The charity’s report, The Value of Independent Advocacy for Looked-After Children, found that support is inconsistent and patchy across England, with a third of all councils not spending any money on advocacy support for looked-after children.
This is in spite of a number of legal duties on councils to offer support, including the Children’s Act 1989 and The Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000.
The report found that where support is offered it is too often not flexible enough to meet the changing and complex needs of children in care.
David Hounsell, report co-author and economic adviser for The Children’s Society, said government should review current guidance on advocacy services and present it “in a coherent form that councils can easily understand”.
“A review of the legislation is also needed to make sure advocacy can be provided that properly meets the needs of looked-after children,” he said.
“For example the legislation is very specific about the need for advocacy in some areas, such as making a complaint or a specific child protection meeting, but when it comes to issues such as the child being happy with their education service or contact with their family, the guidance and legal position is less clear.”
The charity is also recommending that commissioning of advocacy services should be overhauled, so that providers are given contracts of at least three years, to help them build relationships with local children’s professionals.
Commissioners are meanwhile being urged to be less prescriptive, to allow providers the flexibility to support young people on a wider range of issues, such as education services.
Hounsell said: “Often councils see advocacy in terms of leaving care, but it is needed for a far larger range of issues and age groups.”
Included in the report is an analysis of 142 cases from The Children’s Society’s advocacy programmes for looked-after children, half of which involved support for young people aged between 11 and 15; the remainder which related to support for children and young people with disabilities or special educational needs. The youngest child supported by the charity was two years old.
The suitability of placements, looked-after children reviews and leaving care were the most common issues that advocates helped children with.
The Children’s Society calculated that the average cost of advocacy support for a child equates to £31 an hour. In the analysis of their 142 cases, the cost ranged from £320 for helping a child with family contact, to £3,830 for dealing with a safeguarding issue.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said local authorities should review their advocacy services with their local children in care council, to make sure that all children have access to support.
"The law is clear. The statutory guidance states ‘All children and young people in care have the right to be supported by an advocate – not just those who wish to make a complaint’,” she said.
“The department currently funds a national helpline so that every child in care can receive immediate advice on advocacy, and we are also funding the development of a quality performance mark for children’s advocacy services, which will be available in April next year.”