What is it really like inside Cambridgeshire's care system? Professionals and young people share their experiences
PUBLISHED: 13:40 14 March 2019 | UPDATED: 14:21 14 March 2019
After an Ofsted report found the health needs of children in care were "too often" not being met, care leavers and care workers have spoken out about the realities of the county's care system.
An unannounced inspection of Cambridgeshire County Council’s children’s social care services took place between January 7 and January 18 this year.
According to a report from Ofsted, the authority which monitors education and children’s services standards, many aspects of the service need improvement.
The report highlights fears children’s health and care needs were “too often” not being met, and that things like dental checks and immunisations for children in care “remain poor”. The county council says it welcomes the report and is already working “swiftly” to address some of the shortcomings.
The county’s care system has been going through an overhaul and, it has been claimed, is now very different from how it was in January. People working within the care system say the report was simply a “snapshot”, and not indicative of the realities.
Now care professionals and young people who have been through the care system have come forward to talk about the pressures inside the system, and how it is already changing to help provide the best care for children and young people.
Sophie: A care leaver
“At the time you think you are like the big man but, looking back on it, I was only a kid”
A 19-year-old has spoken out about her experiences of going through the care system in Cambridgeshire.
The 19-year-old, who asked to only be identified as Sophie, said she first came into the care system in Cambridgeshire when her mental health problems became too severe for her family to offer her the support she needed.
Sophie said: “I was 13 when I first went into care. I have had mental health issues since I was 11. It started with bad behaviour and developed from there. That got too much for my family to cope with.
“After a bad argument, it was decided I would not be able to return and was given a new home. I was already with social care. They were helping us get through this. The next day, a placement was found in a care home with other children.”
Sophie moved into accommodation in Cambridge. She said she was the only girl and was housed with boys who were involved in drugs and were sometimes violent and disruptive.
“It was a little bit scary,” Sophie said. “At the time you think you are like the big man but, looking back on it, I was only a kid. I was the only girl in the house with five other boys.
“They were more disruptive than I was. I did have outbursts, but it wasn’t like drugs or violence. That stuff is not tolerated by staff, but they could not control it all the time or if they were doing it outside the house.
“I was there for two or three months and then I was moved to a family home. The family was really really lovely. I still have contact with them now. I don’t think they were used to having older children. Me being 14 was different from what they were used to.”
Sophie said her mental health issues would lead to aggressive behaviour and outbursts. She said she was never violent towards other people, but that her feelings would lead her towards being destructive towards herself.
“My behaviour was challenging,” Sophie said. “I’d have outbursts with me being verbally aggressive and I would throw things in my room and self-harm and run away.”
According to Sophie, there is a lot of staff turnaround, with social workers and personal assistants assigned to work with young people often moving on to new roles. She said this could be disruptive and could be frustrating.
Sophie said: “The only constant level of care I had then was from the child and adult mental health service. It was the same psychiatrist. But, even now, the person who looks after us changes. My social worker or personal assistant will change. People move on or get new jobs.
“I would say for people who need help, it would go a long way to have consistency in their life. I am over 18 now and am technically a care leaver. For a long time, until I was 18, I wanted to get rid of the label of being in care. But there are still people there for you and there is still help if you need it.”
Sophie said some changes and restructures within the service were not explained properly, She said she thought some new moves were not explained properly to personal assistants and other staff, and so could not then be explained to care leavers and others using the service.
“I am alright at the moment,” Sophie said. “I moved back with my family in July last year. It is really lovely. It was a long process to repair my relationship but I am really grateful we are where we are. My main support is now from my family. My mental health is much better.”
Sophie said she now wanted to go to university, with the intention to either become a doctor or a paramedic. She said she has wanted to be a doctor since she was 10, but knows it will be a lot of work to get there.
Steve Baxter: Personal Assistant
“The main part of my job is to gain trust from them”
Steve is Sophie’s personal assistant. He works with her and other children and young people to help them get their lives back to normal.
Steve gave up a job in teaching and accepted a pay cut to help in the care system. He said teaching had become too much about hitting targets, while his new role gives him the chance to actually help young people.
“My job is very varied,” said Steve. “That is one of the things I like about it.”
Steve is a personal assistant to 25 young people aged between 18 and 25 years old. He helps them with practical things like securing housing, as well as giving them help and support with their mental wellbeing.
“They are all considered care leavers,” said Steve. “They have spent time in the care system for various reasons. Some of them have been in the system since they were very young.
“Sophie was in the care system down to mental health issues but it is difficult to give one reason a lot of them are there. I always look back to their histories.”
Steve agreed that continuity is very important for care leavers, and that young people definitely benefit from seeing the same person regularly.
“The main part of my job is to gain trust from them,” said Steve. “It is very difficult to build trust.”
Steve said he is critical of the Ofsted report. He said it was simply a “snapshot” of the care system which could not fully represent all the hard work going on behind the scenes.
“We are working exceptionally hard with the resources we have,” said Steve. “We are doing what we can for the young people. But workloads are quite high.”
The Ofsted report noted that “too often” young people’s health needs, including dental checks, were not being met. Steve said it is difficult with young people over the age of 18. He said they are adults at that age and, while they can be encouraged to visit the doctor or the dentist, there is no way to force them.
Steve said there are many financial pressures on social workers and personal assistants. He said the proposed introduction of “flexible charging” for people driving cars into the city would be another expense as many of them rely on cars to visit all the young people they are helping.
Cambridgeshire County Council remains responsible for all the care leavers who began in the system here, wherever they might move in the country.
This, Steve has to travel all over the UK to visit young people from Cambridgeshire who might be studying or living elsewhere. He said this costs the council a lot in travel expenses.
He said the work was important, though, and that it was imperative to help “some of the most disaffected people” in society.
Kate Knight: Social Care Team leader
“A lot of these young people get to their 18th birthday and it feels like their world has fallen apart”
Kate is a team leader responsible for children and young people at Cambridgeshire County Council. Kate said she is confident that, if the Ofsted inspectors returned to Cambridgeshire now, they would see a very different picture from the one they had encountered in January.
“When you are going through change, it takes such a long time to work through that,” said Kate. “But we are dedicated to making sure these children are safe. If Ofsted came to look today, they would see a lot has changed.”
She said a new restructure (called the ‘change for children’ restructure) in the system had been going on, and that the inspectors had arrived too early to really see the benefits being brought into the system.
She praised the roles of personal assistants like Steve in complementing the work of social workers and giving young people an additional point of contact. She said the work to help young people leaving care was vital to their futures.
“A lot of these young people get to their 18th birthday and it feels like their world has fallen apart,” said Kate. “Being there is really important for young people.”
Kate said looking after young people leaving care should not solely rest on the work of the county council, and said all of society should take a role in helping make sure they had the best possible futures.
She said they were reaching out to businesses, educational establishments, and major employers, as well as Cambridge United football club, in a bid to improve the “local offer” and help care leavers find opportunities to advance with education and employment opportunities.
“It is all about embedding these relationships,” said Kate. “It is a culture change, and we are working towards it.
“We want to encourage kids to be engaged and aspirational. There are lots of really great kids out there who can really give back to society.”