Kids Raised In Care Could Assess Services That Shaped Their Lives

In an upstairs meeting room in a York hotel, 10 young people are picking through final amendments to a document they have spent months compiling. They chew for a while on one headline phrase, which calls on local authorities to implement “a style of leadership that champions and promotes the involvement of children and young people at all levels”.

They mull over “champions”. Is it right? Should it say “celebrates” instead? Finally, Chris Hoyle, 20, concludes “champions” should stay: it does, just about, encapsulate how they would like local authority politicians and managers to behave towards the children in their care.

This is the Lilac (Lifelong Improvement for Looked-After Children) project, a groundbreaking initiative in which young people who spent a large part of their own lives in care are training to become inspectors of local authorities’ care services. Pioneered by the care-leavers group A National Voice (ANV), Lilac inspections will concentrate on how well local authorities involve looked-after children in their own care, in the planning and evaluation of care services generally, and on how effectively authorities handle complaints. The scheme is supported by the Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI); two local authorities – West Sussex county council and York city council – have agreed to participate in pilot inspections.

“It should be at the core of care services that young people are involved in the decisions that affect them,” says Maxine Wrigley, ANV’s coordinator. “At the moment, it is patchy across the country. We believe that if care-experienced young people become involved in the inspection process, it will greatly help local authorities to improve their service.”

Mandy Hooper, user and public involvement manager at CSCI, says the scheme fits “exceptionally well” into the organisation’s evolving philosophy of including as inspectors people with experience at the sharp end of services. CSCI is providing £40,000 towards funding the project, with the other £24,000 contributed by the Social Care Institute for Excellence.

“We think the young people’s insights will give the inspection of care services a new and important perspective,” Hooper says. “It is critically important to the scheme’s success that the young people have been involved in developing it themselves, from the very beginning.”

Lilac is managed by Ena Fry, of the Fostering Network, in partnership with Martin Hazlehurst, from the National Leaving Care Advisory Service. After a recruitment process that began last August, 100 applicants were whittled down to the 10 – five from the north, five from the south – attending this residential training weekend in York. All are in their early 20s, and they’ve collectively experienced much of what the care system has to offer – from the very good to the desperately chaotic.

Lucinda-Jane Smith, 24, the project co-ordinator, had an “excellent” time, after putting herself into care at 13: “The local authority involved me very closely, including in the decision to choose my foster carers.” She moved in with a family in Poole, Dorset (with whom she has lived successfully ever since) and graduated from Plymouth University. “Through ANV, I learned that many young people don’t have that standard of care,” she says. “I thought that was wrong, and have always wanted to help to improve the system.”

Sara Dawson, 23, a student and part-time social worker in Middlesbrough, was another lucky one given stability and constant care – fostered from six weeks with a family who later adopted her.

Others were bounced through a familiar maelstrom. Caroline Porritt, 24, also from Middlesbrough, was moved between foster placements, children’s homes and residential schools 27 times between seven and 16. Smiling, she says: “My leaving-care experience was wonderful. I’m a full-time mother of two daughters now, my partner works, and I have come through it. But when I was in care, I wasn’t listened to or taken any notice of. I was shoved from pillar to post, and it made things a lot worse.”

The young people themselves have developed the Lilac standards, guided by Fry and Hazlehurst in quality management, good practice and jargon-busting. They will inspect local authorities’ values, leadership style, structures and staff training, and assess how strongly young people are involved in care-staff recruitment and in the decisions – such as the choice of their school and placements – which so fundamentally affect their lives.

Lilac will also inspect authorities’ complaints and advocacy systems – the subject of an earnest debate in York, where Wrigley suggests that looked-after children should be invited to contribute compliments as well as complaints. Supporting each standard is a set of criteria against which the service will be inspected, and the evidence, such as policies, systems, other documentary information and personal interviews, which the inspectors will ask the authorities to make available.

The young people are being paid to train and for the inspection work, which Wrigley saw as essential for giving the scheme professional status. The pilot inspections will take place in the spring, with the cooperation of York and West Sussex, which will contribute their thoughts on the process, and a report on Lilac will be launched at the House of Commons on June 6.

The intention, if the scheme is seen to add a valuable new dimension to the inspection of care services, is for Lilac to be rolled out, with local authorities aiming for a kitemark certifying their excellence at involving young people in the fabric and detail of the care service. Alan Johnson, the education secretary, has already expressed a keen interest in the project.

“We’re very pleased with the cooperation we’ve had so far,” Wrigley says. “And the young people are terrific, very keen and committed. We’d like to envisage local authorities striving for the Lilac kitemark, because involving young people in their care is a key to improving the system.”

One trainee, Sarah Miles, 23, from Redhill in Surrey, had a “traumatic” life with her family until she refused to go home at 12. In care, she went through two unsuccessful placements and a host of troubles before finding a “beautiful, really homely” private children’s home with a therapeutic unit. “Everybody here is passionate about helping to change things,” she says. “They’ve all been through so much, but they’re full of generosity. We all want to contribute to making the system better for the young people coming through now.”