Independent visitors are the key to improving outcomes for children in care

“She made me forget about being in care and brought me up on my down days”, anon, care leaver

Young people tell us one of the hardest things about growing up in care is forming lasting relationships.

Children in care don’t have their birth parents to rely on. What’s less well understood is that they also often miss out on other vital relationships too, such as grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends.

Added to this, young people in care may have experienced trauma, abuse and neglect. This can make forming positive relationships with others especially hard and relationships with foster carers, social workers and other adults in positions of authority can become strained.

Sometimes, children in care are moved from different foster placements, or care homes, and social workers, teachers and even schools, may change frequently. For some children, the only adults in their life are the ones who are paid to be there.

The role of the independent visitor was introduced as a statutory service, which all children in care are legally entitled to, in the Children Act 1989. An independent visitor is a volunteer who provides the role of a mentor, friend, someone to confide in, and have fun with, away from the care system. Independent visitors can act as a stabilising force. They stay involved in a child’s life for a minimum of two years, meeting at least once a month, taking part in fun activities like going to the cinema.

Children are matched with volunteers who share their interests, and can help them to develop.

Take Solomon, who loves performing arts, and is now going to study music and song-writing at the Academy of Contemporary Music. Solomon was matched with his mentor Drew over three years ago, and together they’ve seen many plays, including a modern adaptation of Macbeth and West Side Story.

Solomon explains why Drew is so important to him;

“When we meet we’ll talk about our social lives. I know I can confide in Drew with any issues that I might have and he’ll do his best to understand and talk about his own experiences. It’s mostly about acting and performing, and he’s very motivating. I can unload about a lot of things.”

However, despite success stories like Solomon, Barnardo’s research found 97% of children in care are still missing out on an independent visitor. In some cases it’s not appropriate to match a child with an independent visitor, or the child may not want one.  However, we know that more children in care would benefit from this invaluable relationship.

Over two thirds of local authorities have a waiting list, with over 1,000 children in England waiting to be matched. Worse still, eight local authorities don’t even offer children the service.

The main reason why children miss out on independent visitors is limited resources. Our research revealed that most local authorities allocate around £20,000 - £40,000, which is also often shared with other services such as advocacy.

Low awareness is another key factor; professionals, children in care, and members of the public who might volunteer, don’t know the service exists. The Children’s Rights Director reported in 2012 that 80% of children who didn’t have an independent visitor said this was because they were never offered one.

To make sure children don’t miss out, we’re calling on government, local authorities and voluntary sector organisations to sign up to a new set of quality standards. The standards aim to ensure all looked after children understand their right to an independent visitor; services are designed to suit the needs and views of the child; and processes are in place to recruit, train and match volunteers with the right children to ensure a long-term positive relationships are built.

In the new Care Leaver Strategy, the Government recognises the difference an independent visitor can make, and highlights the importance of maintaining the relationship with an independent visitor after leaving care. We would like to see the Department for Education endorse our standards.

In May, former Prime Minister, David Cameron wrote in the Sunday Times that children growing up in care had been “let down for too long”, and said the government would “bust a gut” to help them build a brighter future.  Improving outcomes for children in care is extremely challenging. Our research shows that volunteer-led befriending plays a crucial but often over looked role. 

We hope that our new Prime Minister, Theresa May, will now “bust a gut” to make sure all children in care have the opportunity to access an independent visitor, which they are legally entitled to.

Alex Gordon is team manager of the National Independent Visitor Network at Barnardo’s