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The great value of advocacy for children in care
A young man in care, James, contacted one of our advocacy programmes not long ago as he wanted to change a decision that was made about his contact with his father. An advocate – an adult who can help ensure that a young person’s wishes are represented when major decisions are being made – visited James in his placement to get to know him better and to explore with him what change he would like to see.
As James and his advocate discussed what made James want to see more of his father, some other issues came to light. James was missing his father and he did not feel happy in his placement. The advocate learned of other issues, such as James's repeated episodes of running away from his care unit. James's reason for running away was inappropriate staff behaviour made him very unhappy.
With the advocate's assistance, James made a complaint that helped secure a new placement for him. Also, the unit James had been in was investigated and the local authority no longer places children there. As a result, the advocate helped James improve his and several other children's lives.
Today, James is happier, settled in his new placement and does not run away any more.
Why are advocates important?
In our new report, The value of independent advocacy for looked after children and young people (read the press release, full text or summary), we analyse 142 cases of children in care - such as James - who were supported by advocates from our programmes.
Many children in the care system tell us of experiences of powerlessness, of being subjected to decisions they did not understand and could not change but which affect their well-being and future life chances. Many of these children do not usually have an opportunity to share their experiences and feelings or voice their opinions when decisions are made about their lives.
We estimate that advocacy support in James’s case cost around £2250 yet resulted in great savings to the local authority. Placement stability alone can save children’s services up to £30,000 per year, and when a child remains in care and stops running away, it saves an average of £940 per year.
But of course the positive impact of a stable placement and not running away on child’s well-being and his long-term life chances is priceless.
Young people’s right to advocacy
Children in care have a right to express their wishes and feelings when decision about their lives are made. This right is defined in Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and enshrined in the Children Act 1989.
But many children lack confidence, skills or trust to communicate their opinions to decision makers. Therefore they need the support of an independent advocate who can speak on their behalf and make sure that their wishes and feelings are heard and acted upon by decision makers.
Our new report shows why it is important that children’s voices are heard on important matters.
Many children cannot access advocacy
Children in care also have a right to be supported by advocate when they have a representation or complaint to make about their care experiences. But research shows that access to advocacy remains patchy. The most vulnerable groups – such as children with complex communication needs, disabled children, very young children and children placed away from home – experience the greatest difficulty in accessing independent advocacy.
The number of children in care accessing advocacy is not known. Governemnt data shows that in financial year 2010-11 around one-third of local authorities spent nothing on advocacy. These local authorities are responsible for around one-third – or 21,000 – of looked after children in the country.
In our report, The value of independent advocacy for looked after children and young people (full text, summary), we found common trends among young people and also analysed individual cases. What we found demonstrates that when advocacy is provided and children are listened to, the solutions generated contribute to positive short- and long-term outcomes for the young people, and prove cost-effective for local authorities.
Empowering children helps them stay safe and aids their transition to adulthood
The involvement of children in decision making about matters important to them not just empowers children. Their involvement also but also aids their development, their transition to adulthood and safeguards them against abuse and neglect. As described in the Munro Review of Child Protection there is a recognition that in a 'system that has become over-bureaucratised and focused on meeting targets', we often lose focus of children’s needs and feelings.
Advocacy helps bring that focus back. To make it happen, central and local government must take steps to ensure that all children in care can access advocacy support if necessary, and that learning from individual advocacy cases is utilised to improve services for all children in care. This can be done through strengthening the statutory guidance, through the development of monitoring and regulatory framework, and through better commissioning processes.
Our report sets out detailed policy recommendations which echo those outlined by the National Children’s Advocacy Consortium (NCAS) – of which we are a member – in the recent Listen to Me report.
We urge the government and commissioners of children’s services to act on those recommendations and make sure that all children in care and carer leavers are offered support of an independent advocate when decisions are made about their lives.
By Iryna Pona, Policy Adviser
Read more about advocates
- Nafeesa from our programme in Lancashire writes of her experiences as an advocate
- Download The value of independent advocacy for looked after children and young people (full text, summary)
- Learn about our advocacy service programmes across the country that help represent children and young people
- Read our press release about The value of independent advocacy for looked after children and young people