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By Fostering Families

The Care Leaver Local Offer website has been up and running for a year now. It would be great to hear about how things have been going over the last year and the impact you've been making.

Working with young people, we find that often they don't know what support is available to them when they leave care. Their pathway plans should set out the level of support given to them based on their needs, but we've found that this is often put across in a way that is tricky to fully understand, and, with the churn of social workers and PA's, they aren't always up to date with what they offer. There have also been instances where local authorities have said they offer something - like free gym membership - but when the young person has tried to access it they have been denied it.

I spent ten years in the market research industry, where I worked as a mystery shopper. I'd visit fast food restaurants to check the quality of the food and service to ensure that standards were being maintained in their franchises. At the end of the visit we'd sit down with the manager, tell them who we were, and give them feedback on our experience. Just as this oversight happens in the corporate world, we need to hold local authorities accountable in the same way and ensure they're doing what they say they're doing. There has to be a balance between accountability and empowering them to fix it because, let's face it. social workers and local authorities are always getting battered. The resources section we provide on the website has best practices, policies and procedures, and operating manuals for local authorities to download. In this first year, we've noticed that they have been using this and updating their local offer.

Looking forward, we're introducing a comparison tool in the next few weeks where you can click on any of the metrics that we're taking and it will populate straight away. This means that local authorities will be able to compare their offer against others to see what's best of class and where improvements can be made.

It would be great to hear about how it's working for care leavers in practice. Can you share a success story with us?

The site is becoming the go-to, especially when people are really struggling to access the support they need. For example, we were contacted by some foster carers from Northeast Derbyshire who have been looking after a young person for six years. He's now turned eighteen, but he can't get council tax exemption because he grew up in Nottinghamshire. Northeast Derbyshire offers the exemption for care leavers up to the age of 25, but only for those from Derbyshire.

A lot of care leavers get placed out of area. Under these rules, the care leaver has grown up in an area where they've built a network and friends, but to access support they must return to the area they were from before they went into care. Moving them around means they have to start all over again and the barriers they face are magnified even more. This kind of downward mobility doesn't make sense and it isn't right.

This highlights the wider problem about how different the provisions can be in different areas in the country. We've worked closely with councils in Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire to make sure that every council accepts care leavers from other areas. There are eight different district councils in Derbyshire, and each one runs its own revenue and benefits departments, and also writes their own policies. I went to Derbyshire Dale's council meeting and told councilors that their current proposal was discriminatory, and I suggested an amendment to ensure it was fair for all care leavers. I was only supposed to speak for three minutes at this meeting, but the debate went on for twenty-nine, and ended up with them changing it! Their Chief Executive said he will spearhead change across all the councils in Derbyshire. COVID got in the way, but because of the website we are finally making those changes. This is making a difference to the individual foster family who contacted me, as well as on a much wider scale to others who might need this support in the future.

You've done quite a lot of campaigning to get care experience recognised as a protected characteristic. It's now been put forward as a recommendation in the Care Review, and it would be great to hear why you think this is important?

You tend to find that some care experienced people won't come back and try to fight for others because it's just too traumatic. Others re-traumatize themselves every time they share their story to make things better for other people. And, of course, there are some people who the system has worked well for and they decide to use their voice too. It's the first group, the group that the system hasn't worked for, who have the biggest voice and it's not being heard. This is a concern because it means the system doesn't change.

When a local authority or public body comes up with a rule change or a service they need to make sure it's appropriate for their constituents. This is one of the reasons we have the Equality Act. Whenever these policies are being created, decision makers must find out how people with protected characteristics are impacted. It needs to work for them and not cause any unnecessary harm. If we take a pedestrian crossing in the road, for example, it must have a dropped kerb to take into account people with physical disabilities. It must have tactile paving and audible signals for people with visual impairments, and flashing lights for those who are hard of hearing. This has become standard practice, so a disabled person doesn't have to re-traumatize themselves each time a new pedestrian crossing is installed.

This is where we need to get with care experienced people. The system needs to be designed around them rather than needing us to speak up every time a new policy, rule or regulation is implemented. The only way to get this is to have the people who come up with the policy to - by law - go out there and find out how this affects care experienced people. This helps get rid of the indirect discrimination that happens behind the scenes and, when you do this, life starts to get better without people even realising it's happening. This gives care experienced people a voice.

I'm really pleased to see that it was put forward as a recommendation in the Care Review, but we need councils to formally adopt it as part of their policy. This means if they don't follow their own policies they can be taken to judicial review. Cumberland Council has become the first council to adopt this motion, which now makes them accountable for implementing the Equality Impact Assessment and protected characteristics.

The other recommendation in the Care Review, which goes hand in hand with protected characteristics, is an extension of corporate parenting to all public bodies. Local authorities have a legal duty to convene local networks to try and see what they can jointly do for care experienced people and children in care. But, because of the Children's Act, and now the Children's Social Work Act, only councils have this specific duty for care leavers. They could have the to NHS, the DWP, the local college, the local housing association in the room in the network meeting, but, legally speaking, most of them don't have to do anything for care leavers. If there is a way of getting those organisations to be accountable for care experience in the form of an extension of corporate parenting, alongside the protected characteristic, I think we will have cracked it. We are going to run Care Leaver Local Offer as if corporate parenting is actually happening because I think this will definitely happen. It's happened in Scotland, and there's a lot of talk behind the scenes that it's being worked on. So, we're going to add every other public body to the website, not just the local authorities, and we're going to reach out and find out what they do for care leaves. Measuring all these stakeholders holds the whole ecosystem accountable and ensures that best practice is being used across the board.

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