Taking care to make young lives better

An innovative research project uncovering the experiences of children in care in Norfolk has been unveiled. Now social services bosses are promising to put its recommendations into practice.

An innovative research project uncovering the experiences of children in care in Norfolk has been unveiled. Now social services bosses are promising to put its recommendations into practice. JON WELCH reports.

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Social services bosses have pledged to act to improve the lives of young people in care after a research project came up with 37 recommendations.

The consultation, carried out by three care leavers in the county, focused on how children in care felt about education, social work and their carers.

Among its recommendations were that the young people should change placements as little as possible, and that more should be done to tackle bullying.

It also recommended teaching children about the care system in school citizenship lessons, and ensuring children in care know how to access their files and the name of their legal guardian.

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Norfolk currently has 851 young people in care. After watching the three care leavers - Danielle Bullock, Mikey “Maka” Walker and Gareth Rashid - present their findings to an audience of social workers and other child-care professionals, Lisa Christensen, Norfolk County Council's director of children's services, promised to act on their recommendations.

She told them: “We won't let this gather dust on the bookshelf - you have my word on that.”

The work, entitled the Enlighten Project, has been conducted on behalf of the county council and funded by Aim Higher Norfolk.

It was presented to an audience of social workers, foster carers, children in care and councillors at The Garage, Chapel Field North, Norwich.

The researchers sent fliers to all those in care in the county and had responses from 25 people who wanted to be involved.

Face-to-face interviews then took place, in which the young people were asked questions ranging from when they had entered the care system to how being in care had affected their lives.

Between them, those interviewed had 159 years' experience of being in care.

Most of the 25 young people interviewed felt that being in care had had a positive influence on their life, with some saying they felt able to cope better, were more confident, cared about themselves and others more, and had had more opportunities than if they had stayed at home.

One said: “If I had not gone into care I would have been in prison by now,” and another said care had “made my life better - my parents were alcoholics and druggies”.

Among the comments made about social workers were: “When I have gone off the rails they have always supported me and listened before judging me.

But there were some negative comments, too, including “social services can be controlling” and “social worker makes bad decisions and does not listen to my views”.

The young people were asked about their experiences of school and college. Of 55 individual comments made about teachers, 23 were negative, 17 were positive and 15 were general.

Some felt patronised by teachers because they were in care, and others said they would sometimes be wrongly blamed for misdemeanours committed by others.

More than half the comments made about their peers were positive. One child said: “Got a lot of friends at school. They treat me normal.”

Some reported unkind comments and teasing that led to fights.

The report's 37 recommendations were divide into six categories: interests and hobbies, placements, process and legal, relationships and experience of being in care, about school and college and the future.

The report recommended that all meetings involving young people should record their hobbies so they could stay involved in the things they were interested in.

It said that young people's views about the best type of placement for them should be listened to and acted upon, and the number of placements kept to a minimum.

If a placement worked well, everyone should try to keep young people there, no matter what.

More research was needed to discover why so many of the young people interviewed didn't like teachers and school, it said.

And the report urged teachers, parents and carers to take verbal bullying just as seriously as physical bullying.

Those leaving care should be given more information about the support on offer, including careers advice.

The report recommended more supported lodgings be made available for care leavers and agreements with housing providers to ensure they don't end up homeless or living in bed-and- breakfast accommodation.

After the presentation, Ms Christensen had words of praise for Danielle, Gareth and Mikey. “I just feel like a proud parent,” she said.

“I thought they were fantastically self-assured, thoughtful and kind.

“They delivered some very tough messages in an assured way and stressed a lot of the positives.”

On their recommendations, she said: “I thought they were absolutely spot-on.

“Some were no surprise and are things we are already working on, but there are things that are easily done that can make a difference. For instance, it will take no time to ask young people about their hobbies and interests.

“We will turn it into a plan.”

Rosalie Monbiot, county council cabinet member for children's services, said the presentation had been “fabulous” and admitted that a poem written and read by Mikey had had her in tears.

“When it comes from the heart it makes it that much more meaningful,” she said.

“They showed such maturity in doing the research. We have had young people speaking to other young people and there are some very good recommendations coming out of it.”

She, too, promised to act on the recommendations.

“There's a lot of good material there that has come from young people themselves. I can't see any reason why we can't work on all of them because there are very genuine.

“I'm always distressed when I see the number of placements some children get put in.

“There are different reasons but we have to work as hard as possible to make sure there are as few as possible.

“I find it surprising to hear some don't know who their legal guardian is. That's something very simple that they should all know.

“Putting teenagers into residential homes is not the right move with all the rules. It's better to put them in foster care if at all possible,” she said.

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