In advocates’ shoes – Summer 2022

In this issue we hear from Amanda and Mike, children’s rights officers at Telford & Wrekin Council, who have been in their roles for 18 and 21 years respectively (wow!). 

Their main aim is to help children and young people have their say and make sure their views and wishes are heard and acted upon by decision makers. Amanda and Mike provide advocacy to children and young people in care, care leavers, children and young people in need, and those who are in contact with child protection services.

Looking back and reflecting on your work as children’s rights officers, what are your proudest moments?

Over the years we have worked with care leavers who have gone on to have their own children. Often, children of care experienced young parents are subject to child protection plans or other statutory interventions. We gain a sense of pride and achievement when, through effective advocacy, we support these young families to receive the help they need and remain together. Other examples of our proudest moments include:

  • Supporting 16 and 17 year-olds through housing and care assessments, including accessing legal advice, to ensure they are accommodated through section 20 of the Children Act 1989 when often housing support is the only initial assessment outcome. 
  • Supporting children and young people to be reunified with their birth families. For instance, once, after an unsuccessful complaint, we signposted a child for legal support to ensure contact with sisters and brothers which was successful through the court process.
  • Simply helping children and young people achieve their individual advocacy goals when their complaints are upheld.

We are also extremely proud of some of the young people we have worked with who have gone on to university. One of our young people became an ambassador for A National Voice. 

In your experience, what are the most effective ways of demonstrating your independence to children and young people, and assuring them you work exclusively for them?

It’s not about what you say but how you demonstrate your independence by what you do.

Demonstrating our independence can be difficult because we are an in-house (local authority) advocacy and children’s rights service. It’s not about what you say but how you demonstrate your independence by what you do. The service is managed through the independent reviewing officers (IRO) service, which shows independence from the children’s social care teams.

You have to have the confidence to question decision-makers, not accept the first answer given if the child is unhappy with it; and keep the young person updated with all the work you are doing on their behalf.

It also helps to keep raising awareness of the role of advocates among social workers, IROs and team managers through training and information sharing.

Combined, you have an impressive 39-year record as children’s rights officers. What have been the main challenges you have encountered in your roles and what has driven you to keep going over the years?

The main challenges have been the changes in management over the years and having to fight to ensure management are supportive of the advocacy role. We as advocates are often seen as having an agenda, with statutory professionals struggling to accept that we are there to amplify the voice of the child. Over the years we have been questioned about our involvement when supporting children and young people to have a say when decisions are made about them and their lives. You have to constantly justify your actions using children’s right guidance and legislation. 

We are also often perceived as driving complaints when, in reality, thanks to advocacy support at an early stage, many issues are ironed-out without having to go down the official complaints process.

Additionally, we have to keep instilling in other professionals that it is the child or the young person who is making the complaint, not us! Advocacy is driven by the right of every child and young person to be heard and to have their wishes and feelings taken into consideration in decisions that affect their lives. And this is what drives us to keep going!

When do you know you’ve done well for a child or a young person?

We are fortunate that, because of the number of years we have provided advocacy within this local authority, we often have the opportunity to see young people years after we have supported them, which gives us an opportunity to reflect with them about decisions that were made months or even years before. We often ask them the question – “Was it the right thing to do to keep pushing for X based on your wishes and feelings at the time?” The answer has always been yes! We often get direct re-referrals from young people who are familiar with our advocacy service and who approach us for further advocacy support as they get older, which is a testament in itself to the beneficial support they feel they have received. We also see young people refer other young people to our service, and we’re receiving more referrals from social worker and IROs than ever before. To us, all of this shows an understanding and appreciation of our service and the importance of advocacy. 

And finally, if you could share your top tips to people who are new to children’s rights and advocacy, what would they be?

Keep up-to-date with training and legislation.

Exhaust every avenue open to the child and be prepared to support them with a complaint and, when needed, independent legal advice and representation.

Seek support from other advocates if you feel frustrated by other professionals.

Ask yourself: Would this be good enough for my own child? If not, then it’s not good enough for the child/young person you represent.

Push back if the first answer or outcome isn’t what the young person is looking for – have the confidence to question decisions.

Always remember you are advocating for the wishes, feelings and rights of children and young people

A huge thank you to Amanda and Mike for speaking with us!