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Corporate Parenting: What Can The Westminster Government Do Better?

14/12/2016 14:28

About three years ago, I went to an awards event at a local authority. There were local councillors there, including the cabinet member with responsibility for looked after children and care leavers. That cabinet member stood up and said to the care leavers there that the councillors were their corporate parents.

A care leaver put up her hand and said that of course they weren't her corporate parents - they didn't do the things that parents do, like walking her to school. There was an awkward silence.

Since then it's puzzled me - we all talk about corporate parenting, we hold corporate parenting panels, we write corporate parenting strategies, and yet we've never quite understood what corporate parenting is.

There is currently no reference or definition in English law about corporate parenting and to me, this is a problem. How can we move forward to give children the best chance of a childhood that can lead to a positive future when we can't even articulate what our duty to them is? However, the Children and Social Work Bill is currently going through parliament, and it will introduce 'principles for corporate parenting' into statute - but I just don't think this will be enough.

In addition to introducing the principles, the Bill will tell us who, or what, these principles apply to. We'll know that they apply to local authorities, including two tier authorities, so it will include housing teams.

The principles will tell us that local authorities must:

• Act in the best interests of children in care and care leavers and to promote their physical and mental health and their well being;

• Encourage children and young people to share their wishes and feelings, and take them into account;

• To help them gain access to and make best use of services provided by the local authority and relevant partners;

• To promote high aspirations and seek to secure the best outcomes for them;

• For those children and young people to be safe and have stability in their home lives and relationships, education, and work;

• To prepare them for adulthood and independent living.

However, neither these principles, nor the legislation being brought in by the Government in Westminster, consider that fact that it is not just local authorities that should be doing this.

While local authorities obviously have the primary duties for caring for children in care and care leavers, when a child is taken into care, they are removed into the care of the state. And the state is so much more than the local authority.

It is the justice system, the education system, the health system, the Prime Minister - the state and all its bodies, functions and levels. So while having corporate parenting ambitions on the face of legislation is good, it does risk reinforcing the belief that corporate parenting is for local authorities alone.

In contrast, part 9 of the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2015 puts the concept and policy of corporate parenting onto a statutory basis in Scotland. It establishes a framework of duties and responsibilities for relevant public bodies, requiring them to be systematic and proactive in their efforts to meet the needs of looked after children and care leavers.

It came into force in April 2015, and there are 24 corporate parents including Creative Scotland, Scottish Sports Council, local authorities and health boards, the police and fire service, among others and they have responsibility for fulfilling the following duties, in their own way:

• Being alert to matters which adversely affect the well being of looked after children and care leavers;

• Assessing the needs of those children and young people for the services and support they provide;

• Promoting the interests of those children and young people;

• Seeking to provide opportunities which will promote the well being of looked after children and care leavers;

• Taking action to help children and young people access such opportunities and make use of the services and support provided.

So while on the face of it it seems quite similar to England, the key difference is that the law enforces these duties on many more corporate parents, and the definition of who or what a corporate parent is, is much wider in Scotland.

The Act also puts a duty on all corporate parents to prepare, publish and review a corporate parenting plan which must set out how they'll exercise their corporate parenting responsibilities, as well as a duty to collaborate with each other while exercising their corporate parenting duties - so that will include developing and enacting their corporate parenting plans. They also must report on how they're doing to Scottish Ministers.

This shift has helped to change the way that corporate parenting is talked about in Scotland. No longer is the focus on the local authorities as the corporate parents with other bodies being able to class themselves as part of the wider corporate family relying on the local authorities to act first. There has been a change of language, a change of understanding. Before, agencies could be passive - the reason for not acting could be blamed on local authorities. Now, the responsibility sits firmly with each and every corporate parent.

How can two nations, so closely entwined, have such differing views on who are corporate parents to children who have nowhere else to turn?

Corporate parenting is about each social worker, each local councillor, each Minister, and the Prime Minister recognising that it is their duty, and I think - their privilege - to ensure that every single child who lives in our care system can have the life that they deserve.

Corporate parenting is about changing our culture to be more caring, more compassionate, to share the load with others, and to recognise our responsibilities as professionals. I doubt there is a single person who works with looked after children and care leavers who has not had sleepless nights worrying about whether their work is good enough. How many professionals have had dinners spoilt by not being able to get that report, that story, that case, out of their head?

Corporate parenting is a shared responsibility that should be taken as seriously as any budget.

We love the children we devote our lives to helping, fiercely. We defend them every day, fiercely. We fight for their rights every day, fiercely.

We are part of the solution.

We are part of the change in culture that will make people recognise themselves as corporate parents to children in care.

I hope that Government considers that it can't put further responsibility onto local authorities without extra support and backing, and still expect them to be able do our children justice. They must support local authorities in sharing the load when it comes to the responsibility of corporate parenting, and I believe they should reflect on whether they take their position as corporate parents as seriously as those who work on the front line each day take theirs.

Because that is the least that these children deserve.

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