Today I have published my Help at Hand team’s annual report and review.
This document outlines the work carried out by the service since I have been in post, and the key themes that have emerged over the past 18 months. I am very proud of what the team has achieved for children and young people individually, and of how we have used their experiences to guide our policy priorities and achieve systemic changes at a local and national level.
This morning, I gave a speech to the National Children and Adult Services Conference (NCASC) to launch the report. Below is an extract from my speech, where I set out my plans for improving support and advocacy for all children and care leavers who need it.
“ …My office runs the ‘Help at Hand’ helpline, which offers advice and assistance to children with a social worker or living away from home. When I asked family members across Britain what was most important to them about family, it was the sense that there was someone who would have their back, no matter what. For many children, their family are able to be their strongest advocate – always in their corner and making sure they are able to achieve everything they want. For those children who don’t have that within their family, it is vital that all of us are there for them, replicating the role of a parent who will always be seeking the very best for them.
It is the security that comes with this trust that so many children in the care system are lacking. The children my office help are mostly children for whom no one has played this role or given their voice and rights the primacy they require. But I also see the potential of the advocacy system in the cases where children feel let down by the system, but still have one trusting relationship with their advocate through whom their confidence can be rebuilt.
Today I am publishing a review of my Help at Hand service, to understand how it can better serve the children we work with, as well as support improvement in the wider system.
Every child’s story is unique, but there are a few common issues that are highlighted in this report, which you will know all too well. Some of these are to do with the care system, such as the lack of stable placements and frequent moves experienced by children in care. Another theme is the interaction between care, health, and education. Nearly all the children my team helps are struggling with mental health, nearly all have ifficulty accessing timely and consistent help from CAMHS, which has often been significant trigger for placement breakdown. Most children my team support are not in education.
But – by far – the most serious and pressing issue my team, and I know your teams, are encountering this year is the lack of places for children in care to live. Children in care have told me how fundamental a loving, supportive foster home is – as one young man explained, they can become a new family ‘From what I’ve experienced you can choose your family, I feel very lucky to have people that didn’t even know me to take me in from my actual family, it was a godsend that saved mine and my sister’s lives’… “
The second part of the Help at Hand report outlines the experiences and ideas of children and care leavers who have used the service, including how they think it could improve. I also touch on this in my speech:
“… One of the key themes to emerge was that children in care did not know about their right to advocacy. In many different areas of the country, my team visited children in care, often even children in care councils, to find that not one child knew they had a right to an advocate. What my team heard was ‘I wish I’d know about this when…’ and that is the travesty, because my team also sees the advocates working tirelessly for children, and with professionals across the system. When advocacy works well it improves outcomes and practice, but it also gives the child confidence and stability, a person they can rely on at the most difficult times.
“We need to be ambitious in our approach to advocacy, so that we are putting children’s voices at the heart of the care system. We can’t build a system that works for children without hearing what they need. I want to see a culture change, so that children’s voices are embraced. “
I encourage you to read the full report for details of our vision for Help at Hand, and its place within national advocacy provision. We must get this right, so we can ensure that all children and young people, particularly those living away from home, feel heard, supported and empowered and have real agency over their lives.