Advocacy and Independent Visitors
AMENDMENTIn October 2017, this chapter was updated to add a link to the Children's Society 'Advocacy Services for Children and Young People – A Guide for Commissioners'. This guide outlines the legislative requirements of local authorities in the provision of advocacy support to children in need and looked after children.
The rights of Looked After Children to have a say in decisions about their lives is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and in the Children Act 1989. Before making any decision with respect to a child who the local authority is looking after or proposing to look after, the authority must ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child. Where children have difficulty in expressing their wishes or feelings about any decisions made about them, consideration must be given to securing the support of an advocate. See also Advocacy Services for Children and Young People – A Guide for Commissioners (The Children's Society).
The appointment of an Advocate for a Looked After child or a child in need should be considered where a child wishes to be represented at a meeting (for example a Looked After Review) or assisted in making a complaint or bringing a matter to the attention of the care provider, the local authority or the Regulatory Authority.
Children and young people do not have an absolute legal right to an Advocate but can receive support in some situations. The Children Act 1989 gives the right to 'looked after children' to make representation and complaints to the local authority regarding their care arrangements.
Government Guidance strongly recommends that an Advocacy service is offered to Looked After Children for other purposes than a complaint for example, to attend LAC reviews and Social Worker meetings.
Information must be provided to all Looked After Children about how they can gain access to a suitably skilled independent advocate. This information should be included in the Children's Guide or provided to them at any time by their social worker or Independent Reviewing Officer especially where their wishes and feelings may not be in accordance with plans being made for them and information should be made available in a range of accessible formats.
Assistance must also be given to enable an Advocate to be appointed for the child for example by approaching the independent organisation of the child's choice if requested to do so on behalf of the child. Particular consideration needs to be given to the needs of disabled children, very young children, children placed out of the local authority area and those with complex communication needs who may need the support of an Advocate.
An Advocate's key objective is to promote children and young people's central involvement in decisions affecting their lives. The nature of support advocacy provides varies considerably as it is dependent upon each local authority's commissioning arrangements, but every service follows core principles and these are based upon the belief that everyone has the right to:
- Be respected and listened to;
- Be involved in decisions that effect their lives;
- Have aspirations for the future;
- Be valued; and
- Self determine.
The main functions of an Advocate are to:
- Represent children and young people who may find it difficult to speak up for themselves;
- Access information which an individual can both use and understand. This may for example include explaining complex information and de-jargonising content on legislation, rights, services and the availability / role of other agencies;
- Explore choices and potential consequences through provision of balanced impartial information to the child or young person to enable them to make informed decisions and choices;
- Challenge decisions and resolving issues adopting a non confrontational approach wherever the child thinks the decision made is not for them;
- Assist the child or young person in making a complaint in a constructive and effective manner;
- Access services through effective signposting whilst protecting the boundaries of the advocacy relationship;
- Help children and young people to be included in decisions that affect them;
- Support children and young people to speak up for themselves and self advocate; and
- To not be directive or judgemental but accepting of a variety of choices young people may make regardless of any personal views.
2. Independent Visitors
A local authority looking after a child has a duty to appoint a person to be the child's Independent Visitor where it appears to them that it would be in the child's best interest to do so.
A decision to appoint an Independent Visitor will usually be made at a child's Looked After Child Review except where the child is placed in secure accommodation, in which case arrangements must be made by the child's social worker for the appointment to take place as soon as practicable after the placement.
A local authority should assess whether it would be appropriate to appoint an Independent Visitor for the child they are looking after if either of the following is satisfied:
- It appears that communication between the child and parent has been infrequent;
- That the child has not been visited (or has not lived with) a parent or any person who is not the child's parent but who has parental responsibility for the child, during the preceding 12 months.
The local authority should consider the following factors when deciding if it is the child's interests to consider appointing an Independent Visitor:
- Whether the child is placed at a distance from home;
- Whether the child is unable to go out independently or experiences difficulties in communication and building positive relationships;
- Whether the child is likely to engage in behaviour which puts them at risk as a result of peer pressure or forming inappropriate relationships with older people;
- Whether a child placed in a residential setting would benefit from a more individualised setting; and
- Whether it would make a contribution to promoting the child's health and education.
Where an appointment is considered necessary, the child's social worker will identify a suitable person to be appointed. The Independent Visitor may be a person already known to the child and independent of the local authority who may be suitable. If no such person can be found, the social worker should contact Change, Grow, Live (CGL) who provide Independent Visitors on behalf of Hull City Council.
Before the appointment is made, the proposed Independent Visitor must have been checked with the Disclosure and Barring Service, local Children's Services and Probation records and have the agreement of the social worker's manager. The appointment must be confirmed in writing and the visitor must provide the names of two personal referees.
The child must be consulted about the appointment and if he or she objects, the appointment should not be made.
The Independent Visitor will have a duty to make regular visits to the child and maintain other contact, by telephone and letter as appropriate.
The main purpose of the visits and contacts will be to:
- Befriend the child;
- Give advice and assistance as appropriate with the aim of promoting the child's development and social, emotional, educational, religious and cultural needs;
- Encourage the child to exercise their rights and participate in decisions which will affect them;
- Support the care plan for the child; and
- Complement the activities of the carers.
On appointing an Independent Visitor the local authority will decide how much information to give him or her about the child's current situation and history. The child should be involved in deciding what information is made available to the Independent Visitor. Independent Visitors have no right to inspect a child's file. No information should be withheld if it places the child or visitor at risk.
Local authorities should arrange for the preparation of carers and provide them with support and explanation about the role of Independent Visitors.
The Independent Visitor is entitled to recover from the local authority expenses which is intended to cover travel and "out of pocket" expenses. The need for an Independent Visitor to continue their relationship with a young person on an informal basis once they cease to be looked after should be considered. The local authority should consider if it is appropriate to meet the cost of expenses until the after care responsibilities expire.
The Independent Visitor should also encourage the child to participate in decision-making.The views of the Independent Visitor should be sought before each Looked After Review to which he or she should be invited if the child requests it.
The need to continue the appointment should be considered at the child's Looked After Child Reviews, and the child's wishes and feelings will be the main consideration in deciding the need for the continued appointment.