This blog has been co-produced and co-written by Camilla Ball, Karen Sweet and Friends.
In early June 2022 a University of Liverpool led study published in the Lancet Public Health, estimated that rising poverty and the pressures that places on families has led to an additional 10,351 children and young people going into Local Authority care between 2015 and 2020.
“…You know, I was aware that there were children in Local Authority care, but to really get to know the sort of lives they have had, and the challenges they face – to be a small part of trying to make it better has been great” – A Friend
The role of Independent Visitor (IV) was created under the Children Act 1989 to support and befriend a child or young person in care who has little or no contact with their birth family.
According to Barnardo’s ‘National Independent Visitor Data Report’ published in 2019:
- Ten Local Authorities didn’t have a statutory Independent Visitor Service
- In England 2,653 young people were matched with an Independent Visitor, which is 5% of the total looked after children population
- Over two-thirds of Local Authorities have a waiting list with demand far exceeding supply
It was over 30 years ago when the Children Act 1989 legislated that ‘a Local Authority has to appoint an IV for any child they are looking after, if they feel it would be in the child’s best interest.’ According to the 2016 ‘National Standards for the provision of Independent Visitor Services Report’, 80% of children who did not have an IV said this was because they were never offered one. It has long been recognised that children and young people benefit from building consistent adult relationships, but the vast majority of children with care experience have never been offered the choice or even know about their rights.
Now we know that across the country there are many Local Authorities, Voluntary, Community, Faith and Social Enterprise (VCSFE) organisations and IV’s themselves that continue to work tirelessly to ensure children and young people have access to a supportive adult, and many young people cite their relationships with their IV as the thing that makes a difference in their lives. So we are asking ourselves why, despite the commitment from so many individual IV’s, has a generation of children and young people been over-looked by the system put in place to support them.
We think the data speaks for itself. What is it about our local and national systems that create barriers for young people to access IV support? Lack of commitment, resources, professional and political understanding, and maybe inspection rigour which means that too many of our children looked after, facing some of the greatest disadvantages are denied the support that could help them get on in life, and level out the playing field just enough to give them a fighting chance at making a good life for themselves.
The lack of an effective and supportive be-friending service for all children and young people who need it, rarely if ever hits the headlines. Local Authorities have not been placed into special measures or rated as inadequate for not fulfilling the responsibility for delivering this crucial service. So, what should be done?
Barnardo’s have launched the ‘Right Friend Campaign’. One of their main objectives is to campaign for at least 10% of looked after children per Local Authority in England to be matched with an Independent Visitor by 2022. One of the young people involved poignantly points out in their campaign video “How would I know what a trusting long-lasting relationship is like, if I don’t have one.”
“I didn’t always trust people like I do now because everyone that I had trusted at that time had “gone”. A Friend
Here in Blackpool, we fully support the campaign, but are asking ourselves … is it enough? As a society, can we continue to sit back and let a generation of our most vulnerable children and young people down, but do little to change things. With the number of children in care continuing to increase, should we not be questioning what more can be done to improve things. An IV will always work well for some, but we think we can do more, something brave and innovative, and more importantly bring something different into the mix. Alongside the IV Service Blackpool’s Resilience Revolution has been piloting a unique new project – Friend for Life.
Friend for Life is a brave and innovative project that is similar to Independent Visitor, only with a more personal and lasting twist. Developed in 2016 with the aim to fill some of the gaps that had been identified with the IV Service, the Friend for Life (FfL) project aims to focus on the principles of a real, lifelong friendship.
“Friend for Life is good thing because it gives young people someone they can rely on and depend on.” – A Friend
Our Children (the name Blackpool’s looked after children and young people prefer to be known as) have told us that most of the adults in their lives are paid to be there. Social workers, teachers and carers are remunerated to offer support to them, as are Independent Visitors to some extent.
“My Friend for Life isn’t a professional. They are there because they volunteered to and there because they want to, not because they have to.” – A Friend
Friend for Life was designed to remove extrinsic reward and instead focus on the intrinsic. The good old fashioned feel good factor of supporting a friend. Volunteers are there because they are passionate about children and young people, supporting and nurturing them to be the best they can be. To knock down the barriers Our Children often face, by helping them to beat the odds and do better than anyone expected them to, given their circumstances. Not only that, changing the odds too. As a pair of Matched Friends said recently at the International RR Conference 2022, “As far as we are concerned, the FfL project is the best thing Blackpool has ever done and we would strongly encourage other Councils throughout the country (and beyond) to follow Blackpool’s lead and do something like this that really makes a difference.” Developing a real friendship, for life. Journeying alongside each other through the trials and tribulations of growing up and navigating through to adulthood. The stress of exams, the exhilaration of passing a driving test, losing a job, getting married, buying a house. You get the picture.
