By Janet Boddy
On Wednesday 4th March I took part in a panel discussion for the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, in the House of Commons. The group is chaired by Craig Whittaker MP and organised by The Who Cares? Trust [http://www.thewhocarestrust.org.uk/], a brilliant organisation which supports and advocates for young people who are involved with the care system. Their website describes their role as follows:
‘Everything we do is designed to improve the day to day experience of children and young people in care – and their future lives’.
We’re really delighted at CIRCY to be working with The Who Cares? Trust on a new project, funded by the Research Council of Norway (and led by Elisabeth Backe-Hansen of NOVA). The research – Against All Odds – is concerned with building a better understanding of positive outcomes for young adults who have been in care in Norway, Denmark and England. I was asked to join the APPG panel to share some of my learning and experience from this and other studies I have done on work with looked after children in Europe.
There were five other people on the panel too: Anna Edmundson from the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, Harvey Gallagher from the Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers, Melissa Goodman from the London Borough of Hounslow, Joanne Lee, a care experienced young woman from Sefton, and Edward Timpson MP, the Under Secretary of State for Children and Families. The topic for our discussions was:
‘Involving children and young people in care planning: what do they need to know to feel empowered to be involved in decision-making?’
We were each asked to speak for two minutes in response to this question. I decided to cheat a bit. Rather than saying what young people need to know, or do, I wanted to talk about what the care system needs to do to enable and empower young people. I focused on three points (two minutes is not long!). First, I talked about extending children’s legislated rights within the system – drawing on the example of Denmark where children’s rights are increasingly emphasised in care planning (for example, children over 12 must agree with plans for their care, and have rights to spend time with family and network). Second, I spoke about choice – and the need to have a sufficiently well-resourced system for young people to exercise choice. I gave the example of a young man in France, who took part in a study I have recently completed with Hélène Join-Lambert , who described spending a half-term holiday with a potential foster family (where he was now living) as part of a managed move that had been initiated by him because he was unhappy in his previous placement. And finally, I argued that we need to allow enough time to enable young people’s full involvement in the plans that are being made for their lives. In countries where court-ordered placements are unusual, time to build agreements – with parents and young people – is seen as crucial to the care planning process.
The meeting lasted two hours, and there was a great discussion. Key themes included a strong emphasis on children’s rights – and on rights at all ages, not just for older children – and on the need for adults to understand the child’s point of view. Joanne Lee argued eloquently that relationships are central to ensure trust and understanding of how young people want to be involved. Harvey Gallagher made the very strong point that young people need to know their rights and entitlements, and that adults have a responsibility to ensure that knowledge, because otherwise ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’. Very true! Edward Timpson spoke of new regulations which strengthen requirements for the young person and the carer to be involved in care planning.
I was particularly impressed that (not surprisingly for an APPG organised by The Who Cares? Trust) so many young people – as young as 12 – had travelled to take part in the meeting, and made a fantastic contribution to discussions, and to asking difficult questions. One question – that no one could easily answer – was whether young people can attend panel meetings where their care plans are discussed, and if not, why not. A young woman made the powerful point that, while she was allowed to present her views in writing, if she wasn’t in the room, how could she know if her words were being presented, and interpreted, as she would wish?
I was also asked challenging questions by another young woman – but hope I managed to answer them! She asked, essentially, what was the point of talking about children’s rights in Denmark when we are in the UK – since it is such a different country. And, further, when we did research, do we just make notes and write reports, or does anything more useful come out of it? Great questions! I said that when we do cross-national research we are never comparing like with like – rather, we are trying to learn, to generate ideas, from the different ways in which countries have approached similar challenges. Their different experiences can prompt us to ask questions about our own policy and practice. For example, could we do what the Danes do, and give young people the power to agree or disagree with plans for their placement? And I hope that we don’t just write reports (although I had to admit we do that a lot!). I gave her the example of research that I have done previously on social pedagogy with colleagues at the Centre for Understanding Social Pedagogy at the UCL Institute of Education, and the work that Fostering Network are now doing on their Head, Hands and Heart programme training foster carers in the principles of social pedagogy. Even better, there were some European pedagogues and foster carers at the APPG who are involved in the Head, Hands and Heart programme – and they joined in the discussion to talk about how valuable they found the training.
All in all, it was one of those days when you think ‘I LOVE my job’. Sitting in a grand room in the House of Commons, with the moon rising over the Thames, listening to and learning from brilliant young people … So thank you, The Who Cares? Trust.