Maggie Atkinson’s speech to Community Care LIVE 2010

Maggie Atkinson, Children's Commissioner for England

Community Care Live Conference 19 May 2010

Good morning and thank you to Community Care...

Maggie Atkinson, Children’s Commissioner for England

Community Care Live Conference 19 May 2010

Good morning and thank you to Community Care and to the Community Care Live’s sponsors for this opportunity to address this event. I want to remind us, two months into my tenure, what I do. I will share my priorities after this short time, including what I have found in meeting children, young people, and colleagues across the children’s services sector. I will end with some calls on our thinking as we go forward together, with a new Government and as we all face challenges which are still unfolding.

My role was created by the 2004 Children Act. Those who envisaged its creation argue, and I agree, that children and young people need a champion in debates about them, who comes from an objective, rather than a service delivering or commissioning position and who speaks with moral purpose. It helps that I was a Director of Children’s Services. My job was created with the backing of all the main political parties. It is a statutory role, matched by similar posts in the UK’s devolved administrations, most European nations and many further afield. I am concerned with all five outcomes under Every Child Matters, as I would argue you are too, whatever your specialism. I comment on, where the voice of the child informs me I call for change in, policy on safeguarding, health, education, citizenship and economic wellbeing. The job is about all children in England, (there are now around 11.8 million) with a particular regard for the vulnerable and marginalised.

I am unique because the role is statutory and based on the views and interests of the child, and because I have the right of entry into any setting where children and young people are except their homes. I seek their views on how they should inform decision and policymaking, and I reflect what they say to those in positions of power, in localities and centrally. I publish what I find, and can require any statutory body to respond in writing. Where necessary, I will publish this exchange. I am not designated to take up individual cases, and am not an ombudsman. But where there is evidence from children and young people I can institute an enquiry, having informed government. I can also be called on to intervene in court cases that set precedents. Courts take my interventions seriously, so I use them carefully to avoid being just a maker of noise in the system.

My vision is that all children and young people will be actively involved in shaping the decisions that affect their lives; that they can achieve their full potential because they can reach appropriate services, which they also help to shape; that they live in respectful homes and communities where their responsibilities are learned and their rights respected; and where they are loved, safe, and can enjoy their lives. I use my powers and independence to ensure their views are listened to, so that their outcomes improve. I work in partnership with others where I can, bringing children and young people into the heart of decision making to enhance everyone’s understanding of their best interests.

I became Commissioner as much earlier work started to come to fruition. During 2010 we have published, or we are about to publish, several important reports, suffused with the views of children and young people.

• Almost as he left office at the end of February, Sir Al Aynsley-Green published his second report on asylum seeker children detained in preparation for deportation. Much has been achieved and there’s still more to do, was the headline of that report. We remain in close dialogue with the UK Border Agency, and this work continues. Coverage of HMCI Prisons’ similar findings in March contributed to the debate. Last week we were delighted to learn the new Government has pledged, very early in its time in office, to end detention for asylum seeking children. I am not saying, and my predecessor never claimed, that the country needs no limits on or system to manage immigration. We have always said that what is done needs to give an eye, and much thought, for the fact that the detainees we focus on are children, already traumatised and troubled. As we said last week, when we welcomed the new Government’s first policy announcement – ending the detention of children within the immigration system – we look forward to continuing to work with all concerned on alternatives to detention.

• Just before Parliament was dissolved prior to the General Election we published important research on media access to family courts, where media coverage and the power to report widely on sensitive cases were proposed in the then Children and Families Bill. We said, after detailed interviews with just over 50 children, that most in both the public and private courts had the gravest reservations about their private, often intimate circumstances being open to the media, even when anonymised. The voices of vulnerable children and young people, the majority saying firmly, “please don’t do this, or I will not tell my story, and will be more at risk,” are woven through the report. Sadly, the legislation, however, was passed during the period called “Wash-up.” Neither we, nor the Family Division of the courts, consider the conversations about how it will work in practice to be over. It is therefore to the next steps that we will now turn our attention and energy.

• We will publish, once the work is complete, a serious contribution to our and your ongoing discussions about how we can work better and more productively with families who, for whatever reasons, resist working with the very services it is clear they need. We will follow up, within the current business planning year, with a report on children and young people’s views on the child protection system as they experience it.

• We are working with Demos on a piece of research on the voice and participation of children, young people and families, and also with researchers from User Voice on the feedback we have received from young offenders who want a listening ear for their concerns about their safeguarding when they are detained.

• We host a Children and Young People’s Participation Development project, led by a seconded Local Authority staff member who is an expert practitioner, hoping to have lessons we can disseminate so others can learn from good practice on participation.

My aim is that children and young people, through participating in decisions about their lives, see improvements in their wellbeing. They should both recognise and enjoy their rights, and take on their responsibilities as citizens. Children and young people should be able to see and experience that they are valued by adults. Improving inter-generational understanding is therefore a central aim in my work. You will not be surprised that it is a shared concern among young people.

My current plans pick up my core themes and turn my attention to prioritising what we can accomplish given we cannot do everything. For 2010-11, I am continuing to build on key pillars of policy, in what you will see from our website is our House of the Children’s Commissioner. This means:

• Continuing to work on alternative approaches to detention for child and adolescent asylum seekers.

