Over the last 30 years there have been numerous laws, policy reviews, enquiries and working groups all designed to improve the care and transitional support offered to care experienced young people (throughout the rest of this article I will use the term young people). Yet despite an awful lot of policy and legislative attention and a fair amount of investment many of the issues faced by young people remain unchanged. They often find themselves on the receiving end of a patchy and inconsistent service, exacerbated by the rapid turnover of staff and what can appear to be a lack of oversight and coordination. The statistics and data on the issues faced by young people make for a depressing read. Yet we also know there are lots of organisations who are strongly committed to working with young people, have developed good practice and want to make a positive change. So, given the amount of space and resources given to this issue and working on the assumption lots of key people do care, why, are we still failing to deliver a high quality, joined up approach to supporting young people in their journey through care?
Firstly, it is easy to lump young people together but they are a very diverse group, the reasons why you entered care, the age at which you entered care, your gender, sexuality, contact you may or may not have with your family, asylum seeking status, if you have a disability and the type of care you are in will all impact on you and the type of support you need. There are no “one size fits all” solutions and we have to be very wary about making assumptions. Often the people best placed to guide us on what works best are the young people themselves but still it can all too often be the case that “participation” and “coproduction” are one offs rather than embedded systematic approaches. So young people are often seen through a “stereotypical” if well intentioned lens that may well not connect with the young people’s own identity, perceptions and understanding of the situation they are in.
Local authorities are increasingly juggling cuts, dealing with a vast array of demands and many struggle to hold on to staff. Outsourcing of children’s services is far more common and various reports have questioned if those winning contracts care about the children or making a profit. There are more and more stories emerging in the press of young people being put in unsuitable housing, in unsuitable areas with little or no back up. It is also not uncommon for young people to find they have had four or five different staff acting as their key worker over a period of two years.
So clearly, the way we run, commission and deliver our children services is flawed. I personally have experience across a number of authorities of working with well intentioned staff who feel they are sinking and not on top of their brief. It is not uncommon to find that the reporting and red tape demands of frontline children’s workers jobs take up eighty percent of their time. Workers find they do not have the time to build relationships with young people, become disillusioned with their work and leave. So young people develop scepticism about the merry go round of busy distracted workers who flit in and out of their life and are often reluctant to engage with social services. This in turn means these young people can find it difficult to “trust” people as they have been brought up expecting to be let down. For all the talk of child centred services it is simply far too often the case that young people are not central in a meaningful way to the development, delivery and evaluation of the services set up to support them. So, perhaps it is little wonder that the services often fail and young people do not trust those who say they want to improve them.
In the early 90’s I attended a meeting between young people and a junior minister, in the middle of the meeting, one of the young people told the minister they wanted to be loved not cared for. This issue is still very live and still causes a huge amount of discussion, debate and controversy. Most people would agree that we all need love. Yet for young people especially those in residential care it can be the case they are brought up by committees and memorandum, administered at best by well intentioned, committed and approachable staff and at worse by ever changing, disinterested staff.
This lack of love might explain why so many young people find it difficult to build relationships and too often describe themselves as feeling different. A letter from a social worker confirming you can have an allowance to purchase an item is very different to a trip to the shops with people who love you.
Linked to this is what I have always thought is the absurd focus on “independence”. The idea that any young person will suddenly become independent at 16, 18 or 21 seems to fly in the face of all the evidence we know both through growing up ourselves or bringing our own children up. Surely, the key life skill for people, young or old is to learn how to be interdependent and to know how best to build relationships, work with people and to seek, offer and give help?
The vast majority of looked after children will now be “fostered” and there are increasing efforts to encourage kinship care. However, all too often foster carers are not included in a meaningful way when care issues are being discussed. There are also concerns about agencies who see foster care as a business rather than an attempt to offer a child a warm and loving family.
Social work like so many other institutions reflects the times we live in. The focus on individuality, running through our politics alongside an increased interest in individual therapeutic approaches has meant the young people are forced into thinking they must be independent by an arbitrary given age. They and they alone will be responsible for the successes or failures they experience in life. Increasingly much youth provision is very much targeted at helping individuals within a specific timeframe to find work, education or training. There is little or no space for sharing experiences with people in a similar situation, questioning how and why things are ordered or challenging what you see as an unfair and unjust system. In many ways, young people become units on a production line being processed by stripped back social service departments and the organisations they contract resources out to.
