Children in the care system are not getting their legal right to an essential ‘buddy’ as more than two thirds of local authorities admit leaving them on waiting lists, Barnardo’s reveals.
A Freedom of Information Request (FOI) by the charity found that 1,202 vulnerable children were waiting to be matched with an Independent Visitor to support them, which is a 20 per cent increase since 2015.
The FOI was submitted to 152 local authorities in England, all of whom responded. It found that ten local authorities stated that they do not provide an Independent Visitor service despite the Children Act 1989 placing a statutory duty on them to do so.
The FOI was carried out in collaboration with the National Independent Visitor Network, NIVN, which is hosted by Barnardo’s. The NIVN believes that local authority funding cuts have hampered their ability to recruit volunteers and match them with children. Finding volunteers from BAME groups to match children who want to befriend someone from their own cultural background has also proved challenging.
There are currently around 75,400 children in care in England yet only 2,653 (3.5 per cent) of them have been provided with an Independent Visitor. Independent Visitors are volunteers who are separate from social care services. They offer emotional support, a trusting and stable friendship and enable the child to have fun and share in recreational activities.
The region with the highest proportion of children and young people matched to Independent Visitors is in the South West at 6 per cent. The lowest levels of match-rates are in the North-East and North West, with 1 per cent and 2 per cent respectively.
There is some good news regarding young people who have left care. Although there is no statutory duty to provide care leavers with an Independent Visitor, approximately 60 local authorities reported finding matches for 18-25-year-olds, with around 218 care leavers benefiting from this - an increase of about 90 matches since 2015.
Barnardo’s Chief Executive, Javed Khan said:
“It is really disappointing that so many children in care are waiting to be matched with an Independent Visitor. We know from our experience that these volunteers provide vital support for vulnerable young people, offering friendship, emotional support and a long-term, stable relationship with a trusted adult.
“Having more than 1,000 children waiting for a befriender is not good enough. We urge the Government to provide leadership in making sure all children in care can exercise their right to an independent visitor, and that the appropriate resource is available.
“Local authorities not currently providing this service can contact the National Independent Visitors Network hosted by Barnardo’s for advice on how to meet their obligations towards children in care.”
Mia Westbury, 21, from Warwick
Mia went into care aged 11 and was matched with a Barnardo’s Independent Visitor in her mid-teens. Now, aged 21, Mia has become an Independent Visitor herself and was matched with a nine-year-old boy in August.
She said: “I remember having a questionnaire about myself and a chat with someone from Barnardo's to get to know me and narrow down the matches. He (IV coordinator) came back in a couple of weeks with some booklets about some possible IVs. One had a picture of Sally on a ski slope. I used to go snowboarding with my dad and later on with my foster carer. So I felt had something in common with her and the rest of the booklet confirmed that she sounded like someone I would get on with well.
“Sally took me to do all sorts of activities that I really wanted to do and wouldn't have got to do otherwise, we went to snowboarding together and really bonded.
“She also did the smaller trips, like taking me to the cinema to see films I was desperate to see and going for coffee to chat, getting to do these outings made me feel normal, as other children would speak about family outings and shopping trips with their families.
“Sally told me she loved her mother for having taught her self-confidence and how to love herself, and that this was something she wanted to share and pass on, this felt genuine and meaningful. She wasn't just another person employed by social services who only came to see me for their job and would leave after a couple of months. Sally wanted to get to know who I really was and how she could help me personally. She’s no longer my IV but we stay in touch and go out for dinner."