In a 2017 survey by Ofsted, nearly 1 in 10 children in care reported that foster carers or staff at children’s homes rarely or never helped them when they were upset.  But in the most recent figures available, less than 1% of children in care had complained about the service they receive. Research by Cardiff University (Diaz et al 2019) found that children are put off from complaining because they feel it won’t improve their situation – and in some cases, will make it worse. More worryingly, the professionals charged with their care agree.

Researchers from Cardiff spoke to 10 children in care, 11 social workers, 8 IROs and 7 senior managers in one Local Authority. Although we were given examples of social workers being routinely late for appointments, failing to arrange relevant checks so that young people could stay over with their friends, and rude behaviour towards both them and their parents, young people were reluctant to complain. The young people told us they thought that by making a complaint, they would just make things worse for them. This was confirmed by a senior manager we interviewed;

“Some social workers have taken offence that there has been a complaint and then complained to the young person”

The majority of senior managers and independent reviewing officers (IROs) we spoke to agreed that making a compliant would probably make the child’s situation more difficult. Professionals also told us that when children in care do complain, the complaints manager who works for the local authority has a great deal of power just to close the complaint down. An additional obstacle to complaints being recorded appears to be confusion over where responsibility lies when children in care are not happy with the service they have received.  Several of the professionals we spoke to were unclear about who had the responsibility to support young people to make complaints.

The 2004 Every Child Matters policy stated that “vulnerable children and young people [should] get the help they need, when they need it, however small or large their complaint”. Under the preceding Adoption and Children Act 2002, a requirement was introduced for local authorities to provide an advocate to those children making a complaint. However, in the authority where this research was carried out there was confusion between social workers, IROs and senior managers about who should support young people to make a complaint and how the process worked. A further issue was that advocacy services did not seem to have the same amount of power and influence as other professionals as outlined by this quote from a social worker we interviewed;

‘Her [the young person’s] involvement was tokenistic because she had an advocate who would share her views, but she couldn’t understand why the advocate didn’t carry the weight of opinion that I did or the other professionals in the room’.

It is important to acknowledge that all 10 of the young people who we interviewed had experienced many changes of social workers during their time in care and they could remember at least one social worker who was excellent. These social workers were described as respectful towards both them and their parents, and young people commented that they fought hard for them and did what they said they were going to do.

In the local authority where we conducted our research, we found that young people very rarely complained when they received a poor service, on average 2-3 children per year out of the 600 who are in care. Our research raises an important question: how can we support and empower some of the most vulnerable children in society to have a voice and be taken seriously when they receive a poor service?

It is imperative that more research is carried out on this under-researched topic and that due consideration by policy makers and senior managers is given to how this situation could be improved.

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 or through Twitter @diaz_clive


Adoption and Children Act 2002. c.38. London: HMSO.

Diaz, C., Pert, H., Neill, D., Hill, L. and Aylward, T. 2019 Barriers children face complaining about social work practice: A study in one English Local Authority. Child and Family Social Work

Every Child Matters. 2004 London: HMSO

Ofsted. 2017. What children told us about their experiences of living in children’s homes or living with foster carers. London: HMSO

Ofsted. 2013. Fostering quality assurance and data forms 2012-13 first statistical release. Manchester: Ofsted

Related Publications

Diaz, C., Pert, H and Thomas, N., 2018. ‘Just another person in the room’: Young peoples’ views of their participation in Child in Care Reviews. Fostering and Adoption

Diaz, C. and Aylward, T. 2019. A study on senior managers’ views of participation in one local authority… a case of Wilful blindness? The British Journal of Social Work, 49, (5), 1333–1349

Diaz, C., Thomas, N. and Pert, H. 2019. Independent Reviewing Officers’ and Social Workers’ perceptions of children’s participation and Children in Care Reviews. Journal of Children Services

Diaz, C., Pert, H., Neill, D., Hill, L. and  Aylward, T. 2019. Barriers children face complaining about social work practice: A study in one English Local Authority. Child and Family Social Work