Posted: 17 December 2013

What I told MPs about our work with looked after children

I recently gave evidence to the Education Committee, a group of MPs investigating residential care for looked after children. They are focusing on whether the reforms that the government has proposed are likely to be sufficient and successful.

Being asked questions by a group of MPs is nerve-wracking. But I felt fairly confident as what I told MPs was informed by what I hear from the young people in the care system we work with, and our practitioners supporting these young people.

Make the system fit the child, not the child fit the system

Our direct work with children in care tells us that reforms can only be successful if professionals focus on the needs of the child. That means putting children’s needs at the centre of decisions made about them.

The reforms proposed can make children’s homes safer places to live. Most importantly, there will be an expectation for staff in children’s homes to have qualifications and skills to look after children. Also, homes will be expected to assess how safe their area is and to have policy in place to respond appropriately to children who go missing from care.

The reforms need to recognise that the majority of children end up in children’s homes as a result of multiple placement breakdowns. Around 30% of children in children’s homes had five placements or more, and around 50% of children in children’s homes live in places far from their local areas and far from their family and friends.

Until the reforms address the reasons behind placement breakdowns and ensure that children are placed with carers or in homes that meet young people’s needs (and enable them to reach their full potential), children’s homes will remain a last stop often offered in emergency to a child wary of professionals who failed him before.

Make sure that professionals listen to children 

There is no magical solution to all the issues in the care system. Yet children and practitioners tell us that listening to children and young people themselves, involving them in decisions about their lives and explaining to them decisions made, makes a real difference.

The law recognises the importance of listening to children. The Children Act 1989 stipulates that children’s wishes and feelings should be ascertained when decisions are made about their lives.

In addition, statutory guidance on children in care states that when children need support to speak up in meetings dominated by adults who make decisions about them, or when they want to make a complaint or representation about things they are not happy about, they should be offered the support of an advocate. Our review of advocacy practice  show that when children have support of the independent advocate they are more likely to be happy with the decisions and that professionals are more likely to understand the needs of the child and improve services.

Yet the provision of advocacy service is patchy and many children are not even aware that they are entitled to be heard and to have an independent advocate to help them communicate their views and opinions.

Stop things going wrong before it is too late

Many young people come into care because it is not safe for them to be with their families. Over 60% of 65,000 children in care are in care because of abuse and neglect they experienced in their families.

Such negative early experiences have a huge impact on how children develop relationships, respond to conflict and how they see themselves. Their early experiences make them vulnerable to further abuse and neglect, whether through sexual exploitation or involvement with crime.

Sometimes children’s responses to situations that overwhelm them is not to seek help but to run away. That is why it is so important that when a young person runs away from care this is treated as a cry for help and that help is offered.

We know from our work that a 'return home interview' – a conversation that a trained professional has with a young runaway when he retrurns after running away episode – is an effective way to prevent things from escalating. The interviews allow a young person and professional to learn what caused that young person to run away, to think through solutions to the issues that make them unhappy, and to identify adults who may be targeting – and planning to exploit – vulnerable young people.

Most young runaways from care who are offered return interviews do not have a choice to speak to a professional not involved in decisions about their care and someone they may find easier to talk to. Yet less than half of local authorities offer return interviews to all young runaways from care each time they run away.

Next steps

It was really important for us to share our findings with MPs. They hold government to account on whether enough is done to make children’s journeys through care positive.

The Committee will recommend changes to the government to make to ensure  that children in care achieve better outcomes. We will continue working with MPs and the government to make change happen.

By Iryna Pona - Policy team

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