This week I am celebrating the work of my Help at Hand team, following the publication of the team’s annual report and review on Wednesday.
Help at Hand provides advice and assistance on a wide range of issues affecting children and young people – no problem is too big or too small. The concerns children share with us could be about moving from their foster carers, living in unsuitable accommodation, being unable to access the right education or support for their disabilities, or facing obstacles in getting an advocate or having their complaints properly investigated.
A member of the team is always available on the helpline from 9am to 5pm Monday to Friday, and children, young people, advocates, and parents also contact us by email and through our online form. The team works hard to follow-up on the concerns they raise, which could involve contacting them to talk about issues in more detail and to provide advice, writing to professionals, attending meetings to support children, and taking the most serious matters to the Children’s Commissioner directly.
While every day in the team is different, here is an example of what it may involve for one of our child rights advisers:
I arrive at the office for 8.30am to set up my desk and grab a coffee before the Help at Hand Phone line starts at 9am. My next task is to check the Help at Hand inbox for any new urgent emails, and for any responses from professionals about matters I’ve raised with them.
I receive an email from Amir*, who is 12 years old lives with his foster carer. They are raising concerns about the Local Authority’s plan to move him in two days, against his wishes. I call and speak to Amir, to hear directly from him what he wants, and to explain how we could help. He is adamant that he doesn’t want to move because he’s happy with his foster carers, has a good school and has made friends through local activities. Amir gives his consent for me to speak to his social worker and the team manager. He has already made a complaint about the move, so I have the option of contacting the complaints manager to ask for a freeze on the decision until his complaint has been considered. I agree with Amir that I will also contact his Independent Reviewing Officer to request an urgent looked after child review.
After some initial difficulties getting through to the Local Authority, I speak to the allocated social worker, who explains that the new foster carers are closer to Amir’s family and a new school had been identified, so it is not possible to change the plan. I call the complaints manager to request that they freeze their decision, and I am asked to put this in writing, which I do straight away. I copy the Independent Reviewing Officer into this email and notify them that one of the outcomes requested in the complaint is for a looked after child review to be held as soon as possible, to discuss the proposed placement move.
I call Amir and his foster carer back to tell them what I’ve done and what I’ve been told by the social worker. I explain that I cannot guarantee we can stop the move, but I will keep pushing for the proper process to be followed for Amir, for his best interests to be put at the centre of the plan, and for his wishes to be properly considered before a final decision is made.
Before I finish my shift on the line, I receive two other calls. One of these is from a care leaver who wants to know about advocacy, so I agree to send her details of her local children and young people’s advocacy service. I also have a call from a parent looking for legal advice regarding a private family matter. This is not an area the team can help with, so I signpost her to more appropriate services.
When I’ve finished my shift on the helpline and handed over to my colleague, I work on my to-do list for the rest of the day. This involves writing emails to social workers and team managers on children’s behalf to ensure they are receiving what they are entitled to and following up if the reply isn’t satisfactory. For one serious case involving a child living in very unsuitable accommodation, where the Local Authority are not responding to me, I agree with the team manager that I should ask the Children’s Commissioner to write to the Director of Children’s Services and raise the issue as an urgent matter.
Around 4pm I receive a call from the complaints manager dealing with Amir’s complaint and I am informed that he will not be moved at this time. Instead, his social worker and IRO will contact him about arranging a review to discuss the move properly and listen to what he has to say about how it will affect him. I call back Amir, who is very relieved that this big change to his life won’t be rushed through without considering his wishes and feelings.
I also speak to another young person. Steph*, who is a 19-year-old care leaver, to update her on the response received from Children’s Services after I wrote on her behalf. Steph was previously in care from the age of 15 to 17 but her former relevant child status is not being recognised and she is being treated as a qualifying child, which involves a lower level of support. Steph was also recently given 28 days’ notice to leave her accommodation. The Local Authority is refusing to change its position, so I email Steph with information on how to access her records and the details of a solicitor whom I have contacted with her permission. The solicitor will advise her on her housing and community care issues and support her with any further action she needs to take.
Before I finish for the day, I check my to-do list, so I’m ready for tomorrow. Working for Help at Hand, and being part of the Children’s Commissioner’s office, is a great privilege, and I value every day that I can stand up for the rights of children and young people.
If you are an advocate, a child in care, care leaver or have a social worker, and you need help, you can contact Help at Hand on 0800 528 0731 or by emailing: [email protected]