1 in 5 children in care and care leavers has used an advocate

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England has published its first ‘State of the Nation’ report, which gives the results of its national survey with children in care and care leavers.

One aspect of the survey focuses on children and young people’s knowledge and use of independent advocates. These are individuals working independently of statutory agencies who inform children and young people of their rights, and support them to express their views, raise concerns and challenge decisions. Whenever a child or young person in contact with children’s services makes a complaint, the local authority is required by law to inform them of their right to assistance from an independent advocate.

The Commissioner’s survey found that more than one in five (22%) children in care and care leavers have used an advocate, and nearly half (46%) knew how to get one. However, 39% of survey respondents (n=1760) did not know how to get an advocate, and a further 16% were unsure. This is despite regulations encouraging Independent Reviewing Officers, assigned to all looked after children and young people, to ensure the local authority has given information about their complaints procedure and access to advocates.

The report has some direct quotes from children and young people about the value of advocacy, including this one:

“I felt my word wasn’t taken seriously because I was a minor young person so I asked for an advocate so that they could take me seriously.”

Read the report here.

Supreme Court rules on benefits for disabled children in hospital

The Supreme Court has ruled that the human rights of three-year-old Cameron Mathieson were violated when the Department for Work and Pensions took away his disability living allowance (DLA) benefit after he had been in hospital for 84 days.

Cameron had cystic fibrosis and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, among other medical conditions. In July 2010, aged three, he was admitted to Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool and stayed there until August 2011. His parents were his primary caregivers in hospital. Quoting the First-Tier Tribunal, the Supreme Court notes Cameron “was blessed with loving and caring parents who were utterly devoted to his care”. It cost Mr and Mrs Mathieson around £8000 to meet the costs associated with Cameron being in hospital for 13 months.

In November 2010, the family were notified that Cameron’s DLA benefit would be removed, because he was being “maintained free of charge” in hospital. This was in accordance with regulations passed in 1991 (for over 16s, the limit is just 28 days).

Very sadly, Cameron died in 2012 but his parents continued the legal challenge to the benefit rule. Their success means the cases of around 500 disabled children in hospital will have to be considered, and the Department for Work and Pensions must take action to prevent similar violations in future.

Lawyers representing Cameron cited his rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which the UK ratified in 1991 and 2006 respectively.

Read the judgment here.

Another child dies in prison

Article 39 is deeply saddened to hear that another child has died in prison.

The Youth Justice Board, which allocates children to prison places, reported the death yesterday. The boy was found in his cell at Cookham Wood young offender institution early Saturday morning. The Board’s statement says there is presently “no indication” the child died in suspicious circumstances or took his own life. An inquest will be held in due course.

Whatever the cause of this child’s death, there is no escaping the awful truth that he died alone in a prison cell.

Since 1990, the year the UK made a legal undertaking with the United Nations to only ever detain a child as a measure of last resort, 34 children have died in custody.

This latest death occurred just a few days after the publication of the report and recommendations of the Harris Review into the deaths of 83 young adults and 4 children in custody between April 2007 and December 2014.

The last inspection report into Cookham Wood young offender institution, published in October 2014, referred to “debilitating staff shortages”, children being strip-searched “under restraint” and “awful” conditions in the ‘constant watch cell’ in the prison’s segregation unit.

Institutional child abuse investigations in nearly a quarter of councils

Article 39 has found that investigations into past abuse in council-run children’s homes are taking place in 24% of local authorities. We obtained the data through a freedom of information request to all English local authorities. Of 75 local authorities that answered the question, 18 were aware of investigations into past abuse in children’s homes or other residential establishments currently or formerly run by them.

The request was made as part of our research into child abuse and neglect occurring in children’s homes, residential schools, mental health inpatient units, prisons and other institutional settings. Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s Director, says:

“It is heartening that so many adults are now coming forward to report childhood abuse. But organisations that run institutional settings today need to be sure that children are able to freely raise concerns and that abuse allegations against staff and managers are treated no less seriously than reports of mistreatment by family members.”

We included the finding in our submission last week to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is due to take evidence from UK officials next year. We make 30 proposals for improving the care and safety of children in institutional settings today, including a single contact number through which children can access local authority child protection teams, like the 101 police number, and a national review of safeguards for children living away from home, to ensure consistent rights protection.


  1. A freedom of information request was made to all 152 local authorities in England in May 2015. By the time of the UN submission on 01 July 2015, 118 local authorities had replied. Of these, 75 answered the question about investigations into past institutional child abuse in children’s homes and other establishments presently or formerly run by them. 18 local authorities said they were aware of such investigations in their area and 57 said they were not aware of any such investigations.
  2. Article 39 was officially formed in April 2015. Its Director is a registered social worker and longstanding children’s rights campaigner. Article 39 trustees have extensive experience in children’s law and advocacy, the care system, human rights and child and youth participation. Sir William Utting CB is our Patron. Former chief inspector of social services, Sir William was appointed in 1996 by the then Prime Minister, John Major, to undertake a review of safeguards for children living away from home amid revelations of widespread abuse in children’s homes over the preceding 20 years.
  3.  Article 39 takes its name from the part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child which entitles children who have been abused, neglected or exploited to recover in environments where their health, self-respect and dignity is nurtured.
  4. The UK ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in December 1991. One of its legal obligations is to provide periodic updates to the UN on the extent to which children’s rights are upheld across the country.
  5. The Convention on the Rights of the Child grants special protection and assistance to children deprived of their family environment.
  6. The submission to the United Nations can be downloaded here.

Prison is no place for children

Today’s Guardian newspaper features two letters condemning the abuse of children in prison: a joint letter from Carolyne Willow, Article 39’s director, and Deb Coles, co-director of INQUEST; and a letter from the mother of Joseph Scholes. Sixteen year-old Joseph died in scandalous conditions in Stoke Heath young offender institution in 2002. The coroner who investigated Joseph’s death wrote to the then home secretary, David Blunkett, urging a public inquiry. This was refused.

There has never been a public inquiry into any child death in custody. Since 1990, the year the UK signed up to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, 33 children have died in penal custody.