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OxfordshireChildren's Services Procedures Manual

Advocacy and Independent Visitors

RELATED GUIDANCE

The Children Act 1989 Guidance and Regulations - Volume 2: Care Planning, Placement and Case Review (2015)

Advocacy services for children and young people – A guide for commissioners (The Children's Society)

The Volunteer Independent Visiting and Advocacy Service (VIVA) Guidance can be found here.

AMENDMENT

In November 2017, this chapter was updated to add a link to the Children's Society 'Advocacy services for children and young people – a guide for commissioners'. This guide outlines the legislative requirements of local authorities in the provision of advocacy support to children in need and looked after children.

Contents

  1. Independent Advocates
    1. Duties of an Independent Advocate
    2. When to Appoint an Independent Advocate
    3. Review and Ending Independent Advocacy Support
    4. National Standards
  2. Independent Visitors
    1. When to Appoint
    2. Duties of Independent Visitor
    3. Review of Appointment
    4. National Standards
  3. VIVA (Volunteer Independent Visiting and Advocacy Service)

1. Independent Advocates

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 Independent advocate. See also Advocacy services for children and young people – A guide for commissioners (The Children's Society).

An appointment of an Independent 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.

Information must be provided to all Looked After Children about how they can gain access to a suitably skilled Independent Advocate to include those that live in Residential Edge of care Homes (REoC) and are Ofsted inspected.

This information should be included in the Children's Guide or 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 in a range of accessible formats.

Assistance must be given to enable an Independent Advocate to be appointed for the child by making a referral to VIVA on behalf of the child. All referrals for Advocacy are made through VIVA to VIVA@oxfordshire.gov.uk. VIVA will give particular consideration to the needs of disabled children, children placed out of the local authority area if VIVA has capacity and those with complex communication needs who need the support of a specialist advocate and children at risk (unaccompanied minors, mental health wellbeing, Children Sexual Exploitation or other factors). The age range of young people we support is between 8 to 25yrs old.

Eligibility for Independent Advocacy include all children who are considered vulnerable and are eligible for advocacy support. VIVA may have to prioritise some cases in the following circumstances:

  1. Looked After Children who wish to represented by an independent person;
  2. Children and risk of sexual exploitation;
  3. Children and young people at risk of homelessness;
  4. Children and young people with mental health issues and not accessing alternative one-to-one support;
  5. Children and young people making a complaint;
  6. Children and young people in residential or edge of care accommodation.

VIVA may not be able to provide an advocacy service in the following circumstances:

  • Short notice;
  • Out of Country Placements;
  • The maximum case load of 20 matched and active advocates is reached.

Inability to match the skill set of volunteers to complex cases.

1.1 Duties of an Independent Advocate

An advocate's key objective is to promote children and young people's central involvement in decisions affecting their lives. The nature of support advocacy provides varies considerably as it is dependent upon each local authority's commissioning arrangements but every service follows core principles.

1.2 When to Appoint an Independent Advocate

Independent Advocates are trained to:

  • Listen to and prepare young people's views; wishes and feelings for meetings;
  • Ensure young people understand what people are saying;
  • Help young people say what they want to say and make sure people listen to them;
  • Help young people to know their rights or find information;
  • Take 100 per cent of their instructions from the young person;
  • Help young people feel safe and be heard;
  • Observe or use rights-based work for young people that are unable to verbally express their views.

Independent advocacy is underpinned and shaped by the following values:

  1. Belief that children or young people should be involved in decisions that are made about their lives;
  2. Respect for the rights of children and young people to have their views, wishes and feeling listed to and weighted seriously, whatever they are;
  3. Listening to and learning from children or young people;
  4. Supporting children or young people to speak for themselves wherever possible if they wish to do so.

Independent Advocates are not intended to:

  • 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.

1.3 Review and Ending Independent Advocacy Support

As an Independent Advocate's work is limited to a specific issue their involvement with a young person is usually time-limited and comes to an end when the issue has been resolved and the young person's views have been successfully communicated.

In some cases advocacy can become a long-term arrangement if the young person wishes to have the same Independent Advocate in several meetings.

1.4 National Standards

  1. Advocacy is led by the views and wishes of children and young people;
  2. Advocacy champions the rights and needs of children and young people;
  3. All Advocacy Services have clear policies to promote equalities issues and monitor services to ensure that no young person is discriminated against due to age, gender, race, culture, religion, language, disability or sexual orientation;
  4. Advocacy is well-publicised, accessible and easy to use;
  5. Advocacy gives help and advice quickly when they are requested;
  6. Advocacy works exclusively for children and young people;
  7. The Advocacy Service operates to a high level of confidentiality and ensures that children, young people and other agencies are aware of its confidentiality policies;
  8. Advocacy listens to the views and ideas of children and young people in order to improve the service provided;
  9. The advocacy service has an effective and easy to use complaints procedure;
  10. Advocacy is well managed and gives value for money.

