In advocates’ shoes – Summer 2023

In this issue we hear from Viv who has just retired after 15 years in independent advocacy for children and young people.

During her time as an independent advocate, Viv worked with and for various groups of children and young people. Some of her areas of expertise include supporting unaccompanied children, children and young people with disabilities, and children and young people subject to deprivation of liberty. Viv also has extensive experience of helping children and young people complain about local authority care services. Before retiring, Viv spent several years working as an independent advocate for Barnardo’s.

Tell us a bit about your beginnings as an independent advocate.

I was first employed by the NSPCC in 1996 as a Children’s Rights Officer for a London local authority. The emphasis at that time was on safeguarding. It was seen that an independent person promoting children’s rights was another way to ensure children in care were safe, for instance following allegations of abuse of children by care staff. Because of this approach, many of the advocates and children’s rights officer were, like me, social workers.

My interest, and motivation, has always been human rights. Earlier in my social worker career, my jobs focussed on children in care, youth justice and mental health, always applying a rights perspective. When I started, few local authorities had full-time children’s rights officer who provided advocacy. Now, arrangements vary from one local authority to another, and advocacy is often ‘spot purchased’. As a result, it is my view, many children and young people are not receiving the services they are entitled to.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned during your time as an independent advocate?

Developing respect and trust is crucial. From the start it’s important that children and young people know I am on their side, that I’m independent and not part of social care. I explain my role is based on what they want, their options and likely outcomes but that I do not take a ‘best interest’ approach. This will only be believed from what I say and from my actions. I remember after explaining my role, one young person said “Viv, it’s like I’m your boss and you do as I say!

Explaining confidentiality is vital. This helps to develop trust as it reflects openness and outlines the limitation of the role in case you need to break confidentiality at a later stage.

Many of the children and young people who require an advocate have had a range of unacceptable experiences and often have a low opinion of professionals; trust does not come easily. Therefore, for me the advocacy process is always important and sometimes more important than the outcome. The process validates children and young people as individuals. It gives them a sense that they are important and that their feelings and opinions do matter.

We often hear about the joy and pride advocates feel when they help a child or a young person get what is important to them. We also know that setbacks and being in a role where you need to push back against the system and challenge other professionals, sometimes relentlessly, can be really tough. What would you say motivated and pushed you forward throughout the years? What kept your inner advocacy fire burning?

I’m passionate about children’s rights. Children have a right to be happy and feel loved. They need to feel positive about their identity and feel that they really do matter. They need a sense of belonging. Sadly, many children in care leave without these experiences. It makes me angry and sad that as a society we often deny children these basic needs. Alongside achieving children and young people’s advocacy goals, my basic aim is to also help children and young people gain a more positive sense of themself. Advocacy is an important tool in that process.

As a child I felt strongly about ‘fairness’ and that adults should respect children in order for children to respect them (and not the other way round!). This often got me into trouble. I’m still a fighter and won’t give up easily.

Being an advocate is the best job I have had. It is a wonderful way to work alongside children and young people. The focus is to ensure that their rights are being upheld, but at the same time we have the opportunity to validate them, improve the way they are treated by others, help them develop problem solving skills and show them that some people really do care about them.

You have a wealth of experience as a children and young person’s advocate. What tips or advice would you give to new or less experienced advocates?

Every child and young person is different, and our approach needs to reflect this. As an advocate we need to go at the individual’s pace. For some, especially those with negative care experiences, it takes longer to build a trusting relationship. Advocacy is often seen as focused on a single issue. For me advocacy is a protective approach, and we need to carefully explore if, in addition to the one or two issues that the child or young person has shared with us, there are other children’s rights issues that should be addressed.

It’s important to give options and explain possible outcomes, positive and negative, so that the child or young person knows what to expect. We need to be realistic and honest that we may not always be able to get the outcome they are looking for.

In general, I’d say that in your advocacy relationship with the child or the young person it is most important to be reliable and do want you say you’ll do.

In terms of your interactions with the local authority:
• In correspondence, when relevant, refer to legislation, case law, human rights conventions, statutory guidance and local policy;
• Be aware of the escalation process/policy between your organisation or team and the local authority, and apply it when necessary;
• Don’t hesitate to get legal advice when required;
• Ensure you are not given information that you cannot share with the child or young person as this would amount to a conflict of interest.

Looking back, do you recall situations when you wish you’d done things differently? If so, can you share one or two?

One situation that still niggles me is that of Wayne* who was 17 and had been in care since babyhood. His independent reviewing officer (IRO) referred him for advocacy support due to a range of concerns and awful experiences during Wayne’s time in care. Wayne had been failed badly. He was isolated and had mental health difficulties. He was reluctant to engage with professionals, wouldn’t talk on the phone and he was very withdrawn when he spoke to me. He would literally hide inside his hood.

I persevered in trying to build a relationship with Wayne and eventually we submitted a stage 1 complaint. It was partially upheld. Wayne refused to attend the resolution meeting but he agreed for me to represent his views. The local authority made a 4-figure financial offer. Wayne rejected it and went to stage 2 of the complaints process. Wayne refused to meet with the complaint investigators, decided he wanted a solicitor and abandoned the complaints process. I found a solicitor but, unfortunately, they weren’t the best, and, for a variety of reasons, it took a very long time to submit a claim for compensation. The claim was unsuccessful and request for further legal aid refused. After I intervened on Wayne’s behalf, the original ‘goodwill offer’ was remade by the local authority. Wayne accepted it.

I feel that I could have done more. I made many attempts to encourage Wayne to pursue the stage 2 complaint but I feel I didn’t fight hard enough to get a neutral venue for the complaints meetings and the money for taxis to get Wayne to see the investigating officer and the independent person. In terms of independent legal advice and representation for Wayne, I discussed it with him from the start so I know I did my job right in that sense but I feel I should have looked for a better solicitor when I realised the one Wayne had was not good enough. 

And finally, to celebrate your many contributions to the fight for children and young people’s rights, can you share some of your proudest moments with us?

There were many memorable moments. Most reflect the way advocacy empowers children and young people to speak out about their wishes and feelings.

One such powerful moment involved Mariah*. She was a care leaver and I recall her being very shy. I became involved as an advocate when Mariah was homeless and wanted to make a complaint. It slowly emerged that Mariah had been abused by her foster carer, which eventually led to a court case, where Mariah gave evidence and I supported her as her advocate. The outcome was disappointing for Mariah because the foster carer was found not guilty. Nevertheless, and despite everything that Mariah has gone through, she said she was not regretful about bringing the matter to court and told me: “The carer now knows I was not silenced and everyone knows what she did to me”. I think having an advocate by her side was important in terms of supporting and empowering her to pursue justice and it was clearly important for her to tell her own story.

Another situation I recall involved Marcus* who was 12. Marcus had profound disabilities and he was looked after with his mother’s agreement. My role was to provide non-instructed advocacy for Marcus during statutory ‘looked after child reviews’. Marcus was referred to an advocate by his mother who wanted to make sure he was receiving everything he was entitled to. I took a children’s rights approach to identify which of his rights and entitlements were being met and discovered that his mother was buying his clothes. This was wrong and against what the law said because he was entitled to a clothing allowance. I pursued this and eventually the head of service, after consulting the local authority legal services, agreed that Marcus was entitled to a clothing allowance. Furthermore, the head of service instructed social workers to check that all disabled children in residential care were receiving this allowance. This was a win not just for Marcus but also for a larger group of children in that area.

*Not their real names

A huge thank you to Viv for speaking with us!