1st August 2018

The importance of stability

Author: Alison O’Sullivan

My neighbour and friend is helping her latest foster child move to live with his dad and family. It’s all going very well. After 18 months of her skilled and unstinting care he is calm and settled and much more confident. The changes to his placement and his school move are necessary and will help him build new relationships in the long term and ultimately have a better future. There are good moves for children in care and mere statistics don’t help you to differentiate good moves from sometimes avoidable damaging ones. But the evidence in this report allows us to ask important questions about what helps children in care feel safe and well cared for.

One of the main things that children in care complain about is the disruption caused in their lives by unplanned changes in day-to-day life and their relationships. The Stability Index gathers together for the first time in one place a national overview of changes in the lives of children in care and equips people at a local level to own more confidently the responsibility to minimise unhelpful disruption to children’s lives.

The key findings are, perhaps unsurprisingly, that young people entering care in their teenage years, who have often already experienced dislocation and fractured relationships, are experiencing the most changes in their lives after they come into care. It’s also clear that children who have already experienced lots of moves are the ones most exposed to more disruptive change. It’s important that everything is done to minimise continued instability not only for these children, but for all children in care.

It’s vital that social workers play their part. Their most important role is advocating for their child and maintaining a meaningful relationship with them throughout changes in their life. In recent years we’ve seen greater emphasis on the relationship between social worker and the children on their caseload,., and the real difference it can make to their lives. Putting the spotlight on stability strengthens the role of child social worker as a champion for these children

The findings from this report also highlight the importance of the role of decision-makers. Independent Reviewing Officers, Principal Social Workers and first line supervisors have a vital part to play by considering the impact of disruption when decisions are made. But it’s often complicated. Is it better to keep at child at the same school for their social relationships to thrive if this involves spending over two hours in taxis every day? Or would it be better to go to the local school and help to build new friendships and bonds with children nearby their new home?

Placing stability centre stage also challenges some of the managerial and bureaucratic arrangements which can get in the way of continuity of relationships. Service structures can be redesigned to reduce the number of handovers between specialist teams of social workers associated with the child’s change of legal status. I have always thought that changing social worker because a child becomes looked after, or ceases to be looked after, is hard to justify. Yet this often results from the way in which teams are organised.

Coupling an understanding of the importance of relationships in the life of the child and seeing life from their point of view must be the driver for the future.

And this is where the voice of the Children’s Commissioner at a national level joins with the voice of the social worker at a local level to make sure that things are always considered from the point of view of the child and what is in their interests. There needs to be a policy and professional imperative but it also needs to be at the heart of local organisational arrangements to support children in care and central to individual social work practice. The Stability Index keeps this firmly in view.

Alison O’Sullivan is a former president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services. She sits on the Children’s Commissioner for England’s Advisory Board.

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