Over the last seven years, I have been researching how involved children in care are in decisions made about their lives. I was particularly interested in learning more about how one key meeting – the Child in Care Review – provided children and young people with the opportunity to meaningfully participate and retain a level of control over their lives.
The research, undertaken in one large local authority in England, explored the perspectives of children and young people, social workers, Independent Reviewing Officers (IROs) and senior managers.
Children and young people found their reviews frustrating and stressful for several different reasons. Young people said that social workers obligated them to attend meetings although they have the right not to and complained about the environment the meetings took place in. Young people in Wales have also highlighted issues about where reviews are held in their #messagestoschools. A small number of young people chaired their own reviews and their experiences were much more positive but in general young people felt they had little choice about the structure of the meeting.
IROs and social workers both acknowledged that in general young people played no role in deciding where the review took place, when it took place, who was invited and what was on the agenda. Indeed sometimes reviews took place when young people were not even aware they were happening to meet arbitrary timescales set by the government. These timescales have been criticised by many academics including Eileen Munro in her review of the child protection system for the English government in 2012. One review even took place on a young person’s birthday to meet these timescales. All these factors contributed to young people feeling ambivalent, resignation or hopelessness about having a say about their future care.
Although social workers and IROs reported during the research that children’s participation was very important to them, interviews revealed a dissonance between this and the reality of reviews. It seemed that overall participation by young people was tokenistic and workload pressures and stress made it very difficult for social workers to do their jobs properly.
Another key barrier to child-centred practice highlighted by this research was the very high turnover of social workers. In the local authority studied, many were very inexperienced. Some children and young people had four or five social workers in a year and consequently did not have a chance to build a relationship with them. This led to them not trusting social workers or the local authority in general.
IRO roles were more consistent and saw much less turnover of people. However, children and young people reported only seeing their IROs twice per year so the chance to build up a meaningful relationship with them was also limited.
All the children and young people, social workers and IROs interviewed were acutely aware of the workload pressures faced by social workers, and one IRO even commented that social workers are ‘always so busy, busy in their heads’. The research found that this led social workers to take shortcuts in order to meet expected timescales – an example of this was reviews taking place straight after the Personal Educational Plan meeting, which social workers acknowledge made the meetings very lengthy and led to young people feeling even more bored and disengaged.
A further interesting finding was the apparent disconnect between senior managers’ views and all other participants’ perspectives on the challenges faced by social workers in terms of caseloads and workload pressures. Senior managers did not seem to see high workloads as an issue, despite some social workers in the local authority having caseloads of over 40 children. Indeed, when things went wrong, senior managers said this was not a result of systemic issues but due to the individual social workers’ incompetence.
This study concludes that as a vehicle for participation, the Child in Care Review is still not working well. The recent development of children and young people chairing their own reviews, however, offers some hope for the future. This practice could be built upon in order to ensure that children and young people leave local authority care with the best possible chance of becoming confident, stable and empowered adults. At the very least it is essential that young people have a major role in deciding when their review will take place, where it will take place, who will be invited and what will be on the agenda.
Dr Clive Diaz is a Lecturer in Social Work at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University. If you are interested in his work you can contact Clive via email firstname.lastname@example.org or through Twitter @diaz_clive
Diaz, C. 2018. A study into children and young people's participation in their Child in Care Reviews. http://orca.cf.ac.uk/113159/2/1046471%20Clive%20Diaz%20-%20thesis%2C%20final.pdf PD Thesis, Cardiff University.
Diaz, C. and Aylward, T. 2018. A study on senior managers’ views of participation in one local authority… a case of wilful blindness? The British Journal of Social Work https://doi.org/10.1093/social/bcy101