The Chairman introduced the purpose of the discussion session, ie to seek to identify how corporate parents can make a difference for children and young people in care. The Clerk explained that the session had been closed to the press and public so that personal information could be discussed.
The session was attended by a number of young people representing Our Children and Young People’s Council (OCYPC), being currently or previously in care, accompanied by Virtual School Kent (VSK) Apprentices Amelia, Bella, Chris and Matt, Sarah Skinner (Service Business Manager, VSK) and Sarah Hammond (Assistant Director of Specialist Children’s Services, West Kent).
Those around the table introduced themselves. The Clerk informed those present that their comments about their experiences of being in care would be recorded but assured them their names would not be.
The Chairman opened the discussion by setting out a number of issues that the Panel had heard about, for instance young people’s relationships with their social workers, the rate of change of social worker, and issues around leaving care.
In this record of the discussion, questions and comments from the Panel are shown in italics and comments from young people are shown as bullet points. Information given by officers and VSK Apprentices is attributed to them by name.
When a social worker changes, you have to get to know a new one and tell them about all sorts of personal issues. Do you feel that they respect the personal things that you tell them?
How can we address the issue of frequent change and the need to establish a new relationship?
· When there has to be a change, perhaps we could be given a social worker that we have dealt with before. They will know us and be familiar with the problems that we have.
· It seems that, to a social worker, I am just a number. My social worker was awful; they forgot important information. I do my own budgeting at my supported lodgings but the social worker forgot to give me the money I was supposed to have. The lady I lodge with leant me some money to buy my groceries. When I had to deal with the police, when my bike was stolen, my social worker was late coming to the police station to support me.
What is the arrangement in the event of an emergency? Is there a hotline you can ring for advice?
Once you are allocated a social worker, could that person keep in touch for the whole time you are in care, so that you stay connected; for example, they would attend your annual reviews?
· Which social worker would be this long-term contact? Would this be the first one we were allocated, or would we be allowed to choose which one we wanted to stay connected to, ie one that we felt most comfortable with?
· Yes, I think that sort of arrangement would help. But my new social worker was very good, really ‘on the ball’, and I trust her to listen to me and to do what she says she will do.
How long have you had your current social worker?
· I can’t remember. I am nearly 18 now so I will shortly be getting a new social worker anyway.
Sarah Hammond – I am pleased to hear that young people seek continuity of social work contact. This was the reason for the restructure of the children’s social work service in late 2014, to avoid the need for young people to have to change social worker when they reach 16. Social workers will always want to move on through their career, but the idea is that someone from the same social work team with stay with you through to adulthood, to give continuity of care. When you leave care at 18 you will have a personal adviser instead of a social worker. This change is a separate issue to that of social workers not doing what they are supposed to do to support you.
How do you complain when something is wrong? Who do you tell?
· No-one, as far as I know. No-one offered; ‘if you want to complain, contact me’. So when I am asked to fill in anything which asks ‘do you know who to contact…?’ I put ‘no!’
You could contact your local County Council Member. You could find them on the website.
The issue of social workers suddenly changing was raised at the Kent Corporate Parenting Group (KCPG). There is no guarantee that you’ll have the same social worker all the time that you are in care but some sort of handover should be organised. Does this happen?
· Once, two social workers turned up together; one said ‘Hello’ and the other said ‘Goodbye’. They did not sit down with me and talk.
· I have had a mixed experience; one sat down and spoke to me properly and one other just turned up at the door and started asking me personal questions!
If you don’t like your social worker, do you have any choice?
· No, there is no choice.
Sometimes, a system that the County Council thinks will work, young people know will not work. What sort of system of handover do young people want to see? Do you know why social workers change so much?
Sarah Hammond – some social workers leave out of choice, and there are still some agency social workers in teams, but even then there should be a month’s notice if one of them is leaving.
· I know that one social worker left from stress.
Bella – what if social workers could have a ‘buddy’ system? If the usual social worker is not available, they could send the buddy instead?
This would be like seeing another doctor at the same surgery; you would know them a bit.
At foster carer performance reviews we advocate for children in care to ensure that their voice is heard. Foster carers speak to social workers and Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs), and I know that IROs will sort a problem, so tell your IRO about any problems!
· What if your complaint is about your foster carer? My IRO keeps changing, so I don’t know them well enough to feel able to talk to them!
IROs can make a big difference as they are possibly the person who knows you the best. Some keep in touch years after you leave care. My 24-year-old had lots of social workers during his time in care and had to keep re-telling his story every time his social worker changed, but I put a stop to that.
A good foster carer can make a big difference to a young person’s experience of being in care.
· If there’s an issue with your foster carer you could tell your IRO but you have to live with your foster carer afterwards.
All teenagers have troubled times and difficult relationships with adults; those years are always a difficult time.
I like the idea of having a social work buddy. A young person could have a main social worker and someone else to step in if the main social worker is not available. A young person could be supported by one person or a team of people.
Amelia - we tell young people about the independent advocacy service. This is accessible via the website.
