Social worker Shelley Caldwell and her colleagues at North Somerset council were struck by one theme in feedback from children in care: “Professionals know everything about us, we know nothing about them”.
The message came through in a survey of the wellbeing of the council’s looked-after children population. North Somerset was one of six councils to take part in the Your Life Your Care project, which was carried out by Coram Voice and the University of Bristol. Across the six authorities, more than 600 young people in care responded.
The findings, published this week, highlight a range of issues. While 83% of children said their lives had improved while in care, 14% reported scores that suggested low well-being. One in five young children didn’t know who their social worker was and almost a third of 11-18 year-olds said they’d had at least three social workers in the past year.
A significant proportion of young people were uncertain about the reasons for being in care and how long they would stay in the system. More than a quarter of teenagers, and half of four to seven-year-olds, said they did not understand why they were in care.
Sad to see
Caldwell, principal social worker for children at North Somerset, says the findings show work needs to be done.
“When we looked at all of the information we had we were really pleased to see some of the strengths. But there was a really clear evidence base around, fundamentally, our children not quite having a voice or understanding what was happening to them,” she says.
“I think it was really sad to see that there were some children who really weren’t clear what to expect from their social worker, what they could expect from their reviewing officer, what a family support worker might do and what a contact worker might do.”
North Somerset is acting on the findings to try and improve the wellbeing of young people in its care. All looked-after children social workers now have ‘name cards’ that tell young people about them and their interests, from their favourite colours or foods to whether they have any pets. The council has also stepped up its recruitment and retention offer for social workers.
“I think the thing that is most heart breaking when you see the results is when young people don’t necessarily know who their social worker is, or who they can go to. It’s primarily because there is a frequent change in social worker, so we’ve put that at the forefront of our mind in terms of recruitment and retention,” Caldwell says.
At the start of placements social workers and young people now work through a ‘me guide’ together. These are booklets that set out the basic information all children should know and what they can expect from professionals.
Caldwell says the aim is to help “iron out” early questions a child might have in a new care placement: “It’s a workbook for the social worker and child to engage in. The social worker is guided through all of the information they need to give to the child or young person about why they are currently living where they are living, who will visit them, [and] how often.”
The council makes sure every child in care has a life story booklet and a keep-safe box, where they can keep the ‘me guide’ and important mementos.
“We also devised a specific complaint leaflet just for our children, so they were automatically given one of these within their keep-safe box. It’s obviously complaints, comments and compliments because we want to continue to receive their feedback, so we’re asking social workers and foster carers to encourage children and young people to use these forms,” says Caldwell.
“I think this project is very much based around the individual children. Every child that we are corporate parents for, they are our children and we need to make a difference. We need to provide a service that is individual to them, and while we remain their corporate parent we need to deliver the best service that we can, and that service needs to deliver improved outcomes because we’ve made the promise right at the start.”