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Blog: 'Putting care experienced people at the heart of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care'

BASW England Professional Officer Rebekah Pierre shares a powerful blog

The announcement of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has been met with mixed responses in the sector. 

Whilst the majority of professionals welcome the review itself, recognising the need for an overhaul of the care system, the appointment of the chair has been met with opposing views as has the broad-ranging scope of the review itself.  

Some have questioned the extent to which the chair is truly independent, their aptitude for the role, and whether the appointment process was fair and anti-discriminatory. Others have remained positive and optimistic about what the individual may bring to the role, and the potential for a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity.

In this blog, I wish to focus not on the appointment process, or the chair himself - rather, on the hundreds of thousands of care experienced people this review will impact, many of whom will remain forever anonymous and unknown to us. 

I feel it is important to focus on those who may never have their names in print. Or, if they do, the context may be very different; statistically, the names of care leavers are highly likely to feature on prison document (with care leavers representing 24 to 27% of the adult prison population), or an inquiry into a premature death (being twice as likely to die earlier). But not on shiny, important policy documents or in the press – unless for the wrong reasons.

Diverse Community

The care experienced community is rich and diverse, and cuts across every intersection of society ranging from race to gender, LGBT+ to neurodiversity, to name but a few. My voice is just one of many.

I strongly recommend readers to refer to ‘Our Care Our Say’, a report written by other care experienced people setting out advice for those leading the review.

More than statistics 

For generations, care leavers have been silenced. Countless stories have been left untold.

My time in care, like that of many others, is something I guarded close to my heart; on the rare occasions I spoke my truth, it was invariably met with ignorance or misunderstanding. 

Sometimes, the silence is a choice; as a care leaver myself, it has taken a decade to get to the point where I finally feel comfortable addressing a period of my life which left me with emotional and physical scars. The stigma around care prevented me from speaking out.

Other times, the silence is enforced upon us. Our voices are stifled because a lack of social mobility means we are not represented in circles of influence. In 2018, care leavers were roughly 1.5 times more likely to be in higher education than in custody, meaning we are systematically excluded from myriad spheres of life.

In the decisions that are being made about our community, we simply cannot be silenced any longer. Here are 5 ways that the care review can break down the walls of silence for care experienced people:

1.     An anti-poverty approach

Care experienced people make brutal sacrifices just to survive. When you cannot meet your basic needs, everything else becomes peripheral. 

When I was in care, living in an unregulated placement, most of the time, I could not afford to top up my electric meter, so I used to literally handwrite my course work in the dark. 

If, back then, I were invited to contribute to the experts by experience form, barriers would have been numerous – contributing simply would not have been possible without access to an electronic device, the finances to pay for Wi-Fi, electricity, and so on. 

Poverty is a great silencer – this extends to care experienced people who are homeless, in prison and facing other challenges, also within the context of a pandemic. To be truly representative, robust plans must be put in place to address this. 

Aside from practical barriers, time is another pressing barrier to meaningful participation. 

Care experienced people are being asked to contribute half a day a month for a year to the experts by experience group, however children or adults to join the group will not be paid unless one of the following criteria apply:

a) they are having to give up paid work to be able to attend meetings (in which case costs will be paid at their usual day-rate)

b) they incur expenses (e.g. travel and subsistence costs) whilst undertaking the role, and

c) if members are asked to take on discrete additional tasks or projects (e.g. writing a report, recording a video, facilitating a focus group etc.).

In instances where they are paid, participation costs, including pre-reading and any work that takes place outside the regular meetings, will be made. 

However, this disparity as to who will and will not be paid raises several questions: What will happen to those who are unemployed, between jobs, or studying? Furthermore, if people will be paid according to their ‘usual day-rate’, I am concerned that those on minimum wage may not be given equal remuneration for their time as those who may be in high-end roles; will this not perpetuate inequality? 

Care experienced people must be paid fairly for their time, to speak to the value of their contribution – this is non-negotiable. 

2.     To adopt an Anti-RacistAnti-Sexist, Anti-Oppressive Approach

No one other than minoritized groups can fully comprehend the depth of the pain they have faced within a deeply broken system.

As someone who is white-passing, but from a multi-ethnic background, my cloak of white privilege has shielded me from the true extent of racial injustice within the system.

The voices of black and minoritized care experienced people simply must be central to a review which has such significant implications for their communities.

Black Caribbean’ children are more likely to be in care than ‘White British’ children, regardless of the deprivation level of their neighbourhood, which speaks volumes of structural inequality which must no longer be ignored. 

Systemic sexism, which is embedded into all walks of life, must also be recognised; during my time in care, I have witnessed the extent to which girls in care are subject to sexual assault, lack of opportunity, and domestic abuse. And according to the UN, COVID-19 could set women’s economic progress back by half a century. The coronavirus has had devastating impacts on the rights of girls and women across every sphere of life, and this must be recognised & addressed moving forward. 

The expert by experience group must be accessible to those requiring interpreters in the deaf community, those who speak English as a second language, those who need advocates and other additional methods. There must be an accessibility budget.

This must not be a tick-box afterthought; anti-oppressive processes must be threaded through each and every stage from initial engagement to publishing. 

3.     Use a grassroots approach  

My first thought at learning about the Independent review of children’s social care review ‘I doubt the majority of care leavers will ever hear of this’. 

Social workers know those they work with best. Their expertise must be respected. Use those at a grassroots level (and in all parts of the country so this does not become a London or South-centric review) to engage care experienced people past and present. 

Consult with specialist services - those advocating for all communities including Black and Minoritsed, LGBT+, women and girls, those representing neurodiversity, deaf communities, disabled people, those in the prison system, and others.

This also means communicating through diverse means, not just Twitter (arguably elitist in and of itself in that it is designed for professional use). Engaging through Instagram, Tiktok, WhatsApp, Snapchat and more would open up the review to a younger demographic, as just one example. And using telephone calls and letters would reach those without access to social media. 

4.     To be led by and for Care Experienced People

For the review to be meaningfully co-produced, it should be led and designed for and by care experienced people. Our voices should be central, rather than a tacked-on added footnote at the end. 

We have long been forced to fold into the constrictive spaces of the non-care experienced world. Forced to camouflage, minimise, dismiss the depth of the pain that we feel. We ought to create the safe space in which we feel we can contribute without fear or pressure.

Care experienced people must occupy senior roles at the inner circle for this to happen. 

Every minute decision made, every penny spent, should be transparent. And leaders should be open to continually being challenged and held accountable.  

5.     To view us as survivors and experts with a wealth of experience

Adopting a strengths-based approach is crucial; we are wonderfully diverse, highly resourceful, and resilient. Please do not see us in the one-dimensional subsect of victims or traumatised individuals.  

We are more than our difficult experiences – yes, we are survivors, who have overcome unimaginable hardship. But we are also artists, thinkers, writers, scientists, mathematicians, dreamers – every bit as human as you.

The stakes are too high for us to remain silent statistics in the care review; let us speak for ourselves, and we will tell it how it is. 

 

It is crucial that those with lived experience of the care system are supported to contribute to the care review – their voices should be at the very heart of the process, as outlined in the recent BASW England statement

If you are working with care leavers, or those with care experience, please share the following links so that they can engage in the process: 

Independent review of children's social care: call for advice. 

You can add your details here if you would like to be kept updated on progress with the review

BASW England is keen to represent the views of members in response to the chair's 'call for advice', and will be sending a collective response. Should you wish to contribute, please do so by either filling out this form, or by emailing rebekah.pierre@basw.co.uk