A year ago, in its Conservative election manifesto, the government made a commitment to review the social care system for children. For children having to grow up within this system, and for the adults around them, this news has brought a glimmer of hope. It was finally some acknowledgement of what children have been shouting from the rooftops for years – that good care and support is not guaranteed, and far too many feel frustrated and failed by structures and decisions meant to be helping them and keeping them safe.
The Children’s Social Care review is due to launch imminently, yet its scope remains unclear. Our office has spent the past year visiting care-experienced children and young people across England and finding out what they think the review needs to focus on and change. We believe that these ideas – sadly drawn from times when the system has hurt them and trampled over their rights – must be at the core of the review. In this post we give a brief summary of the main themes and recommendations which came from our conversations:
Some children have had very positive care experiences. They have had carers who became family in ‘all but blood’ and continued to be there for them even after they moved elsewhere. Others, sadly, never found that sense of belonging. Some felt they were treated differently to their foster siblings and more closely supervised. Children felt that the care review should look at improving matching with carers, so it doesn’t feel like “being matched by a robot”.
Children were furious about siblings being split up in care – “when I was 10 I was split up from my 2 younger brothers at the time… it ruined our lives”. Children wanted to see their families more – especially wider family, like siblings and grandparents. One young person talked about how much easier it was when her foster carer built a relationship with her birth family and arranged contact, rather than going via the local authority.
Children were fed up with having added rules and restrictions because of being in care. Sleepovers came up again and again as an example: “if I want to stay at my friend’s house they need to have a police check and their parents need a police check, so that means that more people who I don’t want to know I’m in care will know and they might tell people”. Children described this as not only ‘ridiculous’ but an invasion of their privacy.
Some children felt they didn’t have choice over certain aspects of their lives or their own personal information. One child, for example, told us that new professionals would turn up at personal meetings without introducing themselves beforehand and start “sharing their opinions on your life”. They wanted to be able to choose their social workers and carers, and choose who can attend meetings about them.
Some felt bonded with the key professionals in their lives: “My PA is always texting on the regular. They just say ‘are you ok, what’re you up to?’ and have a genuine interest in you. They’re not just asking for information”. But overall it was felt that social workers didn’t take time to build relationships, couldn’t be trusted, and were unreliable. We were told that IROs were hard to contact and only seen at review meetings. Children craved better relationships with social workers, saying they should “not just ask you questions, but actually do stuff with you, like bake a cake or something” and should “say sorry if they’ve done something wrong”.
In good news some children and young people did feel well supported and informed – examples included access to tutoring and laptops, support in school, and the local offer for care leavers. However, many felt information was lacking at pivotal moments, such as when they were moving to new homes, or confusing, for example, with ambiguity about how pupil premium funding is spent. Older groups wanted to see better support for care leavers and better quality independent/ semi-independent (unregulated) accommodation.
Children with the fewest moves seemed to have the most positive experiences of care. Almost all children had stories of instability and careless handling of moves and transitions – a young person being forced to move out of their home on their 18th birthday, a child finding bin bags outside their bedroom containing all their possessions when they got home because they were being moved at short notice, and a young person talking about uncertainty over whether duvets/crockery would be provided when they moved into semi-independent accommodation.
Children simply didn’t want to feel different because of being in care, nor be described in language which treats them “like a piece of paper” and not a person. The terms ‘LAC’, ‘CIC’ and ‘respite’ were just a few examples we heard. They wanted changes like not being taken out of classes for meetings which can be stigmatising.
Read the presentation summarising the consultation. Thank you to all the amazing children and young people who helped us with this work.
On 24th November, based on our research and these extensive conversations, the Children’s Commissioner put forward her own priorities for the Government’s forthcoming review in a major speech, alongside Lemn Sissay MBE and a fantastic panel of care experienced young people.
Almost 900 people tuned in, from frontline workers and carers to researchers and policy experts. The audience asked many questions about the major problems with the current care system, which unfortunately could not all be answered in the time available. This post outlines 10 of these questions which relate to fundamental issues affecting children. We are inviting the Chair of the care review, when they are appointed, to consider these and outline how they will be incorporated into the review.
Question 1: Would you agree that services for children will only improve when we are prepared to integrate health, social care, education and housing to provide holistically for their needs? – submitted by consultant and trainer
Question 2: As a child in care in the 80s and 90s, I, along with children I grew up alongside, experienced frequent changes of ‘placement’ and have first-hand experience of how detrimental this can be throughout the lifespan. Now, as a Specialist Nurse for Children in Care I am surprised by how many moves children in care experience and saddened at the lasting disadvantages that children in care experience as a result. What are the main priorities to be addressed nationally to ensure children in care have a home that is safe, secure and creates opportunities? – Specialist nurse, children in care
Question 3: The quality of care and services that we provide in this sector is very much a product of the great people who work in it. However, staff retention is a real challenge, a factor of compensation, the work itself and recognition of the roles. This staff turnover brings additional challenges for the young people that we care for. Is this something that you could put some focus on and highlight? – Chairman, charity
Question 4: Given the dependency that local authorities have on private equity backed Independent Fostering Agencies and residential care providers for placement sufficiency, and the fact that we live in a situation where demand for placements in most areas outstrips local supply, what realistically can be done at this point to wrestle back control of this sector so that quality, local availability, and cost can be better controlled – Director, community interest company
Question 5: Why do local authorities not consider longer term benefits for children in care, such as support to retain relationships with trusted adults? – Foster carer
Question 6: Are we looking at improving the support we give to young people post 18 to continue to live in foster care? We are currently faced with the decision of remaining as foster carers for our local authority or continuing to support the young person we look after, who is very much part of our family and not ready for independence – Foster carer
Question 7: With the care review coming up next year, how will we champion more funding for children in/ leaving care? – Care experienced young person
Question 8: What do you think about the need for support and work with parents after children have been taken into care. Should that be a legal requirement? – Professor
Question 9: I have lived within the care system for over 10 years, in foster placements and a residential setting. I think residential care homes can condition and distort a young person’s mind to view the world in an unrealistic way – only to be forced into the real world at 18, leaving all established relationships and connections built within that home behind. I believe that this is a major factor that contributes to the growing number of care leavers who end up being imprisoned, sectioned or just simply continuing the cycle of being stuck in the system. Although foster placements offer a more family-orientated approach, I don’t believe all foster carers are equipped to deal with mental health issues that come with past trauma, thus causing a large number of placement breakdowns. How do you plan on tackling these issues to bridge the gap between the treatment of children in care homes and children in foster placements to improve the system and give young people a better opportunity to grow from their past and not repeat it? – Care-experienced young person
Question 10: How are you communicating with young people to improve the care service that is provided to them? – Care experienced young person
Please note this is only a sample of questions submitted, but these questions set out some of the key issues which the review will have to face. We believe that realistic, long-term solutions for these problems could go a long way towards transforming the way the state treats children in care.