- Independent Visitors
The rights of looked after children 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, consideration must be given to securing the support of an advocate. See also Advocacy services for children and young people – A guide for commissioners (The Children's Society).
An appointment of an Advocate for a Looked After child is necessary where a child wishes to be represented at a meeting (for example a Looked After 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. (e.g. Ofsted).
Information must be provided to all Looked After Children about how they can gain access to a suitably skilled Independent Advocate.
This information should be included in the Children's Guide and may be 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.
Assistance must also be given to enable the child to access an Advocate, for example by approaching the independent organisation on behalf of the child. Particular consideration needs to be given to the needs of disabled children, very young children, children placed outside the area of Dudley MBC and those with complex communication needs.
1.1 Duties of an Advocate
An advocate's key objective is to promote the child's involvement in decisions affecting their lives. The core principles are:
- The advocate should not be directive or judgmental but 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
2.1 When to Appoint
An Independent Visitor must be appointed for a Looked After Child:
- Where it appears to be in the best interests of the child to make such an appointment.
A decision to appoint an Independent Visitor will usually be made at a child's Looked After Review. However, when a child is placed in secure accommodation, the child's social worker must arrange for an Independent Visitor to be appointed as soon as practicable after the placement.
Children's Services should consider whether 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 parent 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.
Children's Services should consider the following factors when deciding if it is the child's interests to appoint an independent visitor.
- Whether the child is placed at a distance from home;
- Whether the child is unable to go out independently or experiences difficulties in communication and building positive relationships;
- Whether 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;
- Whether a child placed in a residential setting would benefit from a more individualised setting; and
- Whether it would make a contribution to promoting the child's health and education.
Where an appointment is considered necessary, the child's social worker will identify a suitable person to be appointed. The Independent Visitor must be independent of Dudley MBC, but may be a person already known to the child.
The child must be consulted about the proposed appointment and if s/he objects, the appointment should not be made.
Before the appointment is made, the proposed Independent Visitor must have been checked with the Disclosure and Barring Service, local Children's Services and Probation records and have the agreement of the social worker's manager. The appointment must be confirmed in writing and the visitor must provide the names of two personal referees.
The child must be consulted about the appointment and if he or she objects, the appointment should not be made.
Before the appointment is made, checks must be made with the Disclosure and Barring Service and local Children's Services and Probation records, and the proposed visitor must provide the names of two personal referees. The appointment must then be approved by the social worker's manager.
2.2 Duties of Independent Visitor
The Independent Visitor will have a duty to make regular visits to the child, and maintain other contact, by telephone and letter as appropriate.
The main purpose of the visits and contacts will be to:
- Befriend the child;
- Give advice and assistance as appropriate with the aim of promoting the child's development and 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.
On appointing an independent visitor Children's Services will decide how much information to give him or her about the child's current situation and history. The child should be involved in deciding what information is made available to the independent visitor. 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.
The social worker should provide the child's carers with support and explanation about the role of independent visitors.
The Independent Visitor should encourage the child to participate in decision-making.
The views of the Independent Visitor should be sought before each Looked After Review and s/he should be invited to attend if the child requests it.
The independent visitor is entitled to recover expenses from Children's Services to cover travel and "out of pocket" costs.
When the young person ceases to be looked after, Children's Services should consider whether the independent visitor should continue their relationship on an informal basis. It may be appropriate to meet the cost of expenses until the after care responsibilities expire.
2.3 Review of Appointment
The need to continue the appointment should be considered at the child's Looked After Reviews, and the child's wishes and feelings will be the main consideration in this decision.