Advocacy and Independent Visitors
This chapter was updated in December 2021.
The rights of children in care to have a say in decisions about their lives is enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and in the Children Act 1989. Before making any decision with respect to a child who the local authority is looking after or proposing to look after, the authority must ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child. Where children have difficulty in expressing their wishes or feelings about any decisions made about them, or where the child's wishes conflict with the care provider around a specific decision, consideration must be given to securing the support of an advocate.
An advocate should also be offered where a child wishes to be represented at a meeting (for example a looked after child review) or assisted in making a complaint or bringing a matter to the attention of the care provider, the local authority or the regulatory authority.
Information must be provided to all children in care about how they can gain access to a suitably skilled independent advocate.
This information should be included in the coming into care booklet or provided to them at any time by their social worker or independent reviewing officer, especially where their wishes and feelings may not be in accordance with plans being made for them. Information should be available in a range of accessible formats.
Children should be supported in accessing an advocate, for example by a referral from their social worker, carer or another professional. Particular consideration needs to be given to the needs of disabled children, very young children, children placed out of the local authority area and those with complex communication needs who need the support of an advocate.
1.1 Duties of an Advocate
An advocate's role is to promote children and young people's central involvement in decisions affecting their lives. The nature of support follows these core principles:
- The advocate should not be directive or judgmental but should help the young person to express their views;
- Young people should be offered full information in expressing their views;
- Young people should decide upon the best course of action;
- The advocate should always remain fully supportive of the young person.
2. Independent Visitors
A local authority looking after a child has a duty to appoint a person to be an independent visitor when it appears to be in the child's interests to do so.
The appointment of an independent visitor should be considered as part of developing the care plan for the child and at the child in care review. Any decision not to appoint an independent visitor should be kept under review. The child's wishes and feelings should be obtained, and they must agree to the appointment of the independent visitor.
In particular, a local authority should assess whether it would be appropriate to appoint an independent visitor for the child they are looking after if either of the following is satisfied:
- It appears that communication between the child and their parent / person with parental responsibility has been infrequent
- The child has not been visited (or has not lived with) a parent or any person who has parental responsibility for the child, during the preceding 12 months
Local authorities are required to consider the appointment of an independent visitor if it appears it would be in the child's interests to do so. The following factors should be taken into account when considering if it would be appropriate to appoint an independent visitor:
- If the child is placed at a distance from home
- If the child is unable to go out independently or experiences difficulties in communication and building positive relationships
- If the child is likely to engage in behaviour which puts them at risk as a result of peer pressure or forming inappropriate relationships with older people
- If a child placed in a residential setting would benefit from a more individualised setting
- If it would make a contribution to promoting the child's health and education
Usually independent visitors are volunteers. To be 'independent' they must not be connected with children’s services for the local authority which looks after the child (either directly or because they live in a household with a person who is connected with children’s services in the local authority). Referrals for an independent visitor should be made to the local independent visitor service coordinator.
The role of the independent visitor is to be child focused and contribute to the welfare of the child. In particular they should:
- Promote the child's developmental, social, emotional, educational, religious and cultural needs;
- Encourage the child to exercise their rights and participate in decisions which will affect them;
- Support the care plan for the child;
- Complement the activities of the carers.
The independent visitor will visit, advise and befriend the child, with the aim of establishing a trusting and positive relationship. They way in which they do this will vary according to the needs and wishes of each individual child. Ideally they should remain a constant in the child's life, and ‘be there’ if a child moves placements or has a change of social worker.
The independent visitor may be involved in meetings or consultation processes relating to the care of the child; for example if a local authority intends to apply to place a child in secure accommodation, their independent visitor may be consulted. The independent visitor may also contribute to child in care reviews, either in writing or in person, if they have been invited or the child requests their attendance.
In most instances it will not be necessary or appropriate for the independent visitor to keep detailed records of their discussions with the child.
If the independent visitor has concerns about any aspects of the child's case they should contact the independent visitor coordinator in their area to discuss these.
Selecting and Appointing an Independent Visitor
The child should always be part of the process of deciding whether an independent visitor should be appointed.
The social worker's knowledge of the child will be key to matching them with an independent visitor.
An introductory meeting should be held so the child can decide if they wish the appointment to be made.
On appointing an independent visitor, the local authority will decide how much information to give them about the child's current situation and history. The child should be involved in deciding what information is shared. Independent visitors have no right to inspect a child's file. No information should be withheld if it places the child or visitor at risk.
Local authorities should provide carers with information about the role of independent visitors.
Recruitment, Training and Expenses
Local authorities should seek to recruit independent visitors from a variety of backgrounds and ages. As part of the application process, potential independent visitors will need to provide details of two referees and also be checked with the Disclosure and Barring Service.
Induction training will be provided to cover the formal aspects of the independent visitor role, such as requirements around confidentiality and claiming expenses. Independent visitors do not require day to day management but they should be supported in their role, for example by an independent visitor coordinator.
The independent visitor is entitled to recover from the local authority expenses which are intended to cover travel and "out of pocket" expenses. The need for an independent visitor to continue their relationship with a young person on an informal basis once they cease to be looked after should be considered.
The need to continue the appointment should be considered at the child's reviews, and the child's wishes and feelings will be the main consideration in deciding the need for the continued appointment.
If an independent visitor wishes to resign the appointment, they must confirm this in writing.
Where there are any concerns about the behaviour of an independent visitor, these should be fully investigated and a decision reached about whether the appointment should be terminated. If there are concerns about the independent visitor's suitability to work with children, multi agency safeguarding children procedures should be followed.