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Increasing concerns over essential safeguarding service

Vulnerable children and young people in the care system across Wales are still being denied the right to an independent professional ‘voice’, known as an advocate, fourteen years since a high profile inquiry (the Waterhouse Tribunal) into child abuse in care homes recommended the service should be available to all child complainants.

The report, ‘Missing Voices: Right to be Heard’, published today (10 July 2014) by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, highlights Keith Towler’s increasing concerns and frustrations. Whilst recognising the joint Ministerial commitment to advocacy, evidenced in the new Social Services and Well Being (Wales) Act 2014, the Commissioner outlines an apparent lack of necessary drive and determination within Welsh Government to push forward change that would make a practical difference for children today.

Currently, under the Children Act 1989 and Adoption and Children Act 2002, every local authority has a statutory obligation to provide an independent professional ‘voice’, also known as an advocate, for every looked after child and young person, care leaver and child in need who want to take part or comment on decisions about their lives. Advocates should also be provided if the child or young person wants to make a complaint.

Keith Towler, Children’s Commissioner, said:

“I can’t deny that there has been some progress but it has been patchy and it has been slow. There have been too many excuses for why change has not happened more quickly and in the meantime the situation for children and young people remains much the same.

He added:

“Advocacy is a primary safeguarding service and we cannot accept the current situation where access to, and quality of advocacy is a post code lottery for our most vulnerable children and young people.

“The current prominence of historic child abuse scandals demonstrates the immediate need to get advocacy right for children and young people today. Advocacy enables us to create a climate where we listen to children and young people, a culture where we can better protect our children. In short, advocacy safeguards children and young people.”

Two years since the Commissioner published ‘Missing Voices’, his review of independent professional advocacy for looked after children and young people, care leavers and children in need in Wales, his latest progress report found that 63% of the 384 children in care questioned did not know who their advocacy provider was. It also found little evidence of local authorities actively looking at the take up of advocacy services in relation to the size of their looked after population.

The report includes a further five recommendations, including a call on Welsh Government to develop a national model of commissioning independent professional advocacy services and that local authorities make an active offer of advocacy for every child and young person entering the care system.

Here, Tasha Woods, a young person who has been in care explains the importance of advocacy:

“I am a young person from North Wales who has been under the care of the local authority. Whilst being in care I was never offered nor did I receive any information of advocacy services, I couldn’t tell you what an advocate was or the role they play to children and young people. However now I have realised the fundamental importance of advocacy to children and young people and the positive impact having an advocate can have to a young person in care. It empowers children to ensure their rights are respected and that their views are heard.

“I am now working with other young people to help improve the service of advocacy in Wales especially for those most vulnerable and in need. I personally believe that advocacy services needs to be independent from Local Authorities and have one clear national model to end the inequality of advocacy services across Wales.”