Dame Rachel de Souza, The Children’s Commissioner for England
When I last wrote, I made ambition my watchword for 2022. That is no less true as I write now, at the start of another new year, but I want to add another word to that for 2023: optimism.
It might seem like an oddly cheery word to use at a time when many vital public services have been hit by strikes, living costs are rising and children are among those who have been hardest hit – particularly those in or leaving care.
The reason I use the word is because I believe 2023 will bring opportunities to create a care system that makes every young person who interacts with it feel safe, cared for and stable – as long as we listen hard and listen properly to what these young people themselves tell us about the barriers to overcome.
One of these is the opportunity to reflect a positive vision of family in public policy – and reflecting breadth and variety of families in this country. At the end of last year, I published the second and final part of my independent Family Review, which set out how we can better support the needs of families and children, building on findings from the first part which spoke of the protective nature of family.
Public policy tends to focus on the many challenges families face, including conflict and poverty. Reframing this to put strong families at the heart of policymaking will embed these strengths and characteristics into the services there to support children who cannot live with their birth families, by providing a meaningful alternative that offers the same kind of familial, consistent relationship.
It’s what young people in care told me they want in their responses to The Big Ask survey when I first took office: a stable and nurturing home, and strong, loving relationships with people who care about them – including, importantly, their sibling relationships. I’ll be examining how to strengthen sibling relationships across the care system in the coming weeks, as well as setting out my recommendations to make sure children in care have the kind of home environment that is equipped to fully meet their needs up to the age of 18, not just 16.
Government and policymakers often shy away from recognising the role of family in improving outcomes – but we are already seeing promising signs that this is changing. The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, in his first speech of the year setting out his priorities for the year ahead, said: “Family runs right through our vision of a better future.”
That brings me to another opportunity coming up this year, which as I write is imminent: the Government’s full response to the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. It will set out a plan that offers support to families earlier on, working to prevent escalation and ultimately improving outcomes. This plan needs to be as ambitious for children in or leaving care as they are for themselves, and to replicate the feeling of family support in the system so that every child who interacts with it feels safe, loved and stable. I know that is an ambition that the many dedicated professionals I’ve spoken to over the course of my work echo.
The opportunities that my Help at Hand service continues to provide for children and young people also gives me cause for optimism. Since becoming Children’s Commissioner, it has supported more than a thousand children at their most acute moments.
In the last quarter of 2022, Help at Hand saw a significant rise in cases – but only reaches a fraction of the young people it could help. My office and I have been speaking to children and care leavers about what they want from the service and how to make it more accessible – and we owe it to them not just to listen, but to act on this
As one care leaver told us: “I don’t think there’s anything else I could have wished for; I just feel like it’s a really good service and I found it really helpful and […] it gives you backup and it’s really good to have that.” – Help at Hand Annual Report and Review, November 2022.
Finally, I am optimistic because I see the commitment and energy of those working in the care system, despite the challenges, but also of young care experienced people themselves. I’m excited to be creating a care experienced advisory board this year, to make sure that all of my work is informed by their voices and views.