Championing the rights of children in care is one of my core priorities as Children’s Commissioner. My ambition is for every child to experience love, stability and trust. For all children to be part of a loving and supportive family, whatever form that may take. This is based on what children in care tell me, in The Big Ask, through my regular programme of visits and through my helpline for children in care, Help at Hand. It was a key theme of Part 1 of the independent Family Review.
In my vision paper for the children’s social care system, I emphasised the importance of ensuring that every child in care has a stable home. And, I have always been clear that these children should have care until they are 18, rather than moving to a lesser form of support at 16. Where this cannot be provided within a foster family or kinship arrangement, children’s homes need to be of the absolute highest possible standard. I have set out my expectations for what these standards should be in my recent report on reforming children’s homes.
Currently, many 16 and 17 year olds in care live in supported accommodation (also known a ‘unregulated’ accommodation) which doesn’t need to be registered with Ofsted. There are huge variations in quality, and I am very concerned about reports of inadequate and unsafe accommodation, which is a common issue raised by children who call my Help at Hand service.
Some ‘unregulated’ accommodation can work for some children where it is safe and meets their needs, and where the accommodation and support provided is of a high standard. And some children tell me that they have made a positive choice to move to a more independent setting.
In September my team visited Bedspace in Liverpool, which provides supported accommodation to children in care aged 16 and 17. The key aim of the visit was to speak directly to children about their experience of living in different types of accommodation provided by Bedspace. The team met young people living in group homes, which have a similar level of support to children’s homes, and those who had moved to starter flats: self-contained accommodation in a larger house, with communal areas and a manager on-site 24/7 to provide support. The team also spoke to young people who are now living independently in private flats managed through Bedspace, with keyworkers visiting them as and when needed.
The young people my team interviewed were positive about their accommodation and the opportunity for having more control over their lives, alongside support from a trusted professional. They also said they liked the option of moving between different types of accommodation from the same provider, as they progressed towards independence. While they recognised the benefits of foster care and registered children’s homes, they felt their experiences in these settings had too often come down to luck – whether they had good foster carers or children’s home staff, and a consistent social worker who fought for them when problems arose. Another issue they spoke about, which my Help at Hand service hears time and again, was being moved multiple times by the local authority, often because they were labelled ‘too complex’ or ‘high risk’. These young people told my team the most important thing for them now is stability: feeling safe, secure, and settled in accommodation that’s right for them, with staff who care about them and can support them to fulfil their potential. They also said they wanted to feel ‘normal’, rather than being stigmatised for being in care, and to be trusted to make decisions for themselves as they approach adulthood.
As always, the young people my team spoke to were thoughtful and inspiring, giving an invaluable insight into how the care system needs to improve. I welcome the upcoming changes, which mean that from 2023 all supported accommodation for 16 and 17 year olds will be inspected and registered by Ofsted and will have to meet national standards. While I maintain that all children should have care until they are 18, I hope this new regime will significantly improve the quality of supported accommodation for teenagers nationally. It remains imperative to secure an adequate supply of accommodation for children in care, with a range of excellent provision, so that each child who cannot live with their family has a home which meets their individual needs. Most importantly, when deciding on accommodation for any child, we must consider whether it would be good enough for our own child. Only when we can say yes to this, for every child in care, will we have a system that is fit for purpose.