Caring and campaigning

A manifesto for looked after children

In May 2007 there will be elections to the Scottish parliament. In preparation, a number of child care agencies, including SIRCC, have got together to draft a manifesto for looked after children. A substantial document has been produced – No time to lose – a title which aims to inject a note of urgency to the cause that we are trying to get politicians engaged with. The manifesto addresses many aspects of services for children, – services which we believe are failing to produce the quality of care needed by children and their families, and which the Government – referred to in Scotland as the Scottish Executive – would claim to desire.

The manifesto will be launched on 27 September 2006 in Edinburgh and I hope everyone interested in advancing the quality of child care services – particularly fostering and residential care – will want to find out what it says and give it their support. The manifesto was drafted by a small core group representing the major sectors in Scotland but the drafting process involved very widespread consultation.

Most of the contents will not be a surprise to those working in the field. They reflect the concerns that have been widespread for many years but which have somehow proved difficult for authorities to prioritise and improve. The manifesto will call on the Executive to give a strong lead and adopt a national strategy for improvement, but I can’t say more than that as the manifesto is under embargo until the launch.

It is currently being circulated to the chief executives of all child care providers in Scotland and other related agencies, asking them to sign up to it by 28 September Individuals will be able to become signatories in the following months as we try to build up a campaign behind the manifesto.

Carers who campaign

As one of the people involved in the drafting process, the manifesto has made me wonder what child care staff think they have to contribute to campaigning as well as caring. Surely they are ones who know the failings and should be demanding improved services of vulnerable groups such as children who are looked after by the State. And I began to think about the changing structure of out-of-home services and the number of staff who are now employed by private sector providers (whether not-for-profit or otherwise). I think we need to ask where the campaigners and advocates in that sector are.

Much child care has traditionally been provided by the voluntary sector and the larger charities such as Barnardo’s and NCH, and they have been prominent campaigners on a range of children’s issues. Somehow we have to put pressure on the private sector to develop the same commitments and traditions – mind you, I’m not sure how that can be done.

I will say for myself that I cannot respect an agency which sees itself simply as being in business to provide a service and will do nothing that is not in the contract. Most of these child care organisations would claim to be committed to children’s welfare but if they never speak up in public forums – taking the risk of getting involved in controversy – then how do we know they really mean it?

‘High level’ campaigning

In thinking about this issue I was reminded about a friend who has gone to do development work overseas. We’ll call her Mary (because that is her name!) She has worked in refugee centres and similar places for a number of charitable agencies in situations of desperate poverty and distress in a number of countries. Recently we received an e-mail from her. She was looking for a new job but had decided that she would only work for an organisation which carries out what is called ‘high-level advocacy’ in the aid agency jargon, in other words, in organisations which get involved in public campaigning and lobbying governments.

Mary has been a direct development worker for years. She can see that many organisations, large and small, are doing vital and necessary work at the grass-roots level. But when she thinks about what is needed to make a significant change she also knows that some things can only be really improved by changes in the system and government-level action. She now feels that the challenges are so great that her daily job is only valid if she is part of an organisation which also commits time and resources lobbying the governments at local, national and international levels.

I think she is right, and her approach should perhaps also be considered by those of us in child care here. Take the case of the young people referred to as care-leavers. We all know and have known for many years – since the modern era of residential and foster-care, that many young people are pushed out of the system without appropriate supports. It has taken the research of people like Nina Biehal and Mike Stein and the lobbying of groups like The Throughcare and Aftercare Forum in Scotland and a National Voice and others in England and Wales to put pressure on fellow professionals and eventually the government.

That lobbying has had some effect. Some authorities were developing their services but the most powerful change has been the Leaving Care Act 2000. If we had to depend only upon direct care providers such as local authorities or voluntary organisations, would this have happened? I don’t think so. 

Mind you there is still a lot of work to be done in this area. Similarly with the issue of education standards of children in care, the Government has been pretty pro-active in recent years, settings standards and requiring local authorities to report on targets etc. Now the job is not done yet, but once again there were many years of research led by people such as Prof. Sonia Jackson among others, to gather the evidence and for the voluntary sector – such as the Buttle Trust, to take action and to demand that something was done.

A New Campaign

I believe we now have to recognise weaknesses in the system as a whole and develop some new targets and proposals for action, because many children and young people continue to get a poor level of service and quality of life in the current child care system. Something major needs to be done to improve the quality of foster and residential care, to attract more highly qualified staff to work within it and to find ways to increase the number of places in the system.

This will require a radical professional as well as political shift because, among other issues, most social service professionals have wanted more foster places but not more residential ones, when it is obvious we need both. Expansion of both the quality and quantity of services won’t happen in most cash-strapped local authorities. It’s going to take a campaign and professional and political pressure.

Now, children in care are not a group who attract a lot of public sympathy. Currently there are not many powerful organisations of carers for children comparable to those which exist for people with learning difficulties or even older people, especially when one thinks of the size and clout of an organisation like Age Concern.

I know what I’m suggesting is perhaps seen as too difficult and too removed from daily work for most direct care workers, but somehow we have to find the energy and vision between us to campaign for more resources and better quality services for children in out-of-home care. The Scottish LAC manifesto is one contribution but it will need a lot of effort both to disseminate it and campaign on the back of it, if we are to make any kind of difference.

I guess the point I have been trying to make in this column is that all of us, like Mary, might think that participating in campaigning is also part of our job – even if it is not in the job description!

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