Y Pwyllgor Plant, Pobl Ifanc ac Addysg - Y Bumed Senedd
Children, Young People and Education Committee - Fifth Senedd18/03/2021
Aelodau'r Pwyllgor a oedd yn bresennol
Committee Members in Attendance
|Dawn Bowden MS|
|Hefin David MS|
|Laura Anne Jones MS|
|Lynne Neagle MS||Cadeirydd y Pwyllgor|
|Sian Gwenllian MS|
|Suzy Davies MS|
Y rhai eraill a oedd yn bresennol
Others in Attendance
|Ben Twomey||Cyfarwyddwr Polisi ac Ymchwil, Gwasanaeth Eiriolaeth Ieuenctid Cenedlaethol Cymru|
|Director of Policy and Research, National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) Cymru|
|Brigitte Gater||Cyfarwyddwr Cenedlaethol Cymru, Gweithredu dros Blant|
|National Director Wales, Action for Children|
|Cecile Gwilym||Rheolwr Polisi a Materion Cyhoeddus, NSPCC|
|Policy & Public Affairs Manager, NSPCC|
|Deborah Jones||Prif Swyddog Gweithredol, Voices From Care|
|Chief Executive Officer, Voices from Care|
|Emma Phipps-Magill||Rheolwr Llesiant, Voices From Care|
|Well-being Manager, Voices from Care|
|Jackie Murphy||Prif Swyddog Gweithredol, Tros Gynnal Plant Cymru|
|Chief Executive Officer, Tros Gynnal Plant Cymru|
|Jan Coles||Pennaeth Gwasanaethau Plant, Cyngor Sir Powys|
|Head of Children’s Services, Powys County Council|
|Jonathan Griffiths||Cyfarwyddwr Gwasanaethau Cymdeithasol a Thai, Cyngor Sir Penfro|
|Director of Social Services and Housing, Pembrokeshire County Council|
|Nicola Stubbins||Llywydd Cymdeithas Cyfarwyddwyr Gwasanaethau Cymdeithasol Cymru (ADSS)|
|President of the Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS) Cymru|
|Sally Jenkins||Pennaeth Gwasanaethau Plant a Theuluoedd, Cyngor Dinas Casnewydd|
|Head of Children and Family Services, Newport City Council|
|Sarah Crawley||Cyfarwyddwr Gwasanaethau Plant, Barnardo’s Cymru|
|Director of Children’s Services, Barnardo’s Cymru|
|Sharon Lovell||Prif Swyddog Gweithredol, Gwasanaeth Eiriolaeth Ieuenctid Cenedlaethol Cymru (NYAS)|
|Chief Executive Officer, National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) Cymru|
Swyddogion y Senedd a oedd yn bresennol
Senedd Officials in Attendance
|Sarah Bartlett||Dirprwy Glerc|
Cofnodir y trafodion yn yr iaith y llefarwyd hwy ynddi yn y pwyllgor. Yn ogystal, cynhwysir trawsgrifiad o’r cyfieithu ar y pryd. Lle mae cyfranwyr wedi darparu cywiriadau i’w tystiolaeth, nodir y rheini yn y trawsgrifiad.
The proceedings are reported in the language in which they were spoken in the committee. In addition, a transcription of the simultaneous interpretation is included. Where contributors have supplied corrections to their evidence, these are noted in the transcript.
Cyfarfu'r pwyllgor drwy gynhadledd fideo.
Dechreuodd y cyfarfod am 09:16.
The committee met by video-conference.
The meeting began at 09:16.
Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the Children, Young People and Education Committee. In accordance with Standing Order 34.19, I've determined that the public are excluded from the committee's meeting in order to protect public health. And in accordance with Standing Order 34.21, notice of this meeting was included with the agenda published on Monday. The meeting is, however, being broadcast live on Senedd.tv with all participants joining via video-conference and, as usual, a Record of Proceedings will be published. Aside from the procedural adaptation relating to remote proceedings, all other Standing Order requirements for committees remain in place.
As usual, the meeting is bilingual and simultaneous translation from Welsh to English is available. If we become aware that there's an issue with the translation, I'll ask you to pause for a moment while our meeting technicians reset the system. We've received no apologies for absence. Can I ask Members if there are any declarations of interest, please? No. Okay, thank you. Can I remind Members, then, that if I drop out for any reason, it's been agreed that Dawn Bowden MS will temporarily chair while I try to rejoin?
So, that takes us on then to item 2, which is an evidence session on the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable children, including steps towards recovery. And I'm really pleased to welcome our witnesses this morning: Sarah Crawley, director of children’s services at Barnardo’s Cymru; Brigitte Gater, national director for Wales at Action for Children; and Cecile Gwilym, policy and public affairs manager at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. So, thank you all for joining us. If it's okay, we'll go straight into questions and the first questions are from Suzy Davies, who's still on—. There we are; we're all right.
