Advocacy and Independent Visitors
This chapter was reviewed and updated throughout in May 2017 to reflect the current organisational structure and decision-making.
1. The Purpose of Advocacy
Advocacy is about making sure that the wishes, views and feelings of children are clearly articulated and are heard by those adults and professionals involved with the child, especially at times of key decision making in respect of both individual care planning but also in respect of broader service delivery.
Advocacy is about empowering children and young people to make sure that their rights are respected and their views and wishes are heard at all times. Advocacy is about enabling children and young people to participate in decision making and to be able to influence decisions that affect their lives.
The rights of looked after children to have a say in decisions about their lives is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and in the Children Act 1989.
An appointment of an Advocate for a Looked After child in Merton is to be considered when a child wishes to be represented at a meeting (for example a Looked After Review) or assisted in making a formal complaint or bringing any other matter to the attention of their residential placement, Merton council or the Regulatory Authority.
Information must be provided to all Merton Looked After Children about how they can gain access to a suitably skilled independent Advocate. Merton Children's Social Care has a Service Level Agreement with Jigsaw4U to provide an advocacy service to all children in care (aged 10+) and all looked after children will receive information relating to this service when they come into the care of the local authority.
Information relating to the advocacy service should be shared with children and young people throughout their time in care and Independent Reviewing Officers should reference the service at all Looked after Child reviews. It is important to evidence that this has been achieved, especially where their views and wishes may not be in accordance with the care planning that is being made for them. Information should be in a range of accessible formats.
Support and assistance must also be given to enable an Advocate to be appointed for the child for example by approaching the independent organisation of the child's choice on behalf of the child. Particular consideration needs to be given to the needs of disabled children, very young children, children placed out of the local authority area and those with complex communication needs who need the support of an advocate.
2.1 Duties of an Advocate
An advocate's key objective is to promote children and young people's central involvement in decisions affecting their lives. The nature of support advocacy provides varies considerably as it is dependent upon each local authority's commissioning arrangements but every service follows core principles:
- The advocate should not be directive or judgmental but help the young person to express their views;
- Young people should be offered full information in expressing their views;
- Young people should decide upon the best course of action;
- The advocate should always remain fully supportive of the young person.
3. Guidance about Young People making a Complaint
The Adoption and Children Act 2002 amends the Children Act 1989 to place a duty on local authorities to make arrangements for the provision of advocacy for children or young people who want to make a complaint under the Children Act procedures. This new provision applies to children and young people who are Looked After in care and care leavers. The regulations and guidance to implement this provision came into effect in April 2004.
The emphasis on all complaints to be dealt with at the earliest opportunity so that concerns and problems are put right quickly and efficiently. Complaints procedures should be devised and operate d in the wider context of encouraging children to speak out and influence service delivery:
- When local authorities receive complaints form children or young people they must provide them with information about advocacy services and offer help with obtaining an advocate;
- The local authority must inform the child or young person about their rights to advocacy, ask the child if advocacy is wanted, and offer help and assistance with how to find advocacy services;
- The young person should be asked if they would like to have an advocate of the same gender, race, disability or sexual orientation. The Local Authority need to take these matters into consideration and whenever possible meet the preference of the young person;
- The local authority should make initial contact with the advocate if the child requests it;
- The local authority should make sure that those children out of borough have access to advocacy;
- The young person should be able to choose an advocate; this could be a relative, friend or teacher. There may be reasons why the chosen person feels that he or she is not in a position to act as an advocate, for example because of possible conflict of interest. In situations of this sort the Complaints Officer should discuss with the child the options for obtaining an advocate;
- The young person should be given the opportunity to meet the advocate before the appointment of that person as advocate is confirmed;
- Individuals should be advised about the role of the advocate. The authority should consider providing information about the national standards;
- Publicity should be age appropriate and should be in plain English;
- Information should be given to all young people when assessed as in need and again when coming into care. This should be checked by the Independent Reviewing Officer;
- Complaints materials should include information about advocacy and children's rights;
- The role of the complaints officer includes consulting with children when they express the intention to make a complaint to help them to understand the options available and how the procedure works;
- The complaints officer should provide information and advice to children and young people about advocacy services and support in accessing these services;
- The complaints officer should work with the child or young person and advocates concerning the issues of the complaint and provide information about options for resolution both within the complaints procedure or alternative routes of remedy and redress;
Their role also includes a duty to:
- Keep a written or electronic record of complaints made, the procedure followed and the outcome;
- Arrange for the investigation;
- Appoint an independent person;
- Monitor the progress of the complaint;
- Keep the child making the complaint and key people informed at all stages;
- Ensure timescales are adhered to; and
- Make observations and suggestions to the local authority on any action to take following an investigation;
- Local authorities need to consider how best to raise children's knowledge (especially those in foster care) of complaints procedures and how to facilitate regular contact with advocates;
- The Independent Reviewing Officer has a role in resolving problems by negotiation with the local authority and has as a last resort the power to refer children's cases to the Children and Families Court Advisory and Support Service to take the case to court;
- There should be close working with Independent Reviewing Officers and complaints officers. Channels of communication should be agreed in trying to resolve an issue or complaint.
