It's been four years now since I was trained to become an Independent Visitor by my local council, under a scheme that matches adult volunteers with children living in care - or looked after children as they are known. The goal of an Independent Visitor (IV) is to befriend a young person in care, to arrange outings for them which are fun, to provide advice, and to generally be on their side. The match begins with a meeting attended by volunteer, young person, their social worker and the children's rights service. If all goes well, the vibes are good, and there is a sound connection, then a first outing is arranged, which will be some activity chosen by the child.
The first young girl with whom I was matched loved fashion, so our very first trip out together was to the V&A exhibition of wedding dresses, which she loved. We then ended up in Harrods, mooching through the rails of ball gowns, pretending we could afford them, giggling together and generally bonding. We soon got into a regular routine of monthly trips out, and over our time together we went ice-skating, boating on the Serpentine, window shopping at Westfield, and often to the cinema. A meal out was always involved, and the chance for me to listen, to be focused only on her. It was her special time. As an IV your role is always to be on the child's side; an easy feat, as she was such a lovely girl. Eventually, she left care and returned to her parents and the match ended.
I've been out just three times with the young person I'm now matched with, and she is an equally lovely girl. On our first visit out, I took her to the poetry library on the Southbank, and we strolled among the street performers and buskers by the Thames. We found ourselves at the National Theatre, where we came across a leaflet for the play, An Inspector Calls. She was studying this for GCSE, she said, so I booked us tickets for a future visit. The production was spectacular and it helped her absorb some of the many quotes she would need to learn for her exam. We've also been to Winter Wonderland, where she was happy to brave the rides herself while I, scaredy cat, shot video footage for her. We have a lovely photo of us holding hands on ice thrones in the freezing walk-through Ice Kingdom. Again, a meal out and the chance to chat will always feature on our days together.
The visits are generally once a month, mostly at the weekend, and I'm usually out of the house for around five hours. I find it enriching, I find it often humbling, and I always learn something. As Independent Visitors we may also be requested to attend care review meetings with the young person. Here our presence is simply to help them express their views, should they need our support, to be their voice - nothing more. I've not been asked to help in this way yet, but am ready to give her any support she wants from me.
IVs are totally independent from social workers, foster carers and others involved in the child's care. Often they can provide continuity in the life of a young person, who may find themselves transferred from one foster home to another, or experience a string of different social workers. Above all, an IV must be reliable and consistent in their support, and commit to at least one year before taking the role on. Hopefully the friendship will last for much longer, of course - until they reach adulthood if that is the child's wish.
As to the training, well it is broad and deep and takes place over several weekend or evening sessions. It embraces policy issues, including Every Child Matters as enshrined in the 1989 Children Act, also safeguarding issues and the realities of life in care. Role plays bring various tricky potential scenarios to life, though in my experience thus far nothing untoward has happened during my many outings. Training is also ongoing, with regular support meetings for all IVs currently active for the local council. We receive expenses for the activities we organise for the children, and are allowed to buy gifts for birthdays and Christmas - but strictly not at any other times.
The existence of IVs is little known and very few children in care apparently have one. But if you Google IV and your local council you will readily come across information for your region in the UK. Because every council has a legal duty to provide an IV for each looked after child in its care, whether it embraces this in-house, or contracts it out. IVs come from all walks of life - and apparently there is a particular shortage of men to undertake the role. As an opportunity to volunteer I can tell you that it is right there at the coalface, that it's much valued, and that the rewards are priceless.
Diane Chandler is the author of two novels, Moondance, about a couple struggling to conceive, and The Road to Donetsk, about an idealistic overseas aid worker in Ukraine.