We must give our children a real voice

4th April 2008 at 01:00
Events being uncovered in a former children's home in Jersey are once again bringing into sharp focus what can happen when young people do not have a reliable voice to speak out on their behalf.

Calls for independent representation for our most vulnerable children have been made in countless reports, inquiries and campaigns for more than a decade, yet it has still failed to materialise.

But when the former High Court judge who presided over Wales's biggest child abuse inquiry goes on television to say he is "scandalised" that the Assembly children's minister has rejected yet another chance to safeguard lives, it is surely time to listen up.

Sir Ronald Waterhouse, who conducted the inquiry into North Wales children's homes during the 1990s, said he simply did not know why Jane Hutt had failed to support the central recommendation of the Children and Young People's Committee that an independent national advocacy unit should be set up in Wales.

After hearing harrowing evidence from young people in care who told of being placed on all-male psychiatric wards, given inappropriate placements miles from home in England, and fearful of repercussions if they spoke out, the cross-party committee said wholly independent advocacy was needed in Wales as soon as possible.

Yet the Assembly government failed to endorse it and Ms Hutt has also so far declined to speak publicly to justify her decision. It is no secret, however, that there are serious concerns about subjecting complaints about the care of our looked-after children to wholly independent scrutiny.

As Sir Ronald told the BBC, local authorities are nervous about their shortcomings being exposed. But if this government is as serious as it claims about turning the tide on the scandalous outcomes of children in care in Wales, it must now make a stand.

Sixty-three per cent of children in care are leaving school without a single qualification. A quarter are not even registered with a GP. In some areas, nearly a third of looked-after children had to move schools more than once. Is it any wonder that they are at the bottom of all the league tables rating achievement and positive outcomes?

Voices from Care has been campaigning for independent advocacy for more than a decade. We believe all looked-after children should have access to a wholly independent voice to speak on their behalf; a voice that is not paid for by the local authority they may have a complaint about, a voice that is easily accessible in times of trouble or when making important decisions about their education or career choices.

At present, individual local authorities in Wales are funding the very services that are meant to speak out against them. The government's new plans involve groups of local authorities joining up to fund advocacy services. This creates some distance but is hardly any more independent.

While services are commissioned by the same bodies that provide the care that the young person may have a complaint about, the service can never be independent, nor trusted by the child.

The compromise offered by the Assembly government last week for a "national independent advisory board" to oversee advocacy services falls way short of measures that are necessary to safeguard vulnerable children.

Earlier this month, the Assembly government had an opportunity to create an advocacy service for children and young people that would the envy of the world - wholly independent and centrally funded.

New legislative powers mean it can still achieve it if the political will is strong enough. But if it fails to show this courage and leadership, the current education minister Jane Hutt will find it even more difficult to explain her decision to future generations of our children.

Deborah Jones is chief executive of Voices from Care.

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