4. Independent Visitors
An appointment of an Independent Visitor for a Looked After Child must be made:
- Where it appears to be in the best interests of the child to make such an appointment.
A decision to appoint an Independent Visitor will usually be made at a child's Looked After Review except where the child is placed in a secure placement, in which case arrangements must be made by the allocated social worker for their appointment to be in place as soon as practicable after the child's placement.
A local authority should assess whether it would be appropriate to appoint an independent visitor for the child they are looking after if either of the following is satisfied:
- It appears that communication between the child and parent has been infrequent;
- The child has not been visited (or has not lived with) a parent or any person who is not the child's parent but who has parental responsibility for the child, during the preceding 12 months.
The local authority should consider the following factors when deciding if it is the child's interests to consider appointing an independent visitor:
- Whether the child is placed at a distance from home;
- Whether the child is unable to go out independently or experiences difficulties in communication and building positive relationships;
- Whether the child is likely to engage in behaviour which puts them at risk as a result of peer pressure or forming inappropriate relationships with older people;
- Whether a child placed in a residential setting would benefit from a more individualised setting; and
- Whether it would make a contribution to promoting the child's health and education.
Where an appointment is considered necessary, the allocated social worker will identify a suitable person to be appointed. The Independent Visitor may be a person already known to the child and independent of the local authority who may be seen as suitable after the relevant enquires and check have been undertaken.
Before an appointment is made, the proposed Independent Visitor must have been checked with the Disclosure Barring Service, local Children's Services and Probation records and have the full agreement of the social worker's supervisory manager and/or the Team Manager. A final approval may be sought by the Head of Service, if deemed necessary.
In such circumstances the appointment must be confirmed in writing and the visitor must provide the names of two personal referees.
The child must be consulted throughout about the appointment and if he or she objects, the appointment should not be made.
Merton Children's Social Care has a Service Level Agreement with Jigsaw4U to provide an Independent Visiting Service to children in care (aged 10+) and all looked after children will receive information relating to this service when they come into the care of the local authority.
The Independent Visitor will have a duty to make regular visits to the child and maintain other contact, by telephone and letter as appropriate. The frequency of the visits will be determined and agreed by both the child and Independent Visitor.
The main purpose of the visits and contacts will be to:
- Befriend the child;
- Give advice and assistance as appropriate with the aim of promoting the child's development and social, emotional, educational, religious and cultural needs;
- Encourage the child to exercise their rights and participate in decisions which will affect them;
- Support the care plan for the child;
- Complement the activities of the carers.
On appointing an independent visitor the local authority will decide how much information to give him or her about the child's current situation and history. The child should be involved in deciding what information is made available to the independent visitor. Independent visitors have no right to inspect a child's file. No information should be withheld if it places the child or visitor at risk.
Local authorities should arrange for the preparation of carers and provide them with support and explanation about the role of independent visitors.
The independent visitor is entitled to recover from the local authority expenses which is intended to cover travel and "out of pocket" expenses. The need for an independent visitor to continue their relationship with a young person on an informal basis once the cease to be looked after should be considered. The local authority should consider if it is appropriate to meet the cost of expenses until the after care responsibilities expire.
The Independent Visitor should also encourage the child to participate in decision-making, as far as possible and record these decisions on behalf of the child if need be so that this forms part of their case file record by Merton.
The views of the Independent Visitor should be sought before each Looked After Review to which he or she should be invited if the child requests it.
The need to continue the appointment should be considered at the child's Looked After Reviews, and the child's wishes and feelings will be the main consideration in deciding the need for continued appointment.