Looked after children

SAFEGUARDING: Oldham Council acts as a Corporate Parent: with a duty to act as a good parent to children and young people in our care and those in the process of leaving care.

FEW PEOPLE give much thought to safeguarding, children in care or those at risk from harm – when the system works.

The vast majority of the council’s budget is spent on services like this that most of us don’t see or use – but because they take the lion’s share of the budget when the cuts come those same areas are put under massive pressure.

This week Oldham Council’s Cabinet approved a proposal to freeze Council Tax for residents for 2014/5.

We’ve done this because we recognise that – however difficult it will be to balance our budgets with a further £60m of Government cuts in the next few years – many residents are also struggling with their finances. Average weekly wages have dropped from £437 to £417 at the same time as the costs of living, driven by items like utility bills, continue to rise.

We did not want to add to that burden or be the cause of any further financial harm to hard-pressed Oldhamers.

Like all other local authorities, Oldham Council is a ‘Corporate Parent’.

This means that when a young person in our borough is in a situation where it is unsafe and/or impossible to remain with their family, we instead take on that role of a good parent instead.

We provide residential care with experienced and trained staff, as well as working with a brilliant group of foster carers and supporting permanent adoption into new loving and supportive families.

It can be easy to think that being a Council Leader like myself is just about having an overview of big developments which take the majority of the headlines – but the truth is again that the bulk of work is going on quietly behind the scenes.

I chair the Safeguarding Accountability Board where I hold professionals and Cabinet Members to account to ensure those at risk do not fall through the net.

You can never be 100 per cent sure and you can only make judgements on the information provided. This isn’t about political interference, of course, but can be just as simple as asking an innocent question which adds value to the work of our team.

Often this means meeting frontline staff and talking through what works well and how we can help to remove any blockages which might exist.

I take that role as a Corporate Parent very seriously and when presented with an issue, problem or serious safeguarding review, I always ask myself ‘What would I want and expect for my own children?’.

It can be difficult at times to step back and take a measured professional view.

Some of the cases of abuse are harrowing and I have to say there have been times when I’ve left a meeting, or finished reading a report and had to ‘pull myself together’. I hope that just means I’m human.

There are currently nearly 400 ‘Looked After Children’ in Oldham. Their reasons for entering the care system are varied, but many have experienced significant trauma (including abuse or neglect) and need tailored specialist support to ensure that they have every chance in life – like their peers – in family care.

As well as having to cope with the upheaval of moving away from home and the emotional fallout of a troubled family history, children in care can often feel out of control.

Indeed, many are the victims of unfortunate circumstances and – although we do provide care for children on a voluntary basis – many find themselves in our care due to court orders or police intervention and feel unable to change the situation they find themselves in.

That’s why we have an Oldham Children in Care Council, which enables all looked after children to have a voice and share their ideas about how the services we provide for them could be improved.

Children as young as five years old are engaged with this and have the opportunity to regularly meet senior directors and councillors at Oldham Council to give feedback and suggestions about how their care experience could change for the better.

We also make sure to celebrate the many brilliant achievements of our Looked After Children with the ‘Stars in Our Eyes Awards’, which is now in its sixth year.

This year 267 children and care leavers were nominated for various awards which recognise their efforts at school and in extracurricular activities, developing positive social skills and healthy lifestyles, and going on to great things after leaving care, such as attending college and university.

Transition to life as an adult can be hard enough even when you have family to lean on when times get tough, which is why Oldham Council provides After Care support to ensure that our Looked After Children don’t simply ‘drop off the radar’ at 18. We work with them to assess their needs and help them to achieve the things they need to have in place to achieve their aspirations. That includes education, training, employment, mental and physical health, finances, support networks, leisure activities and family contacts: all the things that most people would say they need for a rounded and happy life.

There are many ways that each of us can all do to help create a Cooperative Oldham which supports our young people.

That ranges from looking out for our children’s friends or neighbour’s children and paying Council Tax which funds the borough’s Corporate Parenting services – right through to the efforts of our brilliant foster and adoptive families. Last month, Harold and Glenys Cockroft from Waterhead were named in the New Year honours list after fostering more than 150 children in Oldham over the last 40 years. Clearly their contributions are exemplary, but everyone can ‘do their bit’ in some way.

This isn’t big brother, this is us all working together and setting the standard of what is – and isn’t –acceptable.

It is easy to forget that it can be really difficult to work in social care at times but these people are our unsung heroes in so many ways.

As a Corporate Parent we put our trust in them and give support and challenge in the way you would expect, but we are also left with a deep respect for what they do.

I’d to take this opportunity to say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to all who play a part in this vital field of our work.

Thanks for listening,