Despite all the above many young people do find pathways into rewarding careers, lifestyles and opportunities, but sadly far too many still face many challenges and issues and are being left behind. We also know that there are lots of very good projects offering support, encouraging young people to work together to identify and act on issues of concern. Where they work well these projects often have a strong emphasis on the lived experience and voices of young people leading and developing the work. The projects are flexible can respond to the needs of the young people and staff have jobs that allow them the time to build relationships with young people where the young people identify key issues and the worker supports them in a manner and style appropriate to the young people. These projects are also often well networked, good at working in partnership and work closely, even when they disagree with the local authority. In addition other projects like the one I work with increasingly seek to build links with the private sector as a way of encouraging young people to build relationships with a wide variety of people within their community who might be able to offer them help and support on subjects as diverse as baking a cake, playing sport or learning more about the world of work.
Given we know all of the above, how might we ensure that the care, concern and resources that are there for young people are turned into effective actions and projects that support young people. I would suggest the following:
Voice and co-production. “Nothing about us without us” should be the mantra that ensures young people are “creating” and not just “consuming” services. There is never any magic bullet but ideas and projects that have actively involved young people in their development, implementation and evaluation are far more likely to succeed, as well as offering young people a range of opportunities to develop their soft and hard skills through their involvement in co-producing the project.
One size does not fit all. Young people are a diverse group with many needs and many talents. We have to avoid square pegs and round holes and accept the key to developing effective services is ensuring they are flexible and adaptive so they can respond to the needs of young people as articulated by them.
Contracting. We need to seriously look at the contracting out of children’s services, involve young people in the commissioning of services and in inspecting services. We cannot allow “bogus” get rich quick type organisations to set up poor provision, with poorly qualified, unsupported staff in inappropriate settings. Central to all decisions about service provision should be the best interests of the child not saving money. Money spent “now” may well save millions later if we can support young people to become confident, empowered young people who can interact with life and the issues it throws up in a purposeful way.
Staffing. We need to look at the training and background workers need to support young people and how we can best ensure staff stick around, so that young people get a consistent and reliable service from staff they know and trust. We also need to look at the contribution older care experienced people can make and explore how we might attract care experienced people into social/community work.
Foster care. Resources and space need to be made available so that foster carers can share their vast knowledge of working with young people. Efforts should also be made to explore and support kinship care, not as a cheap option but as a fully funded means of providing care. There should also be a concerted effort to ensure that agencies supporting and providing foster carers have best interests of child at the heart of all they do.
Private sector. The private sector has a huge amount of resources and is staffed by people who live in the local community. There is much work to be done to encourage local businesses to support care experienced young people and the care leaver covenant is a good starting place.
Love. We need to move away from a system that tries to bring young people up in a bureaucratic way and think creatively, with due regard to safeguarding as to how we can let young people feel loved.
Social action. We need to move away from the absurd obsession with independence and towards a vision and model where young people are encouraged and supported to be interdependent. We need to encourage and support young people to identify “what” the issues are for them, “why” they occur and facilitate them working together to bring about change. In turn this process enables them to develop the soft and hard skills that will help them to build relationships, work with others, seek, ask for and offer help
Enough is enough. We do need to be angry about the way the most vulnerable children in our society are so often let down by their corporate parents. We can and must ensure that people fully understand the scale of the issues and we hold people accountable for the failure of the state to deliver their statutory duties. I would want to see our PM, taking a lead on ensuring “our children” are cared for and ensuring that our government does not let the issues drop off the radar and to lead a campaign to encourage the state, private and third sector to work together to ensure we deliver for “our children”.
We live in a society where we can send probes deep into outer space, we can find billions to develop new technology, and where a young lad who is good at kicking a ball around can earn half a million per week. We clearly have the ability, knowledge and resources if we choose to get hold of this issue and to ensure that every young person is offered the support and opportunities, we would offer our own children. It is not much to ask, will not cost the earth, but for these children it will make a world of difference. Together we can make this happen.
*Kieran Breen is CEO Leicestershire Cares but is writing here in a personal capacity and the views expressed should not be taken as representing Leicestershire Cares