Social care system reform must develop stronger relationships for children

Andy Elvin
Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The suspension of regulations by the Department for Education were definitively unnecessary and the way in which it was done was wholly wrong.

Confirmation of this is that only three local authorities have been taking advantage of these changes at the time of writing this article and the push back against it by different organisations and professionals has been palpable.

However, the Children Act 1989, however brilliant, is not a museum piece to be admired in a glass case and never challenged or changed.

There is a debate that needs to be had about children’s social care and the children and families affected by the system need to be front and centre in the discussion, debate & decision making. When many of us have called for a fully independent care review we do not just mean independent of central and local government, we also mean independent of the other players in the system, charities like TACT, independent fostering agencies and the numerous charities, campaigning and lobbying groups. The voices of those whose lives the system intervenes in must be the ones with the greatest weight and with the biggest influence on the outcome.

We know from the care review led by Fostering Network, BAAF, TACT and others some years ago that relationships are central to the experience of children in care. Providing positive, long-term, stable, reliable and consistent relationships should be our aim but for many children we come up short.

I would hope that the promised independent care review considers this.

How do we ensure that children are safe and protected and that they achieve the outcomes of which they are capable? We spend a lot on looked-after children’s social workers, sadly these staff are rarely a consistent presence in children's lives. High staff turnover can lead to children having a regular churn of workers. Given this it is understandable that children might not view this as a consistent and positive relationship. What if we used the cost of this in a different way, maybe to have fewer social workers and to provide advocates or mentors instead?

Independent reviewing officers (IRO) are often a more consistent presence in children lives. We could bolster their role. What if IROs were actually independent and had “teeth”, checked in with children between reviews and were contactable by children at any time?

We could properly delegate authority to foster families and ask that they work with the birth family, where appropriate, to make decisions. Having decisions made in the home better involves children.

Finally, the lockdown has removed the obvious signs of the care system from many children’s lives. This has not been wholly unwelcome, and we should consider how we enact a system that is not constantly reminding them of their difference from their peers. A childhood without a system and its pejorative language trampling all over it - would that be so bad?

Some will view just saying this as heresy but treating the rules and structure of the current system like tablets of stone ignores the fact that the current system is not delivering for many of the vulnerable children and families it purports to be there to protect and support. We need to be open to what we can do differently and better. First and foremost we must listen to the care-experienced community about what these changes might be and engage constructively with their ideas.

Andy Elvin is chief executive of The Adolescent and Child Trust

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