Every child in care, or involved with children’s services, deserves safety, love and security.
Today the Government sets out its implementation strategy for the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care. This strategy rightly acknowledges that things are currently not good enough for vulnerable children, with too many missing out on the right help. As a member of the National Implementation Board, I am glad to see there is much good sense in the strategy. There is a clear-eyed focus for outcomes for children, rather than processes; important proposals for improving data collection and sharing; an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the challenges of placement sufficiency. My independent Family Review showed the importance of relationships within the system, and this is something that is also reflected in this strategy.
But when it comes to vulnerable children, I will always be impatient for more urgency and more ambition. We must be as ambitious for children who interact with the care system as we would be for our own children. As the strategy describes, we have a once in a generation opportunity for reform, and we must now turn this opportunity into reality.
Because right now these are only ideas on paper. The real work – for me, for Government, for all the dedicated staff in the sector – begins now.
I will engage closely with the detailed consultations set out in the strategy, focusing in particular on those areas where I think there is a greater need for focus and ambition – more than is currently outlined in the strategy.
The first of these areas is around the need for a relentless focus on system improvement. We must adopt the same ambition for improvement that has been deployed across the school system. We should be striving for excellence in every area and not accepting anything less. We need a clear target and consistent, focused attention so that we can make sure that every area is rated good or outstanding.
The second is around integration and cross-government working. Some of the children I am most concerned about are children with disabilities, with mental health needs, or involved with the youth justice system. I am especially concerned about the conditions within Youth Offending Institutions (YOIs) and reports of abuse in residential special schools.
Every day my independent advocacy service ‘Help at Hand’ provides advocacy for children to make sure their voices are heard and their rights are upheld. The team support children across the country, whether it is those living in foster care, remanded in custody or who are hospital care. While I welcome plans to shift towards an opt-out model of independent advocacy, I am concerned that the pace of reform is too slow. There are children living in institutions right now that need accessible independent advice and support urgently – something which was highlighted by the revelations about abuse and neglect in residential special schools operated by the Hesley Group.
And then there is the issue of placement sufficiency. While I welcome the focus on expanding the support and recruitment of foster carers in the North East, I would have liked to see a broader focus on increasing sufficiency across the country. In my consultation response I will be emphasising the need to focus on the known shortages around placements for larger sibling groups and specialist fostering for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I am concerned that the strategy does not seek to directly address the needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children about which I have made multiple representations to the Home Office.
As Children’s Commissioner for England, I feel personal responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of children in care. I want every part of the system to feel safe and nurturing to the children and families that come into contact with it. Over the past two years I have used my statutory data collection and visit powers to shine a light on inadequacies and injustices within the system. I will continue to play a central role in amplifying the voices and views of children in care as we move towards this new phase of implementation.