Coram Voice response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care

We have now digested the report from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, published earlier this week. It is a comprehensive look at many aspects of the care system. While there are many areas we welcome, there are also those that require more reflection.

We hope to continue to work with Government to implement the reforms guided by the review and ensure that children and young people continue to be at the heart of shaping the reform programme. We know that children and young people who are currently in the care system, want to see change now and we call on the investment and urgent action needed to make this happen.

Language and purpose of care

Through our Bright Spots programme our work has been all about focusing the care system on what matters to children and young people and what makes their lives good. We were pleased to see this mirrored in the review and particularly welcome the emphasis on the central role of relationships, the role of the state in providing the ‘foundations for a good life’ and supporting children in care and care leavers to ‘flourish’.  We also support the commitment to shift the data that is collected to ‘more meaningfully reflect what matters to children and families’.

Children’s rights

We welcome the children’s right statement accompanying the report and support the recommendation that the Government should complete a full impact assessment of children’s rights (and equalities) when implementing the recommendations set out in the report.

We would like to understand more about the impact that making care experience a protected characteristic will have, but welcome the ethos of this recommendation and the commitment to challenging stigma associated with care experience (Coram Voice, 2020).

Extending corporate parenting

We welcome the recommendation that corporate parenting responsibilities should be extended to a greater number of institutions. We support the statement that “having taken on the role of parent, it is right that the state does everything in its power – to an even greater extent than it would for other citizens – to give those with a care experience every possible advantage in life.”, which very much mirrors our call for the state to  ‘step up’ if it steps in to care for children (Briheim-Crookall et al, 2020).   We are also interested in exploring what children and young people think of the suggested change in language from ‘Corporate’ to ‘Community parenting’.

Care experienced voices at the centre of reform

We are pleased to have supported the review team gathering the views and voices of children and young people for the review. We welcome that they have drawn on the findings from the Bright Spots programme (Coram Voice/Rees Centre 2020, Coram Voice/Rees Centre, 2021), our advocacy work (Always Heard, 2020)  and evidence submitted through A National Voice’s engagement with children and young people around the country. We hope to be able to continue supporting children and young people to have a voice in proposed reform programme.

We are pleased to see the views and experiences of children and young people reflected throughout the review through direct quotes and stories and we welcome the recommendation to involve those with lived experience of children’s social care in the implementation of the recommendations through representation on the National Practice Group & National Reform Board and in the development of the National Children’s Social Care Framework (setting the purpose, objectives and outcomes for children’s social care).

Whilst the voices of older care experienced people are valuable contributions to this work there must also be clear ways for younger children and young people to have a voice in this development work. The review helpfully focuses on how independent advocacy should support children and young people a voice in their care own individual care, yet it did not explore the mechanisms for involving children and young people in operational and strategic developments.

It will be important for both central and local government to think about how they will effectively engage children and young people in co-producing the proposed new framework and services. For example, how can young people be involved in commissioning and designing new provision in the Regional Care Cooperatives that the review recommends should be responsible for planning, running and commissioning residential care, fostering and secure care? Existing structures such as Children in Care Councils were not mentioned in the report and they can be one of the ways to ensure greater children and young people’s involvement. On a national level A National Voice, as the national children in care council, can support their engagement.  Drawing on the practice examples we have collected in the Bright Spots Knowledge bank will also be useful, like the care leavers commissioning accommodation in the Isle of Wight or the young people led reverse scrutiny panel set up in Sheffield to monitor and challenge progress of action plans based on young people’s priorities.

The importance of advocacy

The Care Review’s recognition of the importance of independent advocacy in ensuring children and young people’s voice is heard and as a protective factor is excellent.  We welcome the focus on an opt-out model of advocacy, available as a proactive offer to children and young people at times of transitions and when they need it.  Whilst the review highlights children in care and those in public law proceedings being eligible for this new model, there is no mention of advocacy for care leavers, children in need and homeless young people.  This may be an omission in the recommendations, but any new advocacy offer must recognize that independent advocacy is especially crucial for these groups of children and young people.