2. Independent Visitors

2.1 When to Appoint

An appointment of an Independent Visitor for a Looked After Child must be made:

  • Where it appears to be in the best interests of the child to make such an appointment.

A decision to make a referral for an Independent Visitor will usually be made at a child's Looked After Child Review except where the child is placed in secure accommodation, in which case arrangements must be made by the child's social worker for the appointment to take place as soon as practicable after the placement. All referrals for Advocacy are made through VIVA: VIVA@oxfordshire.gov.uk. The age range is between 10 to 25 years old.

VIVA will assess whether it would be appropriate 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 is not the child's parent but who has parental responsibility for the child, during the preceding 12 months.  

The local authority should consider the following factors when deciding if it is the child's interests to consider appointing 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, VIVA will identify a suitable person to be appointed. The Independent Visitor may be a person already known to the child and independent of the local authority who may be suitable.

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, complete induction training that cover core policies and procedures to safeguard children, driving documents checked where applicable and provision of Identification Card.

The child must be consulted about the appointment and if he or she objects, the appointment should not be made.

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 purpose of the Independent Visitor is to:

  • Contribute to the welfare of the young person and they should:
    • Promote the child / young person's developmental, social, emotional, educational, religious and cultural needs;
    • Encourage the child / young person to exercise his/her rights and to participate in decisions which will affect him/her;
    • Support the care plan for the child / young person and his/her carers; and
    • Aim, as far as possible, to complement the activities of carers;
    • Build a relationship of trust with the child / young person.

Independent Visitors are not intended to:

  • Be anything other than child-focused, however sympathetic to other points of view;
  • Be a substitute parent or carer;
  • Allow personal prejudices to determine actions;
  • Accept unquestioningly what those responsible for the child tell him/her but to remain open-minded and even sceptical;
  • Engage the child in intensive counselling involving complex situations; and
  • Take on the role of a skilled advocate in complex situations.

On appointing an independent visitor the local authority 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.

Local authorities should arrange for the preparation of carers and provide them with support and explanation about the role of independent visitors.

Expenses

The independent visitor is entitled to recover from the local authority expenses which is intended to cover travel and “out of pocket” expenses. The need for an independent visitor to continue their relationship with a young person on an informal basis once the cease to be looked after should be considered. The local authority should consider if it is appropriate to meet the cost of expenses until the after care responsibilities expire.

The Independent Visitor should also encourage the child to participate in decision-making.

The views of the Independent Visitor should be sought before each Looked After Review to which he or she should be invited if the child requests it.

2.3 Review of Appointment

The need to continue the appointment should be considered at the child's Looked After Child Reviews, and the child's wishes and feelings will be the main consideration in deciding the need for the continued appointment.

2.4 Independent Visiting National Standards

  1. All looked after children or young people understand their right to an:
    1. Independent Visitor.
  2. Independent visitor services are child-led;
  3. Independent visitor services work to a high level of confidentiality between the child, independent visitor and service coordinator. Children and volunteers understand the service's policy on safeguarding and record keeping with a good:
    1. Understanding of why and when information needs to be;
  4. Children are given the opportunity to participate and be actively involved in the development of services;
  5. There is a thorough recruitment and selection process for volunteer Independent Visitors, which is safe and transparent;
  6. Independent visitors complete a thorough induction and training process specific to the role, and receive on-going support to give them the skills and knowledge to confidently fulfil their role;
  7. There is a clear and consistent process in place for referral, matching, and positive endings;
  8. The independent visitor will seek to befriend the child and establish a relationship of trust through regular visits and contact with the child;
  9. Independent visitor relationships are regularly monitored to make sure the child is safe, happy and developing a positive relationship with their independent visitor;
  10. Independent visitors are unpaid volunteers independent of the child's social services department. Independence of the service is important, for the child's feeling of separateness from social services, and the important safeguards this provides;
  11. Independent visitor services are safe with policies and procedures in place to ensure the safety of children, independent visitors and independent visitor coordinators;
  12. Local authorities allocate an appropriate level of resources to the service to ensure sufficient funding, management and staff are in place to support a wider group of looked after children in line with current legislation;
  13. Services have clear policies to promote equality and diversity ensuring that no child or volunteer is discriminated against;
  14. There is a clear and easy to use complaints procedure. Volunteers and children know how to complain and their complaints are dealt with seriously and quickly.

3. VIVA (Volunteer Independent Visiting and Advocacy Service)

VIVA stands for Volunteer Independent Visiting and Advocacy. It is led by young people and an independent statutory service, embedded in Oxfordshire County Council with the help of dedicated Volunteers. Whilst the volunteers are coordinated by the County Council, they are independent to ensure that service provision is impartial. The role of a volunteer is unique and different to that of a social worker.  Volunteers are entirely child-led in their approach and work for the children and young people and no one else. 

Contact details for VIVA are VIVA@oxfordshire.gov.uk telephone 01865 328278.