Every child should feel that their voice is heard, and their wishes and feelings are taken into account by the adults that care for them.
At the heart of all my work as Children’s Commissioner are the voices of children. I hear directly from children about their experiences of their home life, school, their friendships, as well as the challenges they face. And through my independent advocacy service ‘Help at Hand’, my team support hundreds of children every year who are living away from home or receiving social care services.
Last year, when I gave evidence to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, I reflected on the vital importance of respecting children’s right to be heard (Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child). I believe that when children are truly heard, it enables us all to protect them better.
I want to thank all of the children’s social care teams in local authorities across the county for their dedication to ensuring that vulnerable children’s voices are heard and that they get the care they need. Advocates play a vital role in turning this right to be heard into a reality for many of the most vulnerable children. When advocacy works well it can keep children safe and improve the care they receive.
I was delighted when earlier this year the government’s strategy on children’s social care ‘Stable Homes Built on Love’ recognised that the model of advocacy should shift towards a model where children are proactively offered an advocate to advise and support them and have to ‘opt-out’ of support rather than ‘opt-in’.
Yet, the findings I present in this report show just how far the current system of advocacy is from a model where children get proactive advocacy wherever they need it. Using data, I collected from almost all local authorities in England, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude, I found that even when children get a referral to an advocate, and most children do not, many referrals do not result in children getting direct support from an advocate.
There are also inconsistencies in how advocates are trained and the qualifications they are required to have to advise children on their rights and entitlements. Fundamental to an advocate’s ability to stand up for a child is that they both are, and are seen to be, genuinely independent. But this report shows that there are real question marks about how independent advocates are from the local authority that commission them.
When advocacy works well it can be truly transformative for children, unblocking issues they are experiencing and providing them with a trusted and reliable adult who will always be in their corner. As Children’s Commissioner, I have made it my mission to make sure every vulnerable child who needs help from an advocate can access that help whenever they need it.
For this vision to become a reality there will need to be changes to the way that advocacy is commissioned, how the quality of advocacy is assessed, and a national effort to increase the number of well trained and skilled advocates. All of these reforms will need to be adequately resourced to ensure that they can be effectively implemented.