“It’s ironic that the word volunteering is synonymous with unpaid because I feel richer for the friendship that I now have through volunteering with the Friend for Life project” A Friend
Of course it’s not only Our Children who benefit. Young people have so much to offer to an inter-generational friend. All of us oldies want to be ‘down with the kids’ and what better way than to learn from them? Whether it’s how to play the latest video game, what’s hot on the TV or how to use an iPad, they are there to enlighten us, to bridge the gap of generations. Teaching us the modern ways while in turn, we teach them about what it used to be like. ‘Back in my day’ can start many a conversation!
“Friend for Life is very worthwhile. It not only helps the young person you are friends with, it also gives us something that makes ourselves feel useful and valued. It’s particularly good if you are isolated or alone, as it opens opportunities to meet others that have similar goals and interests. Win – Win!” A Friend
An alarming number of children who are looked after by local authorities across the world cite a lack of presence of a consistent adult who they can trust. Furthermore, support after leaving the care system is often identified as lacking too, which impacts the ability to live independently, access higher education and guard against mental health issues. At age 18, many statutory services cease. This includes Independent Visitor. A Friend for Life will be there throughout the entire life journey and be able to offer support and advice when it’s needed the most, enabling and empowering young people throughout care and when they become care leavers.
“I have recently moved homes. I had to move away from all my school friends and family, but the only thing that hadn’t changed was my Friend for Life.
She was there when I was moving and she was brilliant with how she checked up on me to see how I was settling in.
To be honest the Friend for Life group have all been really supportive of me through this tough time.” A Friend
“Friend for Life is important to me because it means I have a Friend…for life, so that I can trust them forever and I’ve got someone there that’s gonna be there when I need them the most.” – A Friend
Young people tell us that Friend for Life is cool and our results so far concur. In March 2021 UK Youth held its first Inspiring Hope Awards, which brought together young people and organisations to celebrate extraordinary achievements. From 355 nominations ‘Friend for Life’ won the Aiimi Inspiring Pioneer Award. Fantastic recognition for such a brave and innovative approach.
Friend for Life is building positive friendships, supporting young and old, building resilience, and above all giving young people a real relationship where the adult has made a lifelong commitment to be with them through thick and thin. We have a national vision for this project and are hoping to see Friend for Life become a project all children in care across the country can access, not just Blackpool.
“Me and my friend have been Friends for over 3 years. Being friends with him has made the past 3 years of my life some of the best. With every problem, he is part of the solution.
The thought of going out for a coffee, a walk or to the cinema cheers me up, makes me smile and improves the day whether it’s good or bad.
I am extremely grateful for him. Having a Friend for Life is more than being there on bad days to help, being a Friend for Life is about the relationship you develop with your friend.
They can help prepare you for life. Although he is older than me he is not my parent. He is my friend, and I know he will be my Friend for Life.” A Friend
“I do not see my role with the young person as volunteering. I see this as an opportunity for myself and the young person to explore a very unique relationship. It focuses on the trust we share, in order to build a friendship that lasts through significant life events for the young person. It is really special and I am so glad that I put my hand up to be a part of this and even gladder that my young person chose me.” A Friend
“The friends for life project has made a huge difference to the young people that I work with. For some, they are the only constant that some young people have (particularly those young people who experience numerous placement or educational moves, or change in social worker). This scheme is vital in helping our young people feel a sense of connection and belonging that they are sometimes desperately seeking. In some cases too, the parents of our young people are sadly not always able to make the positive changes they need to live more stable lives by the time our young people turn 18, and in situations like this their Friend for Life can be their role model and offer them the support and stability they need as they move to adulthood.” – Social Worker
So, if every local authority had a Friend for Life project, what would that mean for the IV scheme? Here in Blackpool, with passionate backing from our own Friends for Life the decision has been made to push forward with Friend for Life as an enhanced service for Our Children to sit alongside the IV Scheme. Not the end of the road for the IV service, just a new beginning.
The past couple of years have shown more than ever that things can flex, they can change, and systems can be disrupted with the will to do the right thing.
Is now the time to embrace the Friend for Life approach nationally?
“I would encourage others to have a Friend for Life because what’s not to like about having a friend” A Friend
“Friend for life to me means giving a young person the opportunity to build a true friendship and relationship with an adult, someone they can turn to, trust and will always be in their life, no matter what. No hidden agendas, no wage or job. Just a Friend for Life.” A Friend
“For me, this ‘for life’ thing is just a given now. I am looking forward to it” – A Friend
Contact: [email protected]