The power behind lifelong relationships for children in care
Earlier this year, on the 4th of April, Family Rights Group launched a brand-new study called ‘Lifelong Links’ that found the power of stable relationships directly improves children’s long-term mental health and wellbeing.
The ‘Lifelong Links’ programme aims to ensure that a child in care has a positive support network around them to help them during their time in care and into adulthood. Working with the child, a trained independent Lifelong Links coordinator finds out who is important to the child, who they would like to be back in touch with and who they would like to know.
With funding from the Department for Education (DfE) Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme, the longitudinal study has followed 33 local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales, helping to support over 1700 children and young people.
Following the launch of the study, Leanne McGowan, Head of Learning and Direct Children Services and Maria Mayes, an Independent Volunteer Coordinator at Antser, sat down to discuss the power of relationships and children in care and how we can continue to support these relationships to ensure better outcomes for children and young people.
Care-experienced children and young people are among some of the most vulnerable in society, often with complex and diverse needs. The care system alone can often make it difficult for young people to form and maintain relationships due to frequent changes in the home, school, social workers and sometimes geographical location. Despite having experienced traumatic childhoods, research has shown with help and correct support, young people can learn to form healthy and lifelong relationships.
Independent Visitors (IVs) are a prime example of this type of support, and can play an important role in children’s lives by acting as good role models whilst being able to build long-term positive relationships with the child. The role of an IV was first introduced in the Children Act in 1989, where an individual acts as a volunteer who visits, supports and befriends a young person in care between the ages of 8-18.
As a part of the role, IVs will be a friend who can offer sound advice, and enable a child or young person who is ‘looked after’ by the local authority, to have contact with someone who is independent of the Social Services Department. Staying involved with a young person for a minimum of two years, spending about 3-4 hours every month together, independent volunteers can provide stability during a turbulent period in the young person’s life.
Each volunteer is carefully matched with a child or young person in care in their local area who shares similar interests and can help them to develop.
Responding to the Lifelong Links report, Leanne said:
““We fully support the Lifelong Links programme as we have seen first-hand the positive impact relationships can have upon children and young people. It is so important to shine a light on the power of positive and stable relationships and we can see how the role of an independent visitor can help support children who have been through so much change.””
As outlined in the report, lifelong relationships can help shift the culture in the way local authorities work with birth families yet concludes that there is an ongoing need for commitment to this across all parts of the local authority’s children’s services department.
With the number of children in care rising 24 per cent over the past decade to 80,000, to put this into context, this is roughly 67 children per 10,000, and this rate shows no signs of slowing down. Without reform of children’s social care, this number is predicted to rise to 100,000 in the next decade alone.
In the recent Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, the report stipulates the power of love, stability and relationships must be at the heart of a system. As the government cannot provide the love and relationships children in care need, it can however create an environment where families, communities and individuals can support care-experienced young people.
Reflecting on the power IVs relationships can have on care experienced children, Maria said: “In one case, we had an individual who was matched with a teenager and to this very day, they have remained in close contact with them. IVs are matched with children until they reach the age of 18, and at that point, they are then classified as care leavers. In this case, the IV continued to be the young person’s friend outside of the service and when the young person got married they asked the IV to be his best man. It is moments like these which shine a light on the power of relationships and the positive and lifelong impact it can have on a young person’s life.”
Recruiting, matching and supporting hundreds of volunteers and young people every year, Antser has noticed a steady increase in referrals but a lack of committed volunteers. With the ratio of referrals equal in gender, there are roughly 90% more women IVs than males. In addition to this, roughly 1-2% of these referrals are from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Communities.
In the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care report, it was highlighted just 3.5% of children in care were matched with an independent visitor in 2019, and children from ethnic minority groups were disproportionately more likely to be on waiting lists.
Speaking on this, Maria said: “The percentage of backgrounds who give that support is an ongoing struggle. For instance, we have a child who has recently moved from Reading to Cornwall and unfortunately, the placement has not been going as smoothly as hoped, however, we know how IVs can be key to keeping those children settled in foster care placements. In this case, the young person has been with their foster family for roughly seven years and to combat this turbulence, Antser has increased the IVs time to ensure the placement settles and the feedback has been great so far.”
According to the Lifelong Links report, children were more likely to continue to remain in foster or children’s homes due to the relationships formed during the programme. Placement stability was also shown to improve over time for those children and young people, with the average number of placements dropping from 1.99 prior to Lifelong Links, to 1.31 at the time of the analysis.
Maria said: “When children have moved about to different placements, they may not have had the opportunity to learn those basic daily skills but going out their IV all the time, they will be able to pick up on those skills just by having that role model with them. It is especially important for boys once they become teenagers to have a male figure in their lives which has proven to be really beneficial to them.”
Leanne added: “There is no promotion around Independent Visitors. It is different to normal volunteering, and it is a 2-year minimum but this amount of time is necessary for a friendship to grow. The two years offer consistency, stability and the chance for lifelong relationships to flourish.”
Reflecting on this, Leanne said: “At Antser, we have undertaken a national recruitment drive and dedicated hours and resources to promote and secure volunteers. Whilst we are gradually seeing an increase in our applications, it is imperative we continue to shine a light on the power of stable relationships to ensure more children and young people can reap the lifelong benefits from them.”
For more information about Independent Visitors, visit – https://promo.trixonline.co.uk/iv