Every year the Department for Education publishes official statistics on children in care. These statistics tell us how many children live in foster care or in a children’s home, what proportion moved placement and educational outcomes.
What is missing from these numbers is the voice of children and young people living in care themselves. How do they feel about their lives and care experience?
The Bright Spots programme, a partnership between Coram Voice and the University of Bristol, addresses this gap in our knowledge. Over the last five years we have worked with children and young people to find out what matters to them. In 2017-18 we heard from 2,684 children between 4 and 18 year old.
What did they tell us?
Half of 4-7-year olds and a third of 8-11 year olds did not feel that someone had fully explained to them why they were in care. Children’s comments revealed how being taken into care was scary and confusing. They wanted their questions answered, to know what was happening and understand more about why decisions were made.
“I would like to know more about why I am in care and why I am not living with my mum” Billie* (age 4-7)
One of the most common things children told us about was how living in care had affected the relationships they had with the people who mattered to them. Some children wrote that they were unhappy with how often they saw family members: 26% responded that they saw their mum too little, 19% felt this about their dad and 27% about their brothers or sisters.
“I feel like it’s the best day ever when I see my mother, because I love seeing her. I’m very sad about not seeing my dad as I really miss him – he was very nice”. Aisha* (age 8-11)
It was reassuring that most children who responded to the survey reported that they trusted the adults they lived with, felt they noticed how they were feeling and were as likely as other children to talk to them about things that mattered.
“I can trust my foster carers now and they support me in all the decisions I make. I feel that I have truly found a one in a million placement”. Daisy* (age 11-18)
But our research also shone a light on some more troubling issues. 1 in 5 of the youngest children did not know who their social worker was. And only a third of teenagers had the same social worker over the past year while over a quarter (27%) had had three or more social workers in the last year.
“It would be better if I could stick with one Social Worker, they change a lot”. Jack* (age 8-11)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the difficult circumstances that have led children to come into care, a higher proportion of children in care recorded low wellbeing compared to their peers (only 5% of children in the general population had low life satisfaction scores compared to 15% of children in care). But we also found that the proportion of children in care reporting very high wellbeing was similar or higher than their peers (36% of children in care were positive about the future compared to 26% of children in the general population).
Our surveys are one of the few ways that children in care can give honest feedback on their experiences in care and share how they feel their lives are going. This is absolutely crucial to working out how we, as adults and as corporate parents, can give children in care the very best experience, which is surely what they deserve.
*pseudonyms have been used
Dr Claire Baker is head of the Bright Spots Programme at Coram Voice