Too many children and young people entitled to advocacy are not receiving high quality services, the children's commissioner for England has warned.
A review of advocacy services published by Anne Longfield's office found that too many services are inadequate: children and young people entitled to advocacy are not always able to access high quality information, advice and support from advocates when they need it.
Meadbh Dempsey, External Policy and Communications Officer at the children's commissioner's office said: "This year marks the 30th anniversary of two significant breakthroughs in children’s rights legislation: The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children Act 1989.
"Central to both these documents was the idea that children’s wishes and feelings must be taken into account when making decisions that affect them.
"Thirty years on, there is much excellent practice in advocacy in England – but there remains a disparity in the availability and quality of advocacy services. The bottom line is, children who rely on the care of the state often feel they have no say in the care they receive," she added.
The report highlights that children have the right for their views to be listened to and taken seriously in all matters affecting them. Access to high quality, independent advocacy is vital in ensuring children are heard, respected and able to participate in decisions which affect them.
Advocacy improves outcomes for children, increasing their confidence and helping ensure that their voices are heard when they are not feeling listened to or included in important decisions about their lives. Access to skilled and knowledgeable advocates can support stability for children in care, preventing breakdowns in relationships and empowering young people to take an active role in their care planning.
In health settings, advocacy can be an invaluable tool in managing relationships between staff and patients, helping patients to assert themselves and have a role in decisions made about their care. And in the secure estate, advocates should be the conduit between the young people and the system, acting as a barometer for issues and feeding these back to senior managers and alerting outside agencies when necessary.
"Moreover, a failure to create an open atmosphere where children are listened to and supported to express themselves and voice their concerns can have serious consequences for children’s safety and well-being. Effective advocacy services within institutional settings should provide much-needed reassurance to the families of children and to senior managers, politicians and the wider general public that rights violations will not go unseen or unchallenged," said the report.
Furthermore, advocacy data can provide service providers and their frontline practitioners’ valuable feedback which can lead to wider systemic changes that will benefit service users and improve the effectiveness of services.
However, the children's commissioner's report found:
- The rising number of children in care and children in need is further stretching services.
- Too often there are long waiting lists for advocates to be allocated, services are stretched so the time advocates get to spend supporting children can be arbitrarily cut.
- Some advocates lack the experience, and in-depth understanding of legislation and statutory guidance to challenge and support children appropriately.
- Other advocates struggle to strike the balance between challenge and collaboration.
- On occasions, advocates are not visible, and children don’t know how they can help them.
- Furthermore, eligibility criteria varies from local authority to local authority - with some local authorities not providing the statutory minimum in terms of advocacy.
- Children who are living out of area also struggle to access advocacy, where there are no reciprocal arrangements between local authorities or clear and efficient processes for spot purchasing.
The report warns that one impediment to the delivery of advocacy support to children from all eligible groups is confusion about their right to independent advocacy. The legislation which both grants groups of children and young people the right to advocacy support, and confers the responsibility on local authorities to arrange this provision, is fragmented and unclear. Consolidating this legislation would be a positive first step in improving access across all eligible groups, the report urges.
Current arrangements do not always take into account the crossover between groups and children’s individual needs. If support was designed around the local needs of children and young people, with their input, it would likely look very different.
There is no standard training and assessment framework, which means that not all advocates have the required skills to robustly challenge and represent vulnerable children. A set of national standards for the provision of children’s advocacy services was produced by the Department of Health in 2002, but there is no recently updated guidance that clearly sets out the standards and expectations for local authorities.
Lastly, local authorities either provide advocacy in-house or directly commission services which means that there is almost always an inherent conflict of interest for advocates in attempting to strongly challenge decisions and actions on behalf of a child or young person, the report concludes.
Meadbh Dempsey, External Policy and Communications Officer added: "First and foremost, local authorities should be required to set out a clear strategy for a local offer for all children eligible to advocacy, showing how advocacy will be delivered and should work towards a highly visible universal advocacy service for children and young people up to the age of 25.
"We know the enormous financial pressures on councils and that advocacy services can be the first to go when services are cut. But listening to the children they care for should be central to the work they do. Thirty years on from the UNCRC and the Children Act 1989, it seems some of the core values they enshrine, like many of the kids we care for, are still fighting to be heard," she added.
Jenny Coles, ADCS Vice President, said: “Children in care should be made aware of their rights, feel they are active participants in the decisions made about them and their lives, and there should be meaningful consideration of their views and wishes before, during and after decisions are made about their lives, such as where they will live. A wide range of professionals advocate for children in care and care leavers, from social workers and virtual school heads to independent reviewing officers and personal advisors, and children in care councils across the country give young people the chance to have a say about the things that matter to them and to shape and influence services for the better. Friends and family can act as advocates too. Children in care also have the right to make representations and complaints to the local authority regarding their care arrangements via independent advocacy.
“Thirty years on since the Children Act 1989 received Royal Assent it is helpful to remind ourselves of the key principles underpinning this legislation not only in relation to a child’s right to advocacy, but also of our preventative duties which have never been sufficiently funded to enable us to work with children and their families earlier, addressing needs as and when they arise. This is compromising our abilities to improve their lives and life chances," she added.
Brigid Robinson, Managing Director of Coram Voice on behalf of the National Children’s Advocacy Consortium, said: "30 years on from the creation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child there is still work to be done to protect the rights of children in the UK who are looked after by the state. A children's rights-based framework is only meaningful if children and young people are given the tools to challenge decisions when their rights are breached. We cannot expect them to be able to navigate the complex bureaucracies of our statutory services by themselves. This is why we need to implement the recommendations in the Children's Commissioner Report.
"Updating the national standards for advocacy is long overdue and more clarity on what local authorities' legal duties are in relation to advocacy is essential to address this postcode lottery in provision. We look forward to working with the Children's Commissioner and sector colleagues to make the recommendations of this report a reality.
"We have been really pleased to be able to work with the Children's Commissioner to inform this report. Young people we consulted for the advocacy report told us that lack of information was a key issue. The recommendations in today's report are an important way of ensuring that advocacy services are not only available to all but that children know how to access them. We support the call for more transparency and believe that requiring each local authority to publish their advocacy offer, in much the same way that they have to publish their 'care leaver offer', would make it clearer to children and young people what advocacy is and how to get support if they need it," she concluded.
Julie Prior, NYAS Director of Children’s Services England, said, “NYAS is ‘always on the side of the child’ and we embrace the vision of universal advocacy where the local offer extends to all children and young people up to the age of 25 years in the care of the local authority.
“With the continuing rise of children in care the duty on local authorities to provide independent advocacy has significantly increased, for example, when children and young people are homeless or go missing or those who are detained in a mental health unit.
“The web of legislation makes it challenging for local authorities to ensure that all eligible groups of children and young people have a right to independent advocacy. The data in the report is stark, noting 29 local authorities did not know how advocacy services are provided with regard to health complaints despite the transfer of this responsibility to them in 2012. Nine local authorities did not know how services were provided for social care complaints.
“Urgent action is clearly needed to improve the situation. We firmly believe that children and young people have the right to feel safe, listened to and their wishes understood and acted upon without the constraint of time and funding.
“As we mark the 30th Anniversary of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Children Act 1989, both of which require that children’s wishes and feelings must be taken into account when making decisions that affect them, it is important that we work hard to ensure this is the case. We now look forward to continuing our work with the Children’s Commissioner, DfE and partners to ensure the recommendations of the
Advocacy for Children report are implemented," she concluded.