Life chances for children in care in England and Wales are poor in comparison to their peers. However, if professionals enable children and young people to effectively participate in their care plan, it has the potential to have a positive impact on their self-esteem and confidence.

Children have a right to a say in their care, which is enshrined in the UN Conventions on the Rights of the Child and The Children Act 1989. But my research in one local authority in England found that senior managers’ understanding of child centred practice appeared to be limited, their curiosity subdued and their willingness to challenge poor practice stunted (Diaz 2020).

For Margaret Heffernan (2012, p 32), major issues can occur ‘when leaders chose, sometimes consciously but mostly not, to remain unseeing in situations where they could know, and should know, but don’t know because it makes them feel better not to know’.

For the futures of the children in their care it is vital that senior managers making decisions about their future remain engaged in their work and carry out their duties diligently. However, my interviews with senior managers raised a number of problematic issues.

When answering questions about children’s participation in decision making, senior managers acknowledged that there were real challenges in this area of practice. But they also assigned blame both to young people who might (understandably) be aggrieved at their experience of the social care system and to social workers who they perceived as performing inadequately.

“If everybody was great and good at what they do then things tend to function but the barriers will often be around incompetence”
Senior Manager

There was little recognition of the high workloads that social workers faced, with some having caseloads of over 30 children. Furthermore, even though the number of children in care has risen significantly in this local authority in the last five years the number of social workers has remained consistent.

When asked for basic information about the review process for care plans a lack of knowledge was also evident. Senior managers acknowledged that most children in care in that local authority did not have an up-to-date care plan. This meant that the central purpose of the children in care review was not being carried out as often there was no care plan to review. Whilst supportive of the concept of children and young people being at the heart of practice, senior managers were unable to articulate how they were going to ensure this happened.

It is worth noting that in this local authority the number of senior managers has halved since 2010. It is therefore likely that workloads for senior managers are now so high it has become an almost impossible job to do well. The impact of austerity being ‘baked in’ is likely to lead to children in care continuing to receive a poor service from overwhelmed senior managers and social workers.

Dr Clive Diaz, Cardiff University
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Diaz, C. (2020) Decision Making in Child and Family Social Work: Perspectives on Participation. Policy Press, Bristol.

Heffernan, M (2012) Willful Blindness: Why we ignore the obvious, London: Simon and Shuster.