There’s lots of legislation, regulation and guidance that tells children in care and care leavers what rights and entitlements they have because they are, or have been, looked after children.

Some are general promises about what children in care and care leavers can expect from everyone involved in looking after them such as their right to be listened to and have their wishes and feelings taken into account when decisions are made about them. Others are more specific, like a care leaver’s entitlement to a £2,000 Higher Education Bursary.

Finding out about your rights and entitlements as a child in care or care leaver can be difficult. There’s lots of things that are new when a child first comes into care, so a child might not remember things that they’ve been told. Sometimes the way that children are told about their rights and entitlements can be a problem. Children who have special educational needs or whose first language isn’t English may find information hard to understand.  Young people may also struggle to remember things that aren’t relevant to them yet.

Some professionals don’t always know what children in care and care leavers are entitled to. This can have a severe impact on children and young people,  who rely on carers and other professionals to help them navigate the complexities of the system.

The rights and entitlements afforded to children in care and care leavers change when they reach 16 and 17. Some are dependent on whether they were in care on or after their 16th birthday, and whether they have been in care for a total of 13 weeks or more since they were 14. As care leavers get older, what they are entitled to will depend on their age and whether they are in education or training. This can be confusing for young people, and support that is based on age rather than need means that young people who do need additional support may not get it.

 

Postcode lottery

While some rights and entitlements are the same across every local authority, some vary from local authority to local authority. For example, every care leaver is entitled to a leaving care grant. Statutory guidance says that it should be at least £2,000, but doesn’t state in what form or when a young person should receive it. This creates a postcode lottery. Young people living in the same area, looked after by different local authorities, may be entitled to different things. One local authority may have a limited list of household items that young people can spend their leaving care grant on, while another may allow care leavers to choose what they want to spend their money on.   These discrepancies can make it even harder for young people to understand what they are entitled to.

 

Advocacy

If a young person thinks that they’re not getting what they’re entitled to, or that they are not being listened to, they can ask for an advocate to help them put their views across. An advocate’s job is to listen to a young person and help them work out what they want, what they want to say and then help them say it. They might do that by speaking on a young person’s behalf, or might just sit beside them in meetings to give them the confidence to say it themselves.

Independent advocacy is where the local authority commissions an outside organisation, like a charity, to provide advocacy services to its children. Some local authorities choose to provide advocacy themselves (called in-house advocacy) and others do not have a contract with any one provider, but will spot purchase (buy in an advocate each time a child needs one).

Children who are the most vulnerable can find it harder to access advocacy because they often need advocates with specialist knowledge about the best ways to communicate with them. Children with complex communication needs, with disabilities, very young children, children who do not speak English as their first language and children who do not live in their home authority can all find it difficult to access advocacy that meets their needs.