Advocates are highly skilled, specialist, professional roles whose purpose is to ensure that children’s and young people are heard and their rights protected. They act on the wishes of the child; do not make decisions about the child’s best interests and act only on instruction from the child (where children are unable to direct the work of an advocate children’s rights are protected through non instructed advocacy –Non-Instructed Advocacy for Children and Young People).  Therefore Advocates cannot provide professional oversight to care planning (which is the remit of IROs for every looked after child) as this conflicts with their core role

Regulation 44 visits are independent monthly visits to all registered children’s homes to make sure children are effectively safeguarded; and that the way the home operates promotes children’s well-being.

As proposed, the increase of advocacy, however, comes at a cost to the rights of children in that it aligns the increase in advocacy with the ending of the role of the Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) and the Regulation 44 visits. In doing this the report shows a misunderstanding of the differences of these roles. It will be important to recognize these differences in any proposed reform programme.

Delivering enhanced advocacy

We welcome that the new model of independent advocacy proposed includes an expectation that a child’s advocate attends care planning meetings and that no significant decision should be made without the input of the child, with or via their advocate. This would require a significantly increased capacity in the system and we are therefore concerned that the projected spend suggests a saving in the new delivery model.

When Coram Voice ran an opt-out child protection advocacy service in one local authority the take up rate was over 90%. We would expect to see similar level of take up for children in care and care leavers. To ensure a universal offer it will be important that any new national model includes non-instructed advocacy for children whose disabilities mean that they cannot direct an advocate, interpreting services for those who do not yet speak English, Freephone helplines to ensure children and young people can afford to contact their advocates and offer for all age groups and those living out of area. Through our Always Heard service we know that these are not currently universally offered across England.

In a new model advocates would not only address specific complaints, but need to be meetings before and after reviews and significant changes such as a placement move if advocates are expected to comment on children’s homes you would need to include frequent visits to the child, often out of area, as well as. You would expect advocates to undertake several periods of intensive case work to resolve particular issues over the year.

Implementing a new National Advocacy Service

We know that variation in advocacy services is often created because of variability between local authorities in what they are contracted to do and how much funding is available. We welcome that the review recognises that the standards for advocacy should be updated. A national funding formula and clear national service specifications will also be needed to ensure consistency.  Working with the advocacy sector we can support the Government in developing these and also support the Government to identify the best model for delivering a national service.

To be able to report how services are doing on a national basis it will also be important to consider how services and outcomes are monitored and data collected. The goals of the proposed new National Data and Technology Taskforce to (1) reimagine case management systems to reduce the time works spend recording cases, (2) use technology to achieve frictionless information sharing and (3) improve data collection and how it is used to inform decision making, will also be important in advocacy. Given the diversity of systems and providers at the moment this will be a challenge that will need to be considered early on when setting up any new systems.

“Many local authorities do effectively commission independent advocacy and it is the independent nature of the provider which is rightly sought in the recommendations of the review. If there is a single national commissioner, then this adds risk and reduces market choice and local accountability to the children served. The review recommends that the children’s commissioner takes on this role. This could dilute the scrutiny role of this office and important function in independently championing children’s rights. It is part of their statutory remit the Children’s Commissioner should “investigate the availability and effectiveness of advocacy services for children” (Children and Families Act 2014, 197″2(3)(b)) and this separation remains important.”

Revisiting Independent Visiting services

We welcome the recommendation that Local authorities should redesign their existing Independent Visitors scheme for children in care and care leavers to allow for long term relationships to be built. Current services end as young people turn 18 and it would like to consider more flexible services that can help build relationships into adulthood. Thinking about any existing great provision that support this group will be important and it was positive to see the work of Pure Insight highlighted that supports care leavers in our New Belongings partner local authority Stockport.