There we are. I just wanted to say welcome and thank you all for coming. I just want to discuss generally, in an overarching way, the referrals and the profile of referrals that you know about, either to social services or to yourselves over the course of the last year. Where are the referrals coming from? How many are they? How many self-referrals are happening as well for those of you who are able to take self-referrals? I don't know who wants to start.
Who'd like to start? Cecile.
Yes, good morning. Thank you for the question. As far as referrals to local authorities are concerned, we don't have, obviously, an in-depth picture. We work in partnership with local authorities, obviously, but we would talk about our own services. So, what's been happening at NSPCC, so following an initial drop in referrals when everything closed down last year, we've continued to see, actually, quite a steady stream of referrals throughout the pandemic, and that's because we've been able to offer, as have others, a mixture of virtual and face-to-face services.
So, where there's a need and where restrictions allow, we've obviously done stringent risk assessments and we've been able to provide some degree of face-to-face services for those who really need it. For example, if a young person or a family wasn't engaging through digital means, we would look to, where possible, see them face to face. So, for instance, our 'In Ctrl' service, which is our online safety, we've been able to offer that through the whole of Wales thanks to Welsh Government funding. We've actually seen a steady increase in referrals to this service over the last few months, and that's come from a wide range of partners, including children's services, early intervention providers and schools.
On the other hand, our—[Inaudible.]—service, which is 'Protect and Respect', we've seen, as you'd expect, a drop in referrals coming from schools, for instance, because we've got two parts to this service; we have an awareness-raising part of the service where we used to go into school, we used to do group work with young people who were at risk due to vulnerabilities. Obviously, that side of the service, due to schools not operating in the normal way, we've seen slowing down slightly, but what we've seen really pick up is the 'support and protect' part of the service, which is for young people where there are concerns that they have experienced CSE. So, what we've seen is referrals that are more complex and young people with a higher level of need coming in to us, and that's coming mostly from local authorities.
Can I just ask—? Sorry, you said referrals for CSE?
Sorry—child sexual exploitation. Yes. Sorry.
Ah, right, sorry—for the record.
Okay. If you've finished there, Cecile, who would like to come in next? Brigitte. Oh, you're on mute.
Got you. Okay, thank you, and thanks for inviting us. I would echo Cecile's comments earlier. I think the one thing that we would want to say from Action for Children's perspective is that we've retained services throughout the pandemic, even if it's been a blended digital and face-to-face approach. What we've actually seen is referrals higher for our family support-type services, those around emotional well-being, and particularly around domestic violence, where we would say that referrals have increased. Interestingly, some of our disability services, take-up of offers, they've all been there, but sometimes the take-up has been down, and that sometimes is the result of people feeling fearful for their disabled children or because parts of families are shielding and therefore have not been able to take up services. And I think some of the feedback that we've had from some of our disabled children and young people and families has been that they don't want this to be interpreted as, 'They don't need this service.' So, they're quite fearful as well that it may be interpreted that actually they don't need the support, whereas at the moment they are tending to sort of hunker down because they are still fearful about exposing children and young people to COVID risks.
The other interesting fact that we've seen in some of our children's homes is that children have experienced less pressure and therefore they have not had to negotiate complex relationships with family members or complex issues within school environments, and so for some children—. I think it's really important that it's not impacted children in the same way—all children. Some children have felt that this has been a less pressurised time for them, even though they have experienced loss around interaction with friends and peers and trusted adults. So, those would be our headlines in terms of the changes in terms of referrals to Action for Children.
Okay, thank you. Before I come to Sarah, can I just pick up on that point about disabled children and their families? We've also had evidence that the school hub provision hasn't really been taken up by those families in the way we might have expected them to as well. Have they spoken to you about that as well, and are they not going for the same reasons?
I think it would probably be the same reasons. There has been some feedback that some families have felt it complex to negotiate through that system in terms of access to school, but I think it's probably that, around fearfulness, exposing children, so really just hunkering down with their particularly very, very vulnerable and often medically vulnerable children. I would agree, yes.
Okay, thank you. Sarah.
Thank you for inviting us to give evidence. It's important during COVID that we are looking at the impact on children and young people, so thank you for that. We did see a drop—quite a significant drop—in referrals, early on in the pandemic. We actually saw a 45 per cent drop initially, which we were monitoring and looking at very closely. And those referrals were both self-referrals and referrals through early-help hubs, in terms of people actually accessing services through local authorities, through their GP, through mental health and a step down from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. So, we did see a very significant initial drop, but that's gradually picked up, and it picked up certainly when children and young people went back to school in autumn, and we're expecting—. We've had a bit of a drop again and we're expecting to see a real surge in increase as children go back into education, and they become more visible. A lot of children have been at home; they haven't been visible to professionals. And what we're also seeing is an increase in complexity—children who have experienced trauma and loss through this period and they're coming into our service with greater needs.
