`We are seeing a movement awaken'

But more must be done to help children in care, MSPs told

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Children in care in Scotland are finally finding their voice in the way that women's liberation, anti-racism and gay rights movements did in the past, Parliament has heard. But a huge amount of work remains to be done as the prospects for young people leaving care have not improved in a quarter of a century, according to expert witnesses.

"As has happened with issues of race, gender and sexuality, we are seeing the awakening of a movement that - by accident, perhaps - we have kicked off together but which has now grown arms and legs," said Duncan Dunlop, chief executive of charity Who Cares? Scotland, addressing the Education and Culture Committee last week.

A pivotal moment came in December 2012 when committee members took the unusual step of leaving Parliament to hear evidence at the charity's Glasgow headquarters, where young people spoke about their experiences of care.

"For many young people, what happened in the committee was unique: it was the first time they felt they had been actively listened to," said Thomas Timlin, who grew up in care and is now interim development officer for the charity.

Since then, a concerted effort has been made to help young people think about their time in care and talk about their experiences openly.

"I was struck by how little children and young people understood about their life, why decisions had been made and their lack of involvement," the charity's senior corporate parenting officer, Kevin Browne, told last week's parliamentary hearing. He added that the deaths of his two brothers in their teens were linked to decisions about their care.

But amid this new openness and determination to overcome stigma - which has fed into a parliamentary report on decision-making around taking children into care (bit.lyCareInquiry) - the prospects for those going on to the next stage remain poor.

"Outcomes for care-leavers have not changed since I left care in 1989," said Caroline Richardson, advocacy and participation manager at Who Cares? Scotland.

The committee heard that 80 per cent of inmates in young offender institutions had been in care and that 30 per cent of them would become homeless. Children's hearings mostly took place during the day so pupils were typically pulled out of class. The latest figures showed that the chances of these young people getting into work or training after leaving education had dipped.

Only about 0.1 per cent of government spending on the care system was specifically aimed at ensuring that children's views were heard, MSPs were told. Ms Richardson added that a care system that suited children's needs was "just not there because we do not give young people that voice".

Campaigners have high hopes for proposed "advocates" to speak up for children in care and for the recently introduced Children and Young People (Scotland) Act. According to Mr Timlin, the act could save lives by encouraging young people to stay in care until they were ready to move on.

But the committee heard that people had no statutory right to an advocate and that in some areas of Scotland there were none.

Ms Richardson said the act was "about care-leavers being able to say, `This is the kind of support that I want,' and to have it tailored to their individual needs".

Mr Dunlop felt there was "great optimism" surrounding the act, but said "we are going to have to keep our eyes on it".

"At the moment, young people are still homeless and people still use excuses such as lack of resources," Mr Browne added. "I believe that not enough systems and cultures have been changed."

If a young person did not have "someone alongside them whose only interest is [their] welfare", he said, the 2014 act would have no better impact than previous 1995 legislation.

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