At Barnardo's, supporting children in care is at the core of our daily work reaching out to the most vulnerable and disadvantaged. This week, the scale of the task in hand hit the headlines when the number of applications to take children was revealed by Cafcass to have reached in the last month their highest in England since the Children's Courts Advisory Service was set up in 2001. It was also the week that the government announced its response to the Family Justice Review.
Care has the potential to transform lives. It can take children out of harmful environments in which they are subject to neglect and abuse, and provide them with a stable and secure home. But that's not to say that there isn't more that can be done to improve our care system.
Sadly, despite all the goodwill in the world, there are still barriers to fully meeting the needs of children in care. Currently, unnecessary delays mean that some children are waiting an average of 55 weeks for their case to go through the courts. And even when children enter care there are still barriers to giving them a loving stable home.
There's a shortage of foster families across the UK - particularly for older children - which means that we desperately need to find nearly 9,000 new foster families over the next 12 months. And, on average, a child waits two years and seven months to be adopted.
So it's been heartening that over the last week a number of measures have been announced that should help improve the situation.
For example, it has been proposed that the time it takes for a child's case to go through the courts is drastically reduced. From 2013 all such cases will be completed in six months or less. This is an important step forward as such delays can affect children's development and lead to behavioural problems. And the older a child gets the less likely it is that they will be adopted. But I want the Government to take urgent additional action to introduce short-term measures to reduce delays for children who are currently stuck in the system, especially babies under 18 months.
Barnardo's specialises in working with children that have the most complex needs, including many vulnerable older children, who need as much looking after as younger children and babies. Our work shows us that care can and does improve children's lives, but there needs to be a greater focus on providing children with therapeutic and ongoing support. It is very important that children in care develop positive, stable, relationships so that they can overcome the effects of harmful experiences and go on to thrive.
To ensure that this happens we must support carers and social workers to provide this care - to listen and talk to children about what they need. This is incredibly important but challenging work, which is why providing these groups with support in all aspects of their working environment will help them to build stronger relationships with children and help manage the risks and the rewards.
Ofsted are also introducing new unannounced inspections with the aim of reducing unnecessary bureaucracy. Inspectors will be allowed to observe social work as it really is, not as it has been spruced up to be just before the inspectors arrive. This is an important change because it will mean that the inspectors will see more of social workers in action.
At Barnardo's, we believe it's the ability of social workers to use their own judgement and forge the best possible relationship with the child that makes all the difference and on which inspections must focus.
However, social workers face significant challenges. More and more children are entering care, and at the same time they are having to cope with dwindling resources. Inspection must take into account all aspects of a social worker's role that impacts on their ability to do their job.
Ofsted has also committed to involving children in the inspections process but this promise needs to be turned into meaningful engagement with children. I think it's essential to involve a child in decisions about their lives. As Barnardo's knows, only children themselves can tell us whether the service provided has made a difference.
The government has said that improving the lives of children in care is a national priority. I am certainly heartened by recent steps by them to place children at the heart decisions about their lives. However, I am realistic that the job of transforming children's lives is a challenging one and will be watching carefully to see that the rhetoric matches up to reality.