The recent report from the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has got many organisations and professionals in the youth sector thinking, including my colleagues and I at Just for Kids Law.
As providers of independent advocacy for children and young people, I’m especially interested in recommendations for a national independent advocacy service for children in care, and what this would mean for the children and young people we advocate with and for across London.
I welcome efforts to increase take-up of advocacy for children in care by making advocacy ‘opt-out’, rather than opt-in. Having previously led a team delivering commissioned advocacy services for local authorities, I’ve seen efforts to promote advocacy to children and young people eligible for support fall short, leaving many unaware of what advocacy is and their entitlement to it. An opt-out approach, with accessible information provided to everyone eligible, will inevitably increase access.
But what of the advocacy offer itself? The devil is in the detail, and without further information, it’s difficult to judge. These are some of the things I’m thinking about:
1. The report rightly highlights the importance of independence. Too often I’ve seen local authority commissioning arrangements limiting an Advocate’s ability to advocate for a young person’s wishes and feelings. Can an Advocate or advocacy service really advocate for a young person to access their rights and entitlements, or progress a young person’s complaint against children’s social care when staff are funded by that same local authority, or when a new commissioning cycle is looming? Neither am I convinced that the Children's Commissioner for England is the right body to oversee a national advocacy service: this conflicts with and would take time away from its core purpose of being a champion for children's rights and holding the government accountable for its child rights obligations.
At Just for Kids Law, we don’t take government funding to protect against the undue influence that commissioning arrangements inevitably introduce. This does reduce funding opportunities for our independent advocacy service, but it’s a price we’re happy to pay to maintain true independence.
2. At a time of continued austerity - when funding for youth, public and social services is threatened - I certainly welcome the recommendation for increased funding for advocacy. But I question whether funding eventually committed will enable advocacy that is genuinely child or young person-led, and that works at their pace. Given experiences of trauma, vulnerable circumstances, and negative previous relationships with professionals, it takes time to build trusting relationships. Those working in the youth advocacy space will have seen distinctions made between ‘meeting-based advocacy’ (where advocacy focuses on supporting a young person to express their wishes and feelings in meetings e.g. LAC reviews) and issue-based advocacy (focusing on understanding rights and entitlements and wishes and feelings relating to a particular issue). But often these distinctions are only made to limit time spent on advocating for an individual child or young person – a limiting device needed because of insufficient funding for an advocacy service.
At Just for Kids Law, we are able to work more holistically, often advocating for clients around more than one issue, without the 10-session/ six-month limit often seen with commissioned advocacy services.
3. Most concerning is the recommendation to remove the Independent Reviewing Officer (IRO) role and combine this with an advocate role. This fails to recognise the distinct purpose and approach of each: IRO’s work in best interests and provide professional oversight to care planning for all looked after children. Advocates ensure children and young people are heard and their rights protected. They act on the wishes of the child and don’t make decisions about a child’s best interests. This is one of the most often misunderstood aspects of advocacy practice. Both roles are essential, unique, and impossible to combine.
4. And who will get to access any new national advocacy offer if this materializes? The report mentions looked-after children. Will it extend to children in need or children and young people in contact with children’s services (but not looked after) and care leavers? Our advocacy service often works with children and young people who ought to have been looked after, perhaps homeless 17-year-olds, and we often work with our in-house Community Care lawyers on retrospective Section 20 claims to secure care leaver entitlements. We advocate for children and young people who are most likely to have their rights denied, including those who have contact with children’s services or are care leavers, those who have been criminally exploited, and those who are homeless. Some are in scope for existing statutory advocacy, yet often express concerns about their lack of independence; they may have exhausted their local statutory advocacy offer or their local advocacy offer is more focused on complaints and advocating in meetings, rather than approaching their situations holistically, recognising there may be a number of different advocacy issues they’d like support with.
5. Will a new national advocacy service explicitly support children and young people to develop their own self-advocacy skills? This is what we aim for, because it draws on and builds young people’s strengths and leaves them more hopeful and confident to advocate for themselves in the future.
A recent NCVO independent evaluation of our holistic casework offer found increased confidence among children and young people to face problems in their lives following our support and increased self-advocacy skills. One young person commented:
My confidence in myself and what I can fight for myself has skyrocketed. I feel like I could do things for myself now that I couldn’t before.
Just for Kids Law recently turned 16 years old. It’s been 16 years since our co-founders Aika Stephenson and Shauneen Lambe recognised the need for holistic advocacy alongside criminal and other legal representation and sought to bring these forms of support together under one roof.
I’d personally be happy if a new independent national Advocacy service put us out of business. But for now, I’ve not heard enough to assure me it would. Until then, we’ll continue to use our advocacy practice experience to help inform these plans and continue to advocate independently for children and young people to access their rights and have their voices heard.
Written by Chloe Grant, Director of Programmes & Participation at Just for Kids Law