Three ways social workers can support children in care

Simple messages from children in care and care leavers about how professionals can avoid stigmatising them

Photo: Prod. Numerik/Fotolia

By Linda Briheim-Crookall, head of policy and practice development at Coram Voice

Every year, our Bright Spots research programme works with local authorities across the country to understand the experience of their children in care and care leavers and explore ways in which their experiences can be improved. In one of our surveys a child reported:

“I hate that when the register comes up on the screen and others in the class can see that I am CLA [child looked after]. It winds me up even though everyone knows. I don’t like to be different”.

This alerted the local authority who cared for the child about how they felt about the school register. With this knowledge, their virtual school could contact schools to ask them to stop this practice.

Bright Spots, a partnership between Coram Voice and the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford, shows this child was not alone in feeling this way. Feeling singled out, stereotyped and being treated differently is an ongoing issue for children in care and care leavers. Around one in eight young people in care (12%) aged 11-18 felt adults did things which made them ‘feel embarrassed about being in care’. Similarly, one in 10 care leavers felt that they had been treated worse than other young people.

It is essential that all those who work with children in care and care leavers understand how they can be stigmatised. In our research, young people described feeling ‘outed’ by adults and forced to explain why they did not live with their families. Our recent paper Challenging stigma in the care system shares what children and young people have told us about stigma, what they want to see from services and gives examples of how local authorities have worked with children and young people to challenge stigma.

There are some simple messages from children in care and care leavers about how social workers and other professionals can best to support them.

1. Change the language of social care – don’t use words that make us feel different. Help us feel normal by avoiding acronyms and words that do not make sense to us

A practical way of doing this can be to write care records addressed to the child or young person; for example, writing “we met” or “we talked about”. This reminds social workers to moderate their language and has the added benefit of making records more readable for young people who choose to access them later.

In North Yorkshire, staff and young people produced a great video challenging the use of legalistic terms such as ‘placement’, ‘contact’, ‘respite’ in favour of normalising words such as ‘home’, ‘family time’, ‘break for children’. Social workers should get into the habit of using language that cares when talking to colleagues as well, so they are less likely to slip into bureaucratic language when speaking to children and young people. It is important to model this positive way of communicating.

2. Let us control who knows about our care status and how we share this information – do not identify us with your actions or words

The message from children in care is that professionals can avoid stigmatising them by arranging meetings outside of school hours, so that they are not taken out of class for meetings. West Sussex’s Children in Care Council raised this issue with professionals; their virtual school, looked after children’s nurses and independent reviewing officers promised to avoid doing this.

Taking off lanyards and asking how they would like professionals to refer to themselves when meeting in public also helps give children and young people greater control over their care status. When supporting care leavers it is important to have permission from the young person in order to advocate for them with others, such as employers. One care leaver told us:

“Professionals that work with me come to my place of work where my colleagues are and want to have all kinds of different meetings with me. My social worker rings my manager when she wants to talk to me and people ask me questions about my social worker and other workers.”

3. Recognise our potential, praise us when we do well and work with us to promote positive messages about children in care and care leavers

Being in care is still seen as something negative by many. One young person told us:

I’ve had people react very negatively about me being a care leaver because they thought that meant that my family didn’t like me or didn’t want me and I’ve been made fun of.”

As a professional, I have also been guilty of highlighting negative statistics in order to argue for better support for children in care and care leavers. However, I have learnt how important it is to balance this narrative with positive stories to show that children in care have many talents and great potential – which is why we run an annual creative writing competition for children in care and care leavers, Voices.

On an individual level, it is important to note what children are good at in their care records. Many councils have also supported children and young people to collectively challenge stigma. For instance, Sheffield’s Assembly Squad are developing assembly sessions about care for schools, while Hertfordshire’s Project Positive aims to raise the aspirations of children in care and reduce the stigma associated with care leavers applying for jobs.

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5 Responses to Three ways social workers can support children in care

  1. dk April 2, 2020 at 9:23 am #

    Is that North Yorkshire video available online to the public anywhere? Sounds like it would be a really good resource. Apologies if I’m being dense, I couldn’t see it anywhere!

  2. Claire Baker April 2, 2020 at 10:42 am #

    the North Yorkshire film is here

    other resources are in the Bright spots stigma paper see page 4:

  3. Thompson April 2, 2020 at 11:42 am #

    Social workers can support children in care by working empathically with them , using Person-Centred approach and ensure that they seek the chid’s preferred way of approach either through the phone or usual way of communication. By doing this, the child will feel in control and empowered to share his or her concerns, as this will help promote confidence and self esteem.

  4. Lyndsey mears April 3, 2020 at 9:08 pm #

    I think children should be able to have more of a say about who’s involved in their care plans, and how they are referred to and how workers refer to theirselves in front of people.
    It is one of the hardest and most difficult things for youngsters to deal with in the first place without it being constantly highlighted to everyone they know that the life isn’t the standard norm.
    Children definately need to be listened to more, and services involving children and parents needs to be re evaluated to give the children the best outcome possible. They will and alot more help needs to be given to family’s involved with domestic violence, just because u are alone and unable to walk away from a violent relationship, you it does not make u a bad parent, it means u need real help to see the light at the end of the tunnel.