This year marks the 30th anniversary of two significant breakthroughs in children’s rights legislation: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children Act 1989.
Central to both these documents was the idea that children’s wishes and feelings must be taken into account when making decisions that affect them.
Thirty years on, there is much excellent practice in advocacy in England – but there remains a disparity in the availability and quality of advocacy services. The bottom line is, children who rely on the care of the state often feel they have no say in the care they receive.
Advocacy is speaking up for children, and empowering them to speak up for themselves. Yet it is too often the case that children’s voices get lost in the system and their wishes and feeling are ignored. The children we spoke to as part of our report, “Children and Young People’s Advocacy in England”, published today, told us that they often feel adults don’t listen to them or attach the same value to their opinions as those of adults.
They also told us not having their wishes taken seriously left them feeling disempowered and let down.
But it’s not just children in care who need advocacy services. All of the local authorities we spoke to could explain what advocacy services were available to care leavers, but in stark comparison, 29% of local areas did not know how complaints advocacy for children in receipt of health services was delivered.
It’s clear from our report that there is a significant group of children being denied access to advocacy – despite having a statutory entitlement to it. In some local authorities, fewer than 75% of care leavers’ referrals for advocacy are being taken forward.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner runs Help at Hand, an advice and representation service for children in care, care leavers and children living away from home. We hear day in, day out from young people who feel overwhelmed and ignored by the very system that’s meant to protect and empower them.
Today’s report makes several key recommendations. First and foremost, local authorities should be required to set out a clear strategy for a local offer for all children eligible to advocacy, showing how advocacy will be delivered and should work towards a highly visible universal advocacy service for children and young people up to the age of 25.
We know the enormous financial pressures on councils and that advocacy services can be the first to go when services are cut. But listening to the children they care for should be central to the work they do. Thirty years on from the UNCRC and the Children Act 1989, it seems some of the core values they enshrine, like many of the kids we care for, are still fighting to be heard.