I have a mixture of advocacy partners, or parents, whose children are involved in the child protection process: some have learning disabilities, some have diagnosed learning difficulties such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and ADHD, and a couple of parents I am working with now are on the autistic spectrum.
What they all have in common is that they find it difficult to put over their view and be involved in sorting out what will happen to their child. Sometimes that will be because they find it difficult to be in a meeting with lots of people, so cutting the number of people will help. Usually, their confidence is quite low: they will be in arenas they are not familiar with, or they’re not comfortable with the process. And invariably, the parents we work with are starting off on the back foot.
Many will come to us of their own accord, others are referred to us by professionals, ranging from health visitors to social workers to Children’s Hearing staff.
Advocacy is very simple: we work with parents to get to know their view, to help them to express their view, and to improve their level of engagement with the process. Initially, that usually means us putting the view forward for the parent but we hope that by seeing how it’s done successfully, the parent will develop skills of self-advocacy – that’s one of the major outcomes we look for. We can be involved at every step, from low-level intervention in schools, all the way to child protection case conferences, Children’s Hearings and court cases involving discussions about contact.
Understanding what’s going on is key. We'll talk to a parent before a hearing about how many people will be there, who’ll be there, the room it will happen in, what will be discussed, how long it will take, and what the likely outcomes are, to enable them to take part and have a role in what’s happening.
Making it all less of a mystery is also a major part of our role: if we don’t, then a meeting that’s lasted an hour and a half can completely pass our advocacy partners by. They haven’t taken anything in or contributed and that’s often seen as them not being interested or motivated when actually they’re just baffled.
One thing that's specific to our advocacy partners is that often their masking techniques are very good. If someone says: 'Do you understand that?' and they say: 'Yes', the natural assumption is that they have understood it. But that might not be the case, so having someone who knows them and understands their verbal cues is helpful, perhaps asking them to explain it back so we know they've understood.
To them, the process appears quite scary and there’s a huge amount of disempowerment. What parents tell us is that by the time they understand the process and how it works, their opportunity to influence it has often passed.
Recently, there's been an emphasis on achieving permanence for children more quickly, to place the children in stable long-term homes, but for our advocacy partners, that can be a big challenge. The parents we work with may feel that they need more time and additional support and consideration.
In the past year or so, we've had to spend more time explaining to people that they have a very short time window to change people’s opinions of them, sometimes as little as two or three months to make the changes needed to care for their children again. You have to make sure parents go in with their eyes open, that they know they can’t wait for six months to start to change.
Quite often the results are not what parents initially want, but nevertheless, they can be positive when parents engage with the process and make the necessary changes. We have some parents who have had children removed but then go on to have others living with them. It’s about change, engagement and their involvement in the process, breaking down the siege mentality where they rebuff everyone, which then leads to outcomes they don’t want.
One of the joys of what we do is all of the parents who come to us care about their child and want to be involved and want to do better than they have so far. They wouldn’t come to us if they didn’t, so achieving change is not as hard as you might think.
We've helped establish a network of parents who have passed on their experience to others. They accept they can’t influence what’s happening to them in many cases but they can help others in similar circumstances.
We can sometimes be seen as delaying the outcome for the child, which can cause tension, but one of our major challenges is not getting referrals quickly enough. We are starting to get pre-birth cases, which is great, but there are far more cases that get referred to us when there is a crisis: we need referrers to act sooner so that we can help parents at an earlier stage.
We’re often seen as being 'on the side of the parents': if it becomes adversarial, other professionals often see the parent as the person who is not in the right, which is tough. They also need to appreciate that we are taking on someone else’s point of view, that it’s not our own – they don’t always understand that. Dealing with several cases with the same professionals helps a lot to develop their understanding.
I don’t understand why we don’t get more referrals from some of the statutory agencies given that we can sometimes help and say: 'Yes, the parent did understand and gets what they are being asked to do, and made informed choices'. We speak to parents before a meeting but also debrief them after and make sure any recommendations or expectations are really clear, and we can do that several times because we have the time to do it.
Professionals in the field should be aware that working with us can improve outcomes for children (whether that is rehabilitation or a Permanence Order) as we will improve the engagement of parents in all of the relevant processes.