Putting Children on the Social Services agenda

Emily Warren urges the National Assembly to improve outcomes for vulnerable children in Wales.

There has long been a shared political will in Wales to improve outcomes for vulnerable children, indeed considerable cross party agreement has led to the adoption of the UN Convention on the rights of the child and new legislation such as the Assembly Measures on Vulnerable Children, Child rights, and critically the 2014 Social Services and Wellbeing (Wales) Act. But what have these new policy frameworks and legislation achieved in practice? 

The announcement recently that the PAC committee will be undertaking a significant piece of work in 2017, looking at outcomes for vulnerable children, is a welcome one. It must provide something of a litmus test to consider if changes to legislation, policy and structures is providing improvement both in how public money is spent, and in outcomes for our most vulnerable children and young people.

We all want a Wales where we are confident that our care system is able to provide permanence, stability and a fulfilling home for the 5,000 children and young people within our care system. If we can achieve this, then we should naturally expect improved educational outcomes and successful independent living for care leavers. 

The reality however is that foster carers are still fighting for recognition as primary care givers, service silos continue to exist across health, education and social care, and budgets remain stretched as demand continues to rise.

Over the last decade there has been a 23% increase in the care population, whilst fewer people want to become foster carers. There is no doubt that children’s social care is a hugely challenging environment with latest figures from Welsh government revealing over 5,600 children currently in care. Factor in reductions in local authority budgets and pressures on ‘early intervention’ services and it’s easy to see that this is a political problem that both prevails and pervades.

In mitigating these factors,  ministers, particularly Gwenda Thomas, should be recognised for their support in establishing organisations such as the Social Services Improvement Agency has delivered national change in developing new models of care. So too Mark Drakeford, who in 2015 established a ‘National Advisory Group’ on improving outcomes for children, bringing together leaders from across the public, third and academic sectors,  demonstrating a willingness by Welsh government to facilitate new policy networks and to encourage critical challenge.

The group, chaired by David Melding AM, has a very real challenge ahead. It is not just about its establishment or the expertise held in the room. It’s challenge is to provide national leadership across the public and voluntary sectors that will ensure that we really are supporting the wellbeing of future generations, rather than just developing a clever rhetoric. It is also vital that to our not so Welsh problems the group is able to bring international expertise and shared learning to help us to try out new approaches and support the implementation of new legislation. 

The emerging agenda on Adverse Childhood Experiences (Ace’s) and building resilient communities through the adoption of children’s zones will be key tools to support improved outcomes, and ones the advisory group must consider. In particular understanding what has been achieved internationally around ACE’s will be a crucial task. Only by mixing our local knowledge with international best practice will we really innovate and change. In America a recent international conference on ACE’s was held by the California Centre for Evidence Based Practice bringing together the international community to share policy solutions, political commitments and outcomes. If we can use this knowledge to support the development of a system that both prevents and mitigates the impact of  ACE’s then we will see an immediate improvement in outcomes for vulnerable children and young people. 

Improving outcomes for vulnerable children and young people is a shared challenge and that is why the Advisory group have such potential and such a pivotal role to play. There has been very real improvement in wales, not least in the political recognition of the problem. Placement stability has improved, new training for foster carers such as Confidence in Care is making a difference, and through programmes funded by Welsh Government such as ‘Fostering Excellence’ a more collaborative approach is being developed. Yet, our care population continues to rise and experiences of ACE’s continues to limit their potential. 

If we really are to demonstrate that Wales through its pioneering legislation on Future Generations and ability to make policy collaboratively is improving outcomes then the National Advisory Group must firmly push their strong collaborative foot to the floor. They must use the leverage of international learning and use to their advantage the commitment of ministers to listen to deliver sustainable change and improvement.

Dr Emily Warren is the former director of the fostering network, she has been awarded a Winston Churchill international fellowship to look at best practice in public care and will be working with the American Government from January-March on this agenda.

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