For some people advocacy is a lifeline

‘I’D no-one to stand up for my rights. With an advocate perhaps things would have been different’

Duncan Dunlop is chief executive of Who Cares? Scotland. Picture: Contributed

Access to independent advocacy is a must for young people with care experience

In Scotland, looked-after young people and care leavers do not have a legislative right to independent advocacy services. The role of an advocate is to empower young people to be able to express their views and assist them in making informed decisions on matters which affect their lives.

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At Who Cares? Scotland, along with the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition, of which we are members, we believe it is vital that care experienced young people across Scotland are granted the right to independent, professional advocacy.

We know that care experienced young people struggle to form the trusting, loving relationships that we all strive to provide for our own children. However, we also know that the “system” does not always help these young people to build these relationships with adult professionals. Time is not always on the professional’s side with their expanding caseloads. Trust takes time to develop but this relationship is what many care experienced young people crave to help them open up and share their experiences.

If we, as adults, are involved in powerful processes or systems which could potentially change our circumstances or the course of our life, we would be encouraged to seek support or representation from someone independent of those involved. However, care experienced young people are often asked to contend with life-changing decisions and formal meetings on a frequent basis. Often they have to navigate these processes on their own, appeasing others and with no independent advocate.

This is not to say that those involved do not act in the best interests of the young person. However, in many cases these young people do not understand why those around them are making the decisions they are. Often those around them are not able to afford the time needed to communicate to the young person in a way that suits their needs. Advocacy can help. The relationship formed between the young person and their advocate enables their needs to be better assessed.

Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child makes very clear that every child has the right to say what they think in all matters affecting them and to have their views taken seriously. Advocacy helps to make that right a reality for those children and young people who would not otherwise be able or allowed to share their views. We recognise that advocacy provision is inconsistent across Scotland. We estimate that less than 20 per cent of Scotland’s looked after population have access to independent advocacy.

Thomas Timlin, 24, is care experienced. He is also a qualified social worker and often reflects on the difference an independent advocate could have made to his abusive foster placement as a child.

He says: “Growing up I was subject to abuse, neglect, trauma and abandonment. My childhood experiences were not solely a result of inadequate parenting from my birth parents.

“Those trusted to look after me by the state were unable to provide me with a safe, loving environment.

“My childhood began in an abusive environment. This became my normality. The state became my parent, but failed to make me aware of how I should expect to be treated. This resulted in me believing I was being treated in a particular way because I was a ‘broken child’ and the new adults in my life were fixing me.

“In 2013, my former foster mother was convicted of abusing four young people, including myself – my foster father was cleared on a not proven verdict. The sheriff stated the evidence provided by some of my foster siblings and I would ‘match a Dickensian description for life for deprived Victorian children’.

“My next placement broke down when I was 16. Isolation from the world became my reality again and I had no-one to stand up for my rights. If I had an advocate, perhaps things would have been different. Perhaps they would have asked about my life and helped me see this wasn’t normal.”

Care experienced young people with complex needs often find it difficult to engage with services. As a result they will often leave the care system too early.

Let’s now make access to independent advocacy a statutory right for those who need it so that we can improve a system that often fails those who are forced into it. Show your support and take the today.

• Duncan Dunlop is chief executive of Who Cares? Scotland, a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition,a