· In my children’s home the phone was in the office so it was difficult to make a private call. You would be asked who you were calling and if you said ‘the advocacy service’ they would be very off with you. The system seems to turn on young people.
This need for privacy could be helped if the advocacy service could be on speed-dial, or if some sort of code were used, eg ‘press 1 for x, press 2 for y’, etc
· They would still be able to see what you were pressing!
· When you come into care, information about the advocacy service, and contact numbers and names for IROs, etc, could all be together in a pack that you are given.
Are the VSK Apprentices involved in producing things for children in care that is in a language they understand?
Sarah Skinner – this is being done. Leaflets are available on the website and there is a group working with the County Council’s Communications team. Child & young person friendly leaflets are being designed and young people have been involved in the design.
· Please could this information include a copy of the rights of children in care?
Sarah Skinner – there is a new contract for the independent advocacy service, and the new manager will be attending the OCYPC on 13 April. The next VSK newsletter will have a big feature on how to complain.
· When people first come into care, they react differently to being given lots of information. Some people are preoccupied with issuesand are taking one day at a time. They cannot take in or retain lots of information at that time.
· Since I was 10, I have spoken to my IRO privately before any meeting that I needed to attend. They are someone that I have always trusted.
· I found that if I told my IRO about any issue that was bothering me she would sort it out for me. When she retired she came to see me personally to say goodbye.
It seems that, if things are right, your experience of being in care will be good, but if they are wrong, you will have a bad experience.
I use the advocacy service to address issues for the children I foster. Foster carers can tell young people that there is now a new organisation running the service and it will hopefully be better now.
Sarah Hammond – the advocacy service should also be proactive about telling people they are there.
Young people could have a card listing contact details so they all know who to call.
I sympathise with the trauma which is caused when communications break down. If you are new in care you don’t want to have to cope with any more information than is necessary. Your first priority must be to settle in and become comfortable, then tackle information, eg about how to complain. Issues could be treated either as complaints or problems; these two things are not necessarily the same.
How did you feel the police dealt with you? Did you tell them you were in care?
· When I had to deal with the police, when my bike was stolen, I didn’t tell them I was in care as I thought it might affect how they treated me.
The police need to know something like that so they can protect your rights, so you should tell them about being in care. They have a duty to ensure that you are not unfairly treated because of it.
· I was treated OK. I told my foster care and they approached the police on my behalf.
Bella – the police are more understanding than before, so don’t be afraid to tell them about being in care.
· I don’t seek to tell my personal business to strangers; it’s private.
You could view the police as being friends; there to help you.
· I still have reservations about telling them all my personal information.
· Children in care are treated differently. They seek to better themselves by going to college and university, but find it hard to get qualifications as their GCSE studies are often interrupted by moves to new placements.
How can this missed opportunity be addressed? Would it help to be able to take more time to pass the courses you need?
· Yes. Colleges and universities do give you more leeway if you have been in care.
The young man I fostered wanted to go to Cambridge but didn’t have enough points to get onto the course he wanted. I rang the university on his behalf and they agreed to accept him with fewer points. Children in care are always playing catch-up, but universities are keen to take children in care, so you must keep asking them. All universities have LAC officers whose role it is to support you through your course.
Sarah Skinner – VSK has extended its support up to 18 year olds, including going to university. VSK has good relationships with Kent universities.
· I took an extra year in college to get the right qualifications so I was one year behind my peers all through my university course. Careers advisors need to be told about the issues that children in care face.
VSK can help with information and support.
Children in care should plug into the benefits available, so you should go and ask.
Sarah Hammond – no-one can access a degree course with fewer than 5 GCSE passes, and the same rule is applied to children in care as to everyone else. Presently there is no room for negotiation. VSK do support young people as much as possible to help them to get the points needed to get on to the course they want to do.
Bella – if you are going to university, you need consistent and coherent support from social workers and foster carers, and that doesn’t seem to be there.
Sarah Skinner – there is an ePEP in place for all children in care, and established liaison between young people, the school, social workers, etc. It is possible to do one more year to gain the grades you need, and VSK could support you through this. We would not risk someone going to university and not managing; we would not set someone up to fail. We know that you would need good support.
· Falling short on my GCSEs and being one year behind my peers built up barriers to me building friendships with them.
We have heard the same from other young people. The Select Committee on Corporate Parenting will be taking forward in its report the issues that it heard about, and these will be reported to the full County Council. The recommendations that the Select Committee makes will then be actioned.
· Will I be treated differently at university as a former child in care?
You should not be.
Bella – you don’t have to tell them that you were in care.
· I avoid saying to people that I am in care as I fear being treated differently.
One young man whom I started fostering when he was 13 thought he was too late to change his academic record and do well, but he is now 28 and the deputy manager of a group of care homes. He did a BTEC qualification, worked hard and made up the ground. So it is always possible to overcome a difficult start and turn your life around.
The Chairman closed the session by saying she hoped those present had found the discussion useful. She added that it would be useful to have similar sessions regularly, perhaps twice a year.
The OCYPC representatives said they had found the session useful.