As Children’s Commissioner for England, I have special responsibility to ensure the rights of children leaving or living in care are respected.
Recently I have been speaking to children who are living a long way from home. In some cases there are clear reasons for placing a child out of the responsible local authority – keeping a child safe being one of them.
But I’ve seen many situations where the reason for the move is about resources. This might be a lack of appropriate, specialist resource in a certain area, but often, whilst the placements are good, they aren’t so specialist that they can’t be provided closer to home.
None of the children I spoke to felt adequately consulted about their move. And some were still in the dark as to why they were moved so far away in the first place. One child was living six hours from her responsible local authority and even though contact arrangements were stipulated in her care plan, she hadn’t seen her family for several months. This girl said to me, “I’ve started to believe it’s my fault.”
From speaking to those involved it was clear that contact hadn’t happened because no one was available to drive the girl to see her family. The responsibility for doing so was being batted back and forth between the social workers and the placement.
This girl did not ask to be in care. She did not ask to be placed so far from home. So reasons such as ‘lack of resources’ – whilst truthful – are not fair on the child.
There’s no doubting the warmth and care that some of the children receive in these placements. And social workers tell me they feel they’re between a rock and a hard place. I am sympathetic to their challenges. But zooming out, what this means is some children are bearing the brunt of a system that is struggling to meet the needs of those it’s charged with taking care of.
We know the system does provide a stable home, school life and social worker for most children in care. But there are persistent problems with stability. In 2017 we created our Stability Index. It’s an annual measure of changes in home, school and social worker for children in care. We want to identify where there are problems and encourage local authorities and Government to tackle them to improve stability in the system.
This year’s report shows that despite some positive improvements 1 in 10 children in care experienced two or more home moves in 2017/2018, 45,000 children experienced at least one change of social worker in 2017/2018 and 52% of children in care experience at least one home move over a three year period. This level of change would be disruptive for any child, but for the most vulnerable it means not having the chance to settle and form the positive relationships that can help them build a stable future.
With so much instability and change in many of their lives, it’s vital we give children in care and care leavers the chance to tell their stories. This is why we created the website IMO (www.imohub.org.uk) – a voice for teenagers in care and for care leavers. It is somewhere where kids can share stories, experiences and achievements, get and give advice. We share blogs, vlogs, podcasts and more from teens in care, and we link Children in Care Councils in England together around common campaigns.
Every day I’m struck by the incredible resilience of children in care. But it shouldn’t be about children “surviving” their time in care. They should thrive. All too often it’s a case of the child adapting to fit the needs of the system. I want to see a system that adapts to the needs of each individual child, a system that puts the child in the centre of the decisions being made about them. Because as we all know, these decisions will stay with the children we work with for a lifetime.
For more information visit www.imohub.org.uk