Younger children in care are often unsure as to their reasons for being there, according to a study.
The Our Lives, Our Care research by Coram Voice and the University of Bristol found that while most children and young people had an understanding of why they had been taken into care, a third of four to seven-year-olds were unclear and confused.
The report urges children and young people to be provided with age-appropriate explanations as to why they are in care.
While many studies concentrate on the negative outcomes for children in care and care leavers such as lower educational attainment, the study found that going into care had improved the lives of most young people going into care.
Eighty-three percent said being in care had improved their lives and overall they had moderate levels of wellbeing. More children in care felt safer in their placements and school than the general population and 97% of 8-10-year-olds had a trusted adult in their lives. However, young people (11-18yrs) were less certain: 85% responded that they had such a person in their lives.
Linked to this, 28% of young people had two social workers in the previous year and 31% had three or more social workers in the previous year.
The report, based on the views of 2,263 children and young people aged between four and 18 about their experiences of being in care, highlighted that a trusted adult is likely to be of particular importance to the 20% of young people who have no contact with either parent or the third who have had multiple changes of social worker each year. Having a trusted adult is also likely to be key when making the transition to independent living. Young people wrote of not being able to contact adults for help and support when needed.
“Relationships need to be prioritised and supported. Whilst there has been a great deal of emphasis on improving placement stability, there has been less attention to the retention of social workers. Every child should know who its social worker is,” said the report.
“Social workers were very important people in the children’s lives and the constant changes caused upset. Stability of social workers should be a national priority, as children in all local authorities reported frequent changes of workers,” it added.
The research recommends that the proposed Department for Education (DfE) ‘What Works Centre’ and Partners in Practice could be used to identify and share approaches to better retention.
The majority of looked after children reported that they felt happy. Younger children felt happier than did older children – although this is reflected in national studies as well-being tends to reduce during the teenage years and then increase again in early adulthood.
The pattern identified in national data of more girls reporting lower well-being in comparison with boys, was also seen in looked after young people but amplified. Girls felt the stigma of being in care more than boys.
The report says social workers and carers need to be mindful of how their actions and behaviours can inadvertently reinforce that stigma e.g. wearing badges and security passes when taking children out. Drawing attention to or identifying looked after children should be avoided unless absolutely necessary.
The report also urges central and local government to help children ‘flourish’ and, in order to do so, assess how any new policies and interventions have an impact on children’s subjective well-being - how children in care themselves feel about their lives in the areas that are important to them.
Each local authority should regularly measure their looked after children’s subjective well-being against the Bright Spots Well-Being Indicators to understand the experience of their local care population and act on the findings to ensure children’s perspectives inform service development.
Carers and social workers should also be supported to be mindful of signs of low well-being and support children and young people to talk about their feelings.
Children and young people also need to be included in decisions about their care and not just feel that it is a paper exercise.
“Children need to feel that they are able to get in touch with their social workers and know that they have a right to speak to them on their own about any issues that affect their care,” the report concludes.