded in changing some local authority procedures to benefit young people. For example, until a few years ago young people were unable to challenge decisions made by the council’s child placement panel, which considers out-of-county or specialist placements. The young people consulted by PAR felt that this was unjust, so project staff negotiated a change in procedure. Now, young people not only have a right to challenge the conclusions reached by the panel but are involved in the original decision-making process.

According to PAR manager Stephen Collett this “has certainly reduced the number of complaints the council receives and it shows how – by working in partnership – we’ve been able to influence and engage the local authority in a conversation which brought about a resolution.”

Inevitably, during the course of advocacy and participation work, there can be friction between those speaking up for the needs of looked-after children and those decision-makers who are being challenged. “The work we do, particularly the advocacy work, can create tension because we’re challenging the local authority and decisions they may have made. We do have good working relationships with the council and that’s crucial,” adds Collett.

In recent years, participation work has become a key component of the project. Children are encouraged to get involved in consultations, deliver training and also play an active role in the recruitment processes for both the project itself and within children’s services at the council.

Emma Sutton oversees PAR’s participation work. She believes the training courses are invaluable for both the young people and staff attending them. PAR runs a Total Respect training scheme targeting frontline workers and managers. Developed by children’s rights officers and advocates, the training resource is delivered by young people based on their experiences of the system. It gives social workers a real insight into life within the system and informs their work.

Putting young people in the driving seat and getting them to deliver the course is beneficial, not just in terms of boosting their confidence and skills, but also by helping them to understand the constraints under which practitioners operate. “The young people themselves gain a huge amount from the day. It also makes them appreciate social workers a bit more – they start to understand why their social workers are so hard to get hold of, for example,” says Sutton.

Forty-two young people have now signed up to be involved in PAR’s participation work, but getting looked-after children on board and keeping them there isn’t necessarily straightforward, admits Sutton.

Young people in the care system often lead turbulent lives and participation work has to acknowledge that. “It is a challenge keeping them engaged. They may have a placement change, or they may be in trouble with the law. I have to work around them – that means I have to be flexible,” she says.

Persistence is key, as is making sure the young people feel rewarded for their contribution. It’s no good encouraging them to air their views if nothing changes as a result – that would be tokenistic, Sutton says.

“I try to ensure they always get feedback. If they do a consultation and nothing happens, they’ll wonder what the point is in coming and doing another one.”


What works

● A real effort to reach out to children and young people in the care system must be made their lives are chaotic and you have to work around that.

● Don’t expect young people to become immersed in participation work straight away you need to ease them in gently.

● It’s important to develop strong relationships with the local authority, but you should remain independent as well.

Published under the headline ‘PAR for the Course’ in the 7 August edition of Community Care

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