The voice of the child and young person are at the core of how Somerset County Council delivers its children’s services – from shaping strategic policy to the type of language social workers use when referring to the young people.
Over recent years a huge amount of work has been done to consolidate this child-centered approach and embed it from the top of the service right through to frontline staff.
Children and young people’s voices can be heard in a range of settings and are shaped by the 20 or so children and young people that comprise the in-care council.
The council was established to give children and young people a platform to have their thoughts heard, and their needs shaped from these recommendations. Youngsters ranging in age from between 10 and 20 participate in the monthly meetings and through the council, have co-created strategic reports, developed informational videos and staged networking events – all tied to improving their care.
“Being part of the in-care council has helped me with my confidence,” says one of the care leavers, who has been on the care council for eight years. “It has made me feel proud of the changes we have made and helped me to have a positive idea of what I can achieve as an adult.”
The personal touch
The children and young people were behind the change in language from using LAC to refer to looked-after children to using CLA (children looked after) as LAC created the impression that the children were somehow ‘lacking’ something.
Now staff at Somerset are encouraged to say ‘homes’ instead of ‘placements’ and ‘family time’ instead of ‘contact’.
Among the other changes shaped by children and young people is their engagement with senior management. They are invited to county hall where their input in strategic meetings is encouraged and welcomed.
“The children and young people like that they are able to hold conversations with the senior management team – they respect them for being open to this way of working,” says Fiona Phur, partnership business manager at Somerset.
Shaping the practice
Last year Somerset County Council and its partners in health and the police launched Somerset’s Children, Young People and Families Plan 2019-2022 – a blueprint for how they will support children and young people, and they were at the heart of drawing it up.
In addition, they have been instrumental in producing material to train social workers in conjunction with a couple of regional universities.
They also co-produced a corporate parent training video for staff and parents, and co-developed two animation films with the University of the West of England for its social work course. The animations look at how supervision helps children in care, and how social workers get feedback from children about their own performance.
“The children loved doing that,” says Fiona. “And what is really lovely about it is every time these videos are used; we get feedback from the student social workers on what they thought of them and how good it is to hear the voice of the child in their training.”
Children and young people have been instrumental in creating a range of engagement events ultimately designed to improve their care. They include a ‘getting to know you’ event geared at foster carers and social workers, and the young people they support.
“The event allows foster carers to come along and bring the children that they are caring for,” says Fiona. “This annual event gives them a chance to meet the social workers, administrative teams and anyone else supporting them. This gives foster carers and social workers an opportunity to work with us and for the children and young people to join the in-care council.”
Young people were also instrumental in convincing the county council to invest in a platform that gives them another way for them to express their thoughts and concerns. Known as the ‘mind of my own’ app, this platform has different portals designed to support young people’s access to help with work, education, health. It has emojis and sliders that young people can use to grade how they are feeling if they do not want to talk, or do not know how they are feeling. Young people are encouraged to use the app on their own – in their own space – or during visits from social workers. Once they have recorded their thoughts, the information is sent to their designated social worker who has up to 48 hours to respond to it.
And crucially, social workers carry the ethos of embedding the voice of child and young person into their daily practice, says Heidi in her role as a social worker within the CLA service.
Heidi, who joined Somerset in 2018 and recently completed her assessed and supported year in employment, says: “My view and approach to the child’s care plan is influenced and led by what the child is saying. That means that their wishes and their feelings are at the heart of what I do and are underpinned by the relationships I have with the people I work with. It helps us in CLA to make appropriate care plans that are not only tailored to their needs but also flexible if their needs change.”
She cites as an example a time when she started working with a 14-year-old boy who was regularly running away from home.
“Once I was able to locate him, I was able to encourage him to meet me,” says Heidi. “This is when he said that he wanted to go back to his home and wanted to see his friends more. He had not expressed these wishes before but once this information was known, I was able to put a plan in place to make that happen and make sure he was safeguarded. He was given the time and the support over longer periods to understand how he was feeling and why he might be feeling that way. And it has prevented him from going missing since.”
Somerset is big on resource sharing and develops leaflets and other material that it can use to break down complex conversations around data protection and consent when social workers are having an initial conversation with a young person.
“If they get a visit from a social worker and they don’t know what is happening, that can cause a lot of anxiety for them, so the packs are introduced to help them,” says Heidi. “It’s about resource sharing and we have a lot of narratives, words and pictures that we use showing different situations for the children and young people that we work with.”