Children in care are missing out on their legal entitlement to an essential 'buddy' or Independent Visitor, Barnardo's has revealed.
More than two thirds of local authorities admitted to the charity that they left looked-after children on waiting lists for an Independent Visitor.
Barnardo’s Chief Executive, Javed Khan said: “It is really disappointing that so many children in care are waiting to be matched with an Independent Visitor. We know from our experience that these volunteers provide vital support for vulnerable young people, offering friendship, emotional support and a long-term, stable relationship with a trusted adult."
Independent Visitors are volunteers who are separate from social care services. They offer emotional support, a trusting and stable friendship and enable the child to have fun and share in recreational activities.
A Freedom of Information Request (FOI) by the charity found that 1,202 vulnerable children were waiting to be matched with an Independent Visitor to support them, which is a 20 per cent rise since 2015.
There are currently around 75,400 children in care in England yet only 2,653 (3.5 per cent) of them have been provided with an Independent Visitor.
All 152 local authorities in England responded to the FOI request, which found that 89 per cent of children matched with an Independent Visitor are white, and the majority (92 per cent) of children on waiting lists are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups.
Ten local authorities stated that they do not provide an Independent Visitor service despite the Children Act 1989 placing a statutory duty on them to do so.
The region with the highest proportion of children and young people matched to Independent Visitors is in the South West at 6 per cent. The lowest levels of match-rates are in the North-East and North West, with 1 per cent and 2 per cent respectively.
Barnardo's carried out the FOI in collaboration with the National Independent Visitor Network, NIVN, which is hosted by Barnardo’s. The NIVN believes that cuts to local authorities have hampered their ability to recruit volunteers and match them with children. Finding volunteers from BAME groups to match children who want to befriend someone from their own cultural background has also proved challenging.
However, the picture is different for care leavers. While there is no statutory duty to provide care leavers with an Independent Visitor, approximately 60 local authorities reported finding matches for 18-25-year-olds, with around 218 care leavers benefiting from this - an increase of about 90 matches since 2015.
Javed Khan added: "Having more than 1,000 children waiting for a befriender is not good enough. It’s also concerning that children in care from Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities are less likely to access this service.
“We urge the government to provide leadership in making sure all children in care can exercise their right to an independent visitor, and that the appropriate resource is available.
“Local authorities not currently providing this service can contact the National Independent Visitors Network hosted by Barnardo’s for advice on how to meet their obligations towards children in care," he concluded.