What is to be done about children's advocacy?

Carolyne Willow
Thursday, June 23, 2022

The so-called Bill of Rights introduced into Parliament yesterday will make it even harder for breaches of children’s human rights to be challenged, especially when children or their parents were born outside the UK or have broken the law. This is a sobering moment to reflect on the care review’s proposals for advocacy.

Carolyne Willow is director of Article 39. Picture: Article 39
Carolyne Willow is director of Article 39. Picture: Article 39

Advocacy services are a vital part of the children’s rights movement. Advocacy seeks to ensure children and young people are genuinely heard and have influence whenever decisions are made affecting them. Advocacy puts children and young people in charge; they are in control of what advocates say and do on their behalf. Unlike other professionals in a child’s life, advocates do not make best interests judgements or pursue their own views and ideas.

Local authorities began appointing children’s rights officers and advocates in the late 1980s, following serious and sustained abuse in care settings. As the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse painfully reminds us, children and young people were often silenced, discredited and disbelieved. The worldviews and interests of those running and working within organisations and institutions prevailed because their voices were louder and stronger and they had more power.

In 2017, Article 39 launched the Advocates4U campaign with the National Children’s Advocacy Consortium and the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers to press for a national strategy on children and young people’s advocacy. We were delighted that the Department for Education subsequently committed to consult on new regulations and revised national standards, and there followed very positive dialogue between young people and lead civil servants.

The care review’s headline proposal that advocates should be available on an ‘opt-out’ basis for children in care – which means children and young people would be proactively offered assistance – would transform these vital services. But the review’s costings lack credibility and its other recommendations show poor understanding of advocacy’s unique role and the current legal landscape.

Despite the promise of an expanded service for children in care, the review projects that over a 10-year period £8 million can be cut back from children’s advocacy. (More positively, an extra £62 million is requested for parental advocacy and representation).

Costings have been taken from a children’s commissioner’s report from 2016, and the review has then tried to estimate how many children will pursue statutory complaints. Every day, advocates across the country persuade local authorities to listen to children and fulfil their statutory obligations without recourse to complaints. We run the Children and Young People’s Advocates Network, with over 350 members, and we’re always overjoyed to hear that a child’s complaint has been upheld. That said, I am constantly taken aback by the intransigence of professionals, forcing children to pursue drawn-out complaints to secure the basic markers of a decent childhood or a sincere apology and recompense when they have been failed.

A later review undertaken by the children’s commissioner in 2019 provides different, higher figures for expenditure on children’s advocacy. Nevertheless, this approach to financial forecasting is like going into the houses of families living in poverty, seeing what’s in their food cupboards and using that as a measure of subsistence. We need honest dialogue about the levels of funding realistically required to meet the needs of children and young people.  

Also alarming is the care review’s misguided belief that 75 per cent of the functions of independent reviewing officers (IROs), established to ensure the implementation of the Human Rights Act for children in care, can be transferred to advocates or be “discontinued”. IROs are experienced social workers employed to hold local authorities to account from the perspective of the child’s best interests, whereas advocates are singularly focused on the child’s wishes and feelings. Would the care review consider it appropriate for an independent mental health advocate to take on the role of a doctor reviewing a child’s detention in hospital?  

The care review also wants advocates to absorb the role of Regulation 44 independent persons who visit children’s homes at least once a month and report on the welfare of children – after inspecting the establishment, reviewing its records and interviewing children, parents and staff working there. As with IROs, there are longstanding and legitimate calls to improve how these independent persons are appointed and fulfil their duties. It’s no answer, though, to simply Velcro their responsibilities onto advocates.

Then there is the proposal for the children’s commissioner for England to be responsible for commissioning and perhaps delivering advocacy services (the review wants councils to continue to pay). The thinking isn’t clear – the review’s summary document for children and young people states services should be “overseen” by the children’s commissioner and a blog by Josh MacAlister refers to a singular “new Independent Advocacy Service”. Ensuring independence is seemingly the motivation behind this recommendation, though the care review does not question the commissioner’s office’s very close relationship with central government.

Dismantling locally-based services would be a travesty. Children and young people consistently report that what is important to them is that they know and trust their advocates. My biggest fear is that we move to a call-centre model of advocacy by stealth. Moreover, if advocacy for children who currently have an IRO was to be transferred to the children’s commissioner, what happens to other advocacy required by law and government guidance, which currently includes care leavers, children making NHS complaints, children detained in mental health units, children with special educational needs, children who are the subject of child protection concerns, homeless young people, children in custody and children threatened with school exclusion?

The review employed a senior advisor to ensure its work was “underpinned by the learning from those with lived experiences”. During recent Twitter dialogue on the review, he invoked the words of Henry Ford: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”. This sentiment goes against everything we believe in the children’s rights movement, where the dignity, worth and voice of each and every person is respected. I applaud the care review for affirming the importance of advocacy but hope the government looks to children and young people and their advocates to provide expert help on what happens next.

Carolyne Willow is director of children’s rights charity Article 39

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