What can children in the care system tell us about their wellbeing?
Professor Julie Selwyn is a Professor and Director of the Hadley Centre for Adoption and Foster Care Studies at the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. Here, she shares the findings from the new report she co-authored, Our Lives, Our Care: Looked after children’s views on their well-being.
There were 70, 440 children in care in England as of 31 March 2016, according to the Department for Education. The majority of children enter care because of parental abuse and neglect and often enter with physical, emotional and behavioural difficulties as a result of traumatic experiences. Every year ‘outcome’ data are collected and published by the Department for Education on children’s educational achievements, offending, mental health, and number of teenage pregnancies.
Children’s experiences not heard across system
Generally, children in care do not achieve the same level of academic success as their peers and are much more likely to have problems with crime, drugs and have poor mental health. Consequently, the care system is often viewed as failing but there is no systematic collection of information on how children feel about their lives in care. Nor do we know whether children in care emphasise the same aspects of their lives as being important to their well-being, as those identified by children in the general population.
Creating the surveys
In partnership with Coram Voice (a children’s rights charity) and funded by the Hadley Trust, we developed surveys to capture children’s views on their wellbeing. The questions that form the surveys were developed through talking to 140 children in care (aged between 5 and 18 years old) about what mattered to their wellbeing. Some of their concerns were similar to those of any other child but they also had different concerns, such as: the importance of having a trusting relationship with their social worker; their experiences of the stigma of care; understanding why they were in care; and the amount of contact they had with their families.
From children’s comments, an extensive literature review and discussions with professionals, three surveys were developed:
- young children aged between 4 and 7 years
- children aged 8-10 years and
- 11+years (secondary school).
The surveys were piloted in schools where cognitive interviewing took place. Questions were not always understood as intended and children under the age of 11 years did not understand questions that asked about their ethnicity.
Children in care also objected to a frequently used survey question that asks about the frequency of bullying. In their view, one incidence of bullying could have a severe effect. The question was altered to focus on impact and asked if children were afraid to go to school because of bullying.
We also tried to observe how long it took for children to get fed up answering questions and start swinging on their chairs! The first pilot in one LA was successful with a 40% return rate and children as young as 4 years old were able to make their views known through having a trusted adult helping them complete. Historically attempts to survey children in care have resulted in very low response rates of around 4-6%. A brief set of results was sent to every child and a report prepared for the pilot Local Authority, which acted upon the findings.
Following the pilot, six Local Authorities agreed to use the survey with their children in care. Findings from the first 611 children to complete the survey have been recently released.
There are some unexpected positive findings.
- Most children (83%) said that life had improved since coming into care. Children said: “Want to stay where I am and not go home.” (4-7yrs); “Better than it was when I was not in care.” ( 11-18yrs).
- In comparison with children in the general population more looked after children, boys in particular, wrote that they liked school
While life had improved, children also reported that they often did not fully understand why they had been taken into care. One young person wrote:
“I would like someone to talk to about my feelings and tell me about my past. I would like to see a picture of my dad so I know what he looks like. I would like to see a picture of me as a baby. I have never seen a picture of me. I have a lot of questions that no-one answers.” (11-18yrs)
Children highlighted the importance of having a trusted adult in their lives. But placements changed and nearly a third (31%) of the young people (11-18yrs) reported that they had been allocated three or more different social workers in the year. One young person’s response to a question asking ‘What would make care better?’ wrote ‘By not having 14 social workers in three years’.
Wellbeing decreased with age – whilst 7% of the youngest children were unhappy nearly one in five of young people 11-18yrs had low well-being. Factors associated with low wellbeing were gender, feeling safe, liking bedroom, having a trusted adult, taking part in hobbies/activities, worries, not liking appearance and feeling included. A number of policy and practice recommendations have been made.
In 2017, 17 more Local Authorities are using the survey and there will be the co-production of a new well-being survey for care leavers ( 16-23 years). It is through listening to the voices of children and young people that policies and practice can have a greater focus on well-being enabling children to flourish in care.
For further information on methodology : Selwyn J., Wood, M. and Newman T. (2016) Looked after Children and Young People in England: developing measures of subjective well-being. Child Indicators Research.