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Paper

Mapping the impact of children’s advocacy services

abstract

Background. An extensive literature which cannot be addressed here suggests that advocacy is generally agreed to be a process of ensuring another's voice is heard, enabling another to speak up or speaking for another, and that the objective of most advocacy should ultimately be self-advocacy (Dalrymple 2003). Yet advocacy also encompasses collective action that seeks to challenge injustice and/or influence events at a more systemic level. Crudely, there are two broad approaches to advocacy - individual case-based and collective or cause-based. In Wales, the typical mode of advocacy for children commissioned by local authorities is case-based and provided by children's voluntary sector organisations (see Pithouse and Parry 2005). The presentation will set out key results from a Welsh Government funded study in 2005/7 of complaints against local authority social services involving children in need and their use of advocacy services in Wales. This is the first study of its kind in Wales and reveals important insights into the way vulnerable children and public service providers view advocacy and the ways in which advocacy is delivered. Nearly two decades of research, reports and policy on child abuse and child safeguarding have made children's advocacy a government imperative driving the growth of an independent advocacy sector in Wales. This paper focuses on this rarely-researched organisational world of advocacy.
Key findings are presented from research which sought to explore the evidence base around advocacy interventions by (a) focus groups and interviews with children as users of advocacy (b) a nation-wide survey on children's involvement in leading complaints against local authorities about their care (c) data on advocacy activity and its delivery in a competitive system of local authority commissioning. The presentation will conclude with reference to the policy response of the Welsh Assembly Government to the study. New government policy now envisages a more regionally-based multi-agency commissioning approach to advocacy in order to create more independence for advocacy in order to better promote the voice and wishes of vulnerable children and children more generally.

Research questions

  • What are the types and activities of children's advocacy services across Wales funded by local authorities?
  • What evidence is there for the involvement of advocacy services in complaints by children against local authorities?
  • How do children and young people understand their experience of advocacy?
  • What operational and strategic challenges stem from current provision and policy?


Methods. A multi-method qualitative and quantitative exploratory design was used to capture organisational activity and perceptions of multiple participants in advocacy services. The samples and methods comprised:

  • A national questionnaire survey of all 22 local authorities in Wales about their commissioning of advocacy, operational relationships with advocacy, number of complaints brought by or on behalf of children in previous 12 months, involvement of advocacy in these complaints.
  • A questionnaire survey of all children's advocacy services commissioned by the 22 local authorities about their organisational model and activities.
  • Focus groups and semi-structured interviews with a purposive sample of 70 children and young people drawn from different vulnerability contexts (e.g., care, disability, poverty, refugee, ethnicity, sexuality) most of whom had used advocacy in last 12 months.
  • Semi structured interviews with a purposive sample (n=28) of young people who had made complaints to local authorities about their care in the last 12 months.
  • Structured interviews with all local authority staff responsible for commissioning and/or liaison with advocacy services (typically local authority children's complaints officers).
  • Structured interviews with all managers of advocacy services commissioned by the 22 local authorities.
  • Secondary sources (e.g., organisational memoranda, agreements and contracts, annual reports, activity / monitoring data).


Key findings. Children and young people overwhelmingly viewed advocacy positively, irrespective of its organisational shape or location. They revealed much of the 'emotional work' that underlies advocacy in detailed accounts and expectations of the 'good advocate'.
Local authorities were ambivalent about advocacy, viewing it as valuable mainly to the child rather than to service outcomes or decision making. Some thought advocates were unrealistic and 'pro-complaints' rather than collegial and moderating in their influence upon children. Much depended upon local authority culture as to whether advocacy was seen as a threat or an opportunity to meet the child's needs. Most complaints involving children related to the care they received from their local authority while being fostered, in residential care or in receipt of community services for a disability. Data on all complaints (n=678) to local government social services involving children were explored and revealed an apparent low use of a professional advocacy service reported by local authorities (around 12% of complaints involved an advocacy service, n=79). Around a third of complaints were led by a child or young person and a majority of these were undertaken without support from any adult. But overall and predicatbly most complains involving children were led by adult kin. This adult-led patterning to complaints could be the outcome of complex processes that may include adult / professional views of children as 'recipients' of services, 'self-evidently' lacking competence and needing an adult voice in order to be represented. It may also reflect a lack of knowledge by children about advocacy as well as a reluctance to complain. There are likely to be organisational influences too whereby advocacy is not recommended to children by professionals or agencies reluctant to become the object of any critical attention. Also, advocacy services may not always be sufficiently pro-active in 'selling' their service.
Advocacy providers viewed their role as compromised by reliance upon local authority funding which they believed undercut their independence. Most considered their funding insufficient for the purposes of providing a mainly case-based service that sometimes failed to engage effectively with a diaspora of hard-to-reach children (e.g., in foster care, in respite care [disabled children] or in special residential placements far away).

Recommendations. Our findings suggest the need for a significant shift in attitudes towards the rights of children and young people and their use of advocacy. Our study has helped inform Welsh government policy deliberations that now envisage a major change in delivering advocacy whereby its role is extended beyond children in need and widened to cover all key services that promote children's welfare. One option being considered is for public service providers of children's services (education, health, social services) to combine in regional consortia and to commission a more inclusive advocacy service that can support all the children and young people they serve. This would re-configure advocacy across a wider constituency of interest and loosen its current association with children in public care as the main or only recipients of advocacy involvement. Welsh government are now consulting on ways to 'mainstream' advocacy via a matrix of rights, particpation and professional advocacy. They want to shift the balance of complaints and advocacy from a narrow adult-oriented focus around welfare issues to a more child-centred and child-led process that promotes the authentic voice of children and young people. The aim would be to have a three-tier service with professional advocates dealing with complex cases of complaint and representation; another tier of advocacy workers who would seek to engage hard to reach children (e.g., children with disabilities, children in foster care, children in deprived areas, refugees) and get their rights and voices heard; a third tier would comprise professionals in health, education and social services who would have, as part of their role (eg teacher, nurse, care worker) the task to promote children's participation in decisions, services, policies. The aim of this three-tier matrix would be to promote civic and social capital as well as become an institutional system of engagment and rights that children and young people should grow up expecting. We shall see.

Key references
Dalrymple, J. (2003). Professional advocacy as a force for resistance in child welfare. British Journal of Social Work, 33(5), 1043-1062.
Pithouse, A. & Parry, O. (2005). Children's advocacy in Wales - organisational challenges for those who commission and deliver advocacy for children who are looked after. Journal of Adoption and Fostering, 29(4), 45-56.
Pithouse, A. & Crowley, A. (2007). Adults Rule? Children, advocacy, and complaints to social services. Children and Society, 21(3), 201-214.

Contacts: Andrew Pithouse PhD, Childhood Research Group, Cardiff University, SOCSI, Glamorgan Building, King Edward V11 Avenue, CF10 3 WT Cardiff, Wales, UK, E-mail:Pithouse@Cardiff.ac.uk, Phone+44 (0) 29 20875194.

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