I write this letter fresh from the celebration of a new year which, for many of us, is a short holiday and time to take stock. The brave among us make resolutions. Some people are good far-sighted life planners, others are good at setting bite-sized goals with or without a life plan.
Planning for children is usually in the hope of giving them the best start for a secure and fulfilled life. It is usually wrapped up in planning for the family and is done as and when big (and small) decisions crop up.
Planning for children under guardianship of the Minister is complicated by the number of adults involved and the procedures required of public administration. In many ways though, it is the same. The decisions range from the day-to-day care to the critical ones about moving house or changing school. Less frequent is the time to dream, aspire, and hope for what we want for the child.
The Children’s Protection Act requires an annual review of a child’s circumstances when the child is under the long-term guardianship of the Minister. Administration of an annual review checks off on the ‘life domains’ for a child, such as physical and mental health, education, family contact, and placement. More significantly though, it is a ‘pause’ in the day to day business of parenting a child who is in care. It is a time for reflecting on the goals and ambitions, achievements and challenges for each child or young person. It is sometimes the one time in a year when the many adults in a child’s life can confer on whether they can ‘parent’ better.
A high standard of annual review is one where the focus is on the quality of the child or young person’s care arrangements with consideration given to their stability, sense of belonging, connectedness to carer and birth families, cultural identity, physical safety, emotional security, development opportunities, academic achievement and the child’s wishes now and for the future. It is not an administrative process. The child, their carers, relevant agencies, and where appropriate, the birth family, should be included.
In the very busy and demanding work of child protection agencies, the reasonable response to a non-urgent task that requires a heap of coordination, is to defer or ration it by doing the minimum.
But if we shift our way of thinking about this, it is possible that an annual review could become the most important thing to do, and the most enjoyable.
Just for a moment, if I stop being ‘the worker’ and become ‘the parent’ I want to know how she (the child) is, what she thinks, what brings meaning to her life and what she finds funny or misses or hopes for. I look forward to asking about her and to sharing what I hear with others who want the best by her too. I listen closely to what others say about her because they see parts of her life I don’t. I want to prevent the hurts and disappointments, and if I can’t do that I want to be sure that she has someone to help her through.
Workers aren’t parents of the children in care. However, to a greater or lesser extent, they have parenting responsibilities, together with a bunch of others and especially the carers. There lies the joy. In our new way of thinking, this is the one chance in a hectic year to acknowledge the parenting achievements and challenges, and those of the child.
Senior Advocate Amanda Shaw joins annual review panels for the purpose of auditing. She tells me of reviews that are joyous or wretched, and sometimes both. The reviews done well are heavily influenced by the Manager’s attention, the panel chair’s skill, the social worker’s knowledge of the child, the information from others such as the school teacher, the carers’ input and the child’s presence, in person or ‘voice’. A good review takes an hour and balances heavy topics with light, and has both detail and open discussion. Everyone leaves the review knowing what is to be done by whom and by when, and with a good sense of this child and how they are faring.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the annual review is mandatory because it must feel imposed. If instead it was triggered by an anniversary or a celebration, like the start of a new year, then everyone would approach it with enthusiasm and anticipation. In the real world of too much to be done and too little time, if not approached with enthusiasm, at least with knowledge of the significance of the discussion to this child’s future.