Support for care leavers

We were pleased to see the commitment to supporting care leavers set out in the review. It is interesting to see how the five missions for leaving care show how what matters to care leavers is inextricably linked to what happens in childhood – for example developing relationships to avoid isolation and loneliness.

There are many welcome recommendations for care leavers including:

  • making virtual school heads accountable for care leavers up to the age of 25;
  • introducing a kite mark for higher education and an apprenticeship bursary for care leavers;
  • a refreshed Care Leaver Covenant and government accreditation scheme for employers that recognises commitment to supporting care leavers into jobs;
  • making Staying Put and Staying Close a legal entitlement up to the age of 25;
  • addressing homelessness by removing the local area connection test and ending intentionally homelessness practice,
  • providing a rent guarantor scheme and
  • Increasing the leaving care grant to £2,438 for care experienced people.

Through New Belongings we have done some work on how to address the challenges of offering job opportunities to care leavers in local authorities which we will publish in the autumn.

Mental health support

We also welcome the commitment to mental health support. Emotional health and well-being was the top issue that young people wanted our A National Voice ambassadors to campaign on this year. In its response to the case for change ANV highlighted the need for more training to understand the needs of young people including mental health needs. We welcome the recommendations to upskill professionals including training for foster carers as well as personal advisors, advocates and independent visitors. We also welcome the proposed introduction of multidisciplinary models that would embed physical and mental health specialists within teams supporting children in care and care leavers.

Relationships with siblings and friends

The review recognises that relationships are paramount, but the focus of the report is primarily on children’s relationships with adults. We welcome the focus on the importance of trusted adults, including scope to explore how they may be able to stay in children’s lives as carers. We also welcome the new family finding services up to 25 to support children in care and care leavers to identify and maintain links with the people who are important in their lives. This type of support is a key recommendation in our upcoming Staying Connected report (Selwyn et al, upcoming) Children and young people have also told us that the instability in their lives makes it more difficult to retain relationships with peers and we agree with the review that increasing stability and seeking to support children to stay in their local communities will have a positive impact on this relationships. We would like the reform programme to go further in putting more emphasis on relationships with friends and brothers and sisters as the important people who can provide the long-term loving relationships that the review seeks to ensure for all young people who leave care. For care leavers friends are the most commonly reported source of emotional support (Briheim-Crookall et al, 2020)

As we will show in our upcoming Staying Connected report, having the opportunity to spend time with birth family is important to many children in care’s well-being. However, it is not whether or not contact is happening that is important to well-being, but whether children feel the amount of contact is right for them (Selwyn et al, upcoming). This will be an important issue that expanded advocacy services can make sure children have the opportunity to have a say in. It is welcome that the report highlights the impact of adoption and focuses on contact arrangements with birth parents. Many children who have participated in the Bright Spots programme wrote about being separated from their siblings through adoption (Selwyn et al, upcoming), it would be important to consider how the connection with brothers and sisters can be maintained for children who are adopted as well as birth parents.

Collecting the right evidence

We support the call in the review to develop indicators alongside the objectives and outcomes set out in the new National Children’s Social Care Framework. We believe that these should include feedback from children and families as suggested. Children and young people should not just be asked about their satisfaction with services but how they feel about their lives – do they feel safe, happy and think that they are doing well? Whilst the Bright Spots programme is not currently a set of national transparent measures its indicators, which have been developed with young people to measure what they feel makes their lives good, will be very important in informing what should and could be measured.

Moving forward

Coram Voice will continue to explore the implications of the review with staff and young people. A National Voice are sharing the report with children in care and care leavers and gathering their reactions, whilst all staff are meeting at the beginning of June to review some of the detail of the report together. We look forward to working with the sector and Government to make the most of this opportunity to rethink children’s social care and make sure that the system truly does support children and young people to flourish. Participation of children and young people themselves has been key throughout the review and we hope that the Government continues this engagement throughout the reform programme. It is important that children and young people’s experience remains at the centre throughout this period of fundamental change.