Dr Rhian Croke, Child Rights Strategic Litigation and Policy Advocacy Lead, Children’s Legal Centre Wales
It is a statutory requirement that ‘looked-after’ children should be allocated an ‘Independent Visitor’ where it appears to the local authority to be in the child’s best interests to do so.[i] But only 1% of looked-after children are allocated an Independent Visitor. A looked-after child is a child or young person who is looked after by the local authority i.e., in their care, or provided with accommodation by the local authority.[ii]
The Independent Visitor (IV) role is a person who is ‘a trained volunteer, who is matched with a looked-after child or young person to befriend them and act as a positive role model. They build trusting, positive relationships with them over time.’ (National Independent Visitor Network 2022).
The IV role was originally introduced as a statutory requirement as part of the Children Act in 1989. However, many looked-after children and even professionals are still not aware of a looked-after child’s entitlement to an IV and many children still do not have access to an IV.
The current requirement in Wales for a looked-after child to have an IV is laid out in Section 98 of the Social Services and Well-Being Act 2014 (2014 Act). Whether a child needs an IV must be considered as part of the development of the child’s care and support plan (under Part 6 of the 2014 Act), or when a child’s case is reviewed, with clear guidance and support available to authorities when deciding on whether or not to allocate an Independent Visitor. The Welsh Government has also funded the creation of a set of good practice standards and guidance for IVs, developed by the National Youth and Advocacy Service Cymru (NYAS Cymru).
Why Independent Visitors benefit looked-after children
A report on practice standards for IVs undertaken by NYAS Cymru also identified the many benefits for care-experienced children of an IV. This is captured by this statement from the report:
‘Care experienced children and young people, building relationships with IVs over the long term, can provide some stability in their life, and a continuing and consistent relationship with someone who is there for them through their time in care and into adulthood. The examples included situations where young people had been supported over many years through changes of placement, through leaving care, through changes of school and other transitions. Managing change can be a particularly difficult time for a young person and the support of a significant and trusted adult when everything else seems to be changing was seen by young people and social workers as particularly valuable.’
Young people confirmed the value of an IV, commenting that an IV offers:
- a friendship, with choice and control;
- someone to speak up for them and encourage them to speak up for themselves;
- encouragement and support to undertake new activities or in difficult times;
- consistency and continuity from the relationship;
- help in preparing for independence.
The current picture of Independent Visitor support in Wales
Despite being a statutory requirement with recognised benefits for looked-after children and clear practice standards for the delivery of IV services across Wales, awareness of this service is still very low, and a very limited number of looked-after children have access to an IV.
A Freedom of Information (FOI) request by the National Independent Visitor Network in conjunction with the Tudor Trust and Barnardo’s in July 2022 revealed key findings in relation to Wales. In summary, these are:
- only 79 children have an IV, representing just 1% of the care-experienced population;
- 43 children are waiting to be matched with an IV with just over half of local authorities placing children on a waiting list;
- 18 out of the 22 unitary authorities in Wales have an IV service. Six had no appointed IVs in place at the time of the FOI request. Three authorities stated that they do not offer IVs and one did not respond to the FOI;
- 2 unitary authorities fund IVs for those beyond 18 years old with 10 care leavers benefiting from this;
- 40% of children (32) matched with an IV were living outside of their local authority area.
The FOI request also revealed that, in Wales, there is a very low percentage of children who have IVs. 43 children were waiting to be allocated an IV. A possible explanation for this low percentage, suggested by the National Independent Visitor Network, could be a suppressed level of demand, due to a lack of awareness of the service. Other possible explanations are underresourcing, and out-of-date and restrictive eligibility criteria being applied to some IV services.
A 2023 FOI request by the Public Law Project revealed a similar picture: 38 children were waiting to be allocated an IV (the longest average waiting time was over 1 year), and 7 of the authorities that responded had no looked-after children matched with an IV. [iii]
It is very concerning that some local authorities have no IV services at all. The approach to IV arrangements that is currently adopted by the majority of local authorities in Wales is to commission external services. The NYAS Cymru report states that:
‘The commissioning model in use across most local authorities – where IV services are added on to independent professional advocacy services, with some staff working on both contracts – is not working’.
In relation to the challenges of matching children with IVs outside their local authority areas, the National Independent Visitor Network argues how this contributes to children’s difficulty in sustaining relationships. The Network is also calling for statutory IV provision to be extended to care leavers to address the loneliness and social isolation that many care leavers experience, including the ‘cliff edge’ that they experience as support services come to an end when they turn 18.
What should happen now?
Solving the problem of a lack of IVs for looked-after children should start with an investigation into the reasons for this unhappy state of affairs. There also needs to be a clear commitment from the Welsh Government to proactively create and implement a plan to support local authorities to prioritise and effectively resource IV services. An effective communications strategy also needs to be developed so that more professionals and looked-after children are aware of the service.
As NYAS Cymru recommends, there should be an active offer for looked-after children and young people to be given access to an IV (if in their best interests) that should take place at the beginning and end of their care experience.
Along with others in Wales, we at the Children’s Legal Centre Wales believe that local authorities should be meeting their statutory requirement to ensure that IVs are available to support looked-after children. All local authorities in Wales that currently have no IV service must take action to meet their legal obligations.
[i] Section 98(1)(b) Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014.
[ii] We know that there are other terms for looked-after children such as ‘care experienced children’ or ‘children in care’ but – for the purposes of this blog – the legal definition that is in the Social Services and Well-Being Act 2014 [See Section 74 (1)] of ‘looked-after children’ has been applied.
[iii] At the time of writing, 4 authorities had failed to respond to the FOI request within the statutory timeframe, and 1 stated that it was unable to provide the information requested.