Looked-after children miss out on right to independent visitors

Nina Jacobs
Monday, October 21, 2019

Increasing numbers of children in care are waiting to be matched with independent visitors, with some councils admitting to not providing the statutory service at all, new research shows.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by Barnardo's revealed that 1,202 looked-after children were missing out on their legal right to be matched with a visitor, which the charity refers to as a "buddy". This is a rise of 20 per cent since 2015.

The investigation found that 10 of the councils that responded said they did not provide the service despite the statutory duty to do so.

The request sent to 152 councils in England, all of which responded, found 89 per cent of children matched with an independent visitor were white but the majority (92 per cent) on waiting lists were from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups.

The National Independent Visitor Network which carried out the FOI jointly with its host Barnardo's, said cuts to funding had made it harder for councils to recruit volunteers and match them with children.

In particular, finding volunteers from BAME groups to match with children who wanted to befriend someone from their own cultural background had also proved "challenging".

Independent visitors were introduced under the Children Act 1989 to offer emotional support and a trusting and stable friendship to children in care. 

The role was strengthened further under the 2008 Children and Young Persons Act, which outlined all children in care should have the right to an independent visitor.

However, the research highlights how less than four per cent of children in care in England are matched.

Of around 75,400 looked-after children, only 2,653 (3.5 per cent) had been provided with an independent visitor, the charity said.

The North East and North West, with one and two per cent respectively, had the lowest levels of match rates.

The South West topped the regions with the highest proportion of children and young people matched to independent visitors at 6 per cent, the charity added.

However, it said there was some "good news" for care leavers, who despite not being legally entitled to an independent visitor, were showing an uptake in the number of matches.

Around 60 councils reported finding matches for around 218 care leavers aged between 18 and 25, an increase of about 90 matches since 2015.

Barnardo's chief executive Javed Khan said it was "concerning" that children in care from BAME communities were less likely to access an independent visitor service.

"It is really disappointing that so many children in care are waiting to be matched with an independent visitor.

"We know from our experience that these volunteers provide vital support for vulnerable young people, offering friendship, emotional support and a long-term, stable relationship with a trusted adult."

Khan said having more than 1,000 children waiting for a befriender was "not good enough" and called on the government to ensure children in care were able to exercise their right to an independent visitor.

"Local authorities not currently providing this service can contact the National Independent Visitors Network hosted by Barnardo's for advice on how to meet their obligations towards children in care," he added.

The Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Children's Services have been approached for comment.