By Katherine Purvis
Frequent changes in social workers are associated with a lack of trust among children in care, according to a major study into their wellbeing.
The Our Lives Our Care report, by Coram Voice and the University of Bristol, said there was a “statistically significant” relationship with lack of trust among looked-after children and them having had three or more social workers in the past 12 months.
Almost a third of young people in care aged 11 to 18 had three or more social workers in the previous year, it found, and 1% had not had a social worker at all.
One respondent to the survey of almost 2,300 children said: “I think that social workers shouldn’t move around as much because they just get to know your life story and you have to try to trust them but how can you trust them when you don’t even know them or have hardly ever met them?”
Of the 87% of those aged 8 to 18 who knew who their social worker was, 97% said they trusted them “all or most of the time” or “sometimes”. However, 15% of young people said they had trouble getting in touch with their social worker, and 15% of those aged 8 to 10 didn’t know they had the right to speak to their worker alone.
Other young people said they didn’t like being picked up from school by their social or contact workers if they were wearing their council ID badges or if they spoke about the young person’s background where others could hear.
Compiled using responses to online surveys from 4- to 18-year-olds, the study is said to be the first in England to measure the subjective well-being of looked-after children and young people, and the only one of its kind to involve children as young as four.
It found that looked-after children from mixed ethnicity backgrounds are least positive about their future, and are also more likely to dislike school, to report lower wellbeing and to not understand why they are in care, compared to those from black, Asian and white backgrounds.
Overall, though, 83% of looked-after children and young people feel being in care has improved their lives, and the study found that the longer they spend in care, the more likely they are to have moderate to high levels of wellbeing.
Compared to young people in the general population, a larger proportion of children in care feel safe where they are living and that their carers are interested in their education.
“It is encouraging that such a large majority of children and young people in care feel their lives are improving and that, for most, the care system is providing them with the safety, support and opportunities they need to thrive,” said Dr Carol Homden, chief executive of Coram.
While the majority of looked-after children in all age groups felt that their carers noticed their feelings, almost a fifth of 8-to 10-year-olds said that they did not feel listened to or included in decisions made about them.
Almost a third (31%) of those aged 4 to 7 thought it not had been fully explained to them why they were in care, and nearly a quarter were unsure who their social worker was.
“The results show us that we must take action to address the avoidable losses of care so that children … have an understanding of why they are where they are and [have] a part to play in decisions that affect them,” said Homden.
There is a correlation among young people between low wellbeing and feeling unsettled, said Professor Julie Selwyn, director of the University of Bristol’s Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies and lead author of the study. “The detrimental impact of a lack of a trusted adult in these children’s lives cannot be overestimated.”
About the study
- The study is based on responses from 2,263 looked-after children and young people from 16 local authorities. All children completed the same survey about their subjective well-being, their relationships, rights, resilience and recovery.
- 16% were aged 4 to 7, 26% were 8 to 10, and 58% were 11 to 18.
- The majority (59%) of those who completed the survey were white. Minority ethnic children were overrepresented: 37% of the sample were from a minority ethnic background, compared with 25% of the national care population.
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