• Reflecting on how far we are improving health services for children and young people. There will be a special but not exclusive concentration here, on mental and emotional health in young offenders.

• Working on safeguarding, reflecting on users’ experiences, including in social work, the courts, being in and leaving care. We will work on the rights of children whose safety is affected by domestic violence, or the actions of adults in significant relationships whose behaviours impact on them, including the abuse of alcohol or drugs.

• We want to be part of the continuing debate about the future form, shape and publication of Serious Case Reviews and their reports, given I have the right to see them. The discussion needs to continue. My predecessor said, and I continue to maintain, that full report publication, were it to come about would need to assure very robustly that as well as anonymising the content, there never be threads in the text that could be pulled to allow people to track down – for example – vulnerable siblings, or workers who have made tough calls and put their professional safety on the line. What I am more concerned about in the present system is the extremely variable quality, transparency and basic usefulness of Executive Summaries and overviews. These are meant to be, but sometimes still are not, key sources for all of us to learn lessons.

• Facilitating discussions on Youth Justice. Numbers held in the system have started to fall, because of good work on prevention and early intervention, diversion and alternatives to arrest and custody, across many agencies in many localities. But they have further to go.

• Reflecting children and young people’s views on and aspirations for education.

• Working on the development of a children’s media centre which helps track how children are both portrayed in and approached by the media.

A busy year. Throughout it all, I must have regard to the United Nations Convention on the rights of the Child (UNCRC.) Promoting it through all the activities of my office, I work to make sure that if children and young people have an issue, they have somebody in a statutory post who can help them to raise it, and will take a lead on it on their behalf. They need to know how to get my attention, and that I will respond when they do.

I am also travelling across England, and so far have visited the East Midlands where I saw a Children’s Centre in a multi-agency setting, a therapeutic and training community ensuring qualifications and changes to life chances for 14-to-19 year olds who would otherwise, one said, “be either in prison, or dead,” and a comprehensive school where I met young people from across the region and listened to their views. I went to Lancashire, for a day with service users in specialist in-patient CAMHS settings and with the County’s Youth Council. Last week I was in Hampshire, in two different but equally inspiring Unicef accredited Rights Respecting Schools. Later this week I shall be in Calderdale, next week in Cumbria, later in the summer in a Young Offender’s Institution, in several other children’s trusts from Cornwall to York to Lincolnshire, and on several conference platforms.

The things children and young people tell me when I meet them are best summed up as wanting to understand and participate in the adult world, and be listened to and understood by it. They wan their rights, and they also want their responsibilities, and to show their respect for themselves and others. Wanting to make amends and understand when something has gone wrong and they are at fault. Wanting to be told what is happening in their lives if they are not in control, or when they have to be removed from their families.

Being England’s second Children’s Commissioner is a busy and at times, a high profile experience. My intention is to express our shared commitment to the entitlements of our children and young people captured in the 42 Articles of the UNCRC. We signed it in 1991. More than half its 42 Articles relate directly to Social Care and Social Work. We should know its contents, and look out for opportunities to cite its Articles. Some are about basic human rights: to a name; to be safe; to be educated in the round; to hold a belief and not be discriminated against; to be loved and nurtured; not to have to go to war under the age of 15; to be tried in a way you understand if you have done something criminal; to be placed in prison as a last resort; to have your right to privacy upheld. The UN Human Rights Commission holds us to account on our promises in the Convention. Usually, it says we are not bad at most but behind where we ought to be on others. Let me run just one Article past you as an illustration.

Article 12 says children and young people have a right to have their voices taken seriously in decisions that affect their lives. We have commissioned some research asking how well we do this. It tells me that we are weakest with those with the harshest messages to give: those in youth justice, immigration and safeguarding settings. Those with whom so many in this audience work with every day. Those whom somebody described to me as, “not the hard to reach but the hardly reached.”

What do children and young people tell me, and some of them also the Ofsted Children’s Rights Director, that they want from the system that catches them when they seem likeliest to fall? You know this by heart because you are the people doing the catching, but let’s refresh our memories. Children in the system want social workers – preferably a consistent social worker rather than a succession of them – who care and make it clear they do, who listen, with whom they can have a solid and trusting relationship. Just as social workers are clear they want more contact time with children and young people, they want the same. They value what social workers do. They know things can get in the way of their receiving what they need. Some difficulties come from the things that get in your way. Some of their issues come from their struggles to understand what is going on, and to feel they are understood by the people who are there to help them. The more vulnerable their situations’, and the more these forces come into play in their lives, the keener our listening must be.

We know from Serious Case Review analysis and the lessons we go on learning, that when it’s hardest to listen is when you need to listen hardest. We know you may need more specialist training to make that possible, the right support and supervision and backing, because their stories are complex, their families equally so, and their needs profound.

We know that whilst we as adults continue to compartmentalise what we do, children and young people just don’t. They come as the three dimensional child or young person, and they need us to respond to them as such. We do that best through the development of a workforce that, whatever each individual’s specialism, works across the system in partnerships that mean something to the people concerned. Workers who are continuously developed, trained to listen carefully and well to what is said, empowered to act on what they hear. Who report back to the child or young person what is happening, including being honest about why some things can and others can’t be done. Which makes what you do, part of the picture of what I do, I think we might agree.

That’s what this conference is about, and I wish you well in the work you do together as part of it.

Thank you

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