What we're also seeing through areas like See, Hear, Respond, which is our all-Wales trauma-responsive service for therapeutic support during COVID, is that 15 per cent of the people who'd been referred to that service had actually made self-referrals. And often, they'd comment that they didn't know where else to go, or they'd contacted their local authority and they weren't sure they were going to receive a service. And we've had over 26 per cent of referrals from schools, so, schools are a major, major referrer for us, and they often say, 'Actually, we're not quite sure what to do about this child's anxiety, about them returning to school.'
We've also seen greater access, actually, in some of our disability services where we've been able to engage parents—and particularly through parent programmes—in varying hours of the day. So, we've been able to offer more evenings and approaches through the evenings through Google Classrooms and different blended ways of delivering our services and our support. And just like Brigitte, we haven't ceased any service delivery whatsoever throughout the pandemic, and have continued to retain all services and all delivery to our children and young people. So, generally, referrals have gone down, but we think there's going to be a second surge as children and young people become more visible. Just to say that short break support for children with disabilities has been patchy; some of that is provided in a school environment and that's obviously been difficult. And we've also seen young carers having greater needs and issues throughout this, particularly, as Brigitte mentioned earlier, where they're shielding their relatives and the loved ones that they care for, and greater anxieties about those returning to school with COVID still around and us still being in the pandemic.
Thanks, Sarah. Suzy.
Would it be fair to say—I want to ask you one more question, so if we can keep this one short—that the willingness of children and young people to engage online when they're able to has helped you all be able to provide an all-Wales response in a genuinely meaningful way—you know, that we don't have the geographical gaps anymore? And is it also true to say that the nature of some of your referrals have changed and become more complex and are very identifiably as a result of COVID? Would that be fair?
Right. Thank you for that. What are the children telling you about the impact on their families and on their own mental health? Are they getting the mental health services they were getting before?
I think there's a great difficulty with resources and access. I don't think that's changed. I think we already had high demand in our mental health and well-being services. We've seen the demand go up in our family well-being service in Cardiff and we've seen demands go up for our Beyond the Blue service in Bridgend and Neath. We've seen demand going up, but what we've also seen is children and young people who we would never have seen before, displaying low mood, displaying anxiety, and also, we've seen levels of self-harm and suicidal ideation go up quite significantly within our service. So, that notes to the complexity that you were talking about earlier. And we are often the step-down service or the early intervention and prevention service, on the edge of CAMHS support, so child and adolescent mental health service support. And we are seeing a rapid increase in demand.
What we're also having to do with the pan-Wales services and services we offer flexibly remotely is we're actually giving parents coping strategies for how to support their child with their behaviour and their mood. We're seeing quite a lot more aggressive behaviours from children towards their parents, unable to cope being in this restricted environment, and we're seeing that very much exacerbated for children with autism, ADHD and other disabilities. So, we are seeing a changing dimension to our services, and I think we need more family well-being support, between the bridge between school and the community and those families, because this isn't about medicalising these issues, it's actually about having these issues supported within the family environment.
Thank you. Cecile, when you come in now, I wonder if you can just tell us whether the children and young people are telling you that perhaps they can't get the child and adolescent mental health services support that they were anticipating as part of their step up.
Absolutely. I was actually going to come in and very much echo what Sarah was saying. In Childline, we're seeing very much similar issues. Obviously, emotional and mental health continues to be the main reason why children contact Childline, and we have all sorts of worries about the pandemic—bereavement, missing loved ones, missing friends, worries about schools and education. Also, the fact that the isolation and the loneliness have been co-existing with mental health issues, so we have seen growing levels of self-harm and suicidal ideation, as Sarah was saying.
And one of the things that we're saying is that the availability of face-to-face services has been an issue. So, obviously, they've continued to have CAMHS support, but sometimes these services have had to move on the phone or online, and for some young people, whilst we were saying that some young people have welcomed the shift and that they've actually engaged much better, it's been really tricky, and sometimes they've found it very difficult to engage. And they have actually, sometimes, fallen off a little bit, and they stop returning workers' calls, or they're telling Childline that they do not really want, they're not looking forward to speaking to the CAMHS keyworker any more, because they maybe feel that it's not as meaningful as it was before.
So, I think the digital support works both ways. For some, it's really beneficial, but for others, it can be really challenging. So, obviously, we really welcome the focus on the mental health needs of children in school, and through the whole-school approach particularly, but one of the things that we'd really like to see is to ensure that the needs of younger children are also considered, because, sometimes, counselling might not be always the most appropriate form for younger children. So, it's worth looking at alternative ways to make sure that these younger children are also supported in the way that is the most meaningful for them.
Thank you. And, then, just to finish, Chair, Brigitte, would you agree that there's been a growth in this missing middle area of demand, but that—
Yes, absolutely. I would agree with everything that Sarah and Cecile have already told you. I would actually just echo the fact that there are levels of distress and anxiousness for everybody, so I think that is exacerbated for those children and young people that we already connect with as a wider social care community, and there are a number of children and families that will emerge from the pandemic presenting with higher levels of distress and anxiousness. So, I think all those things about, yes, we've seen an increase in self-harm, we've seen family breakdown, and we've seen lots of children and young people really worried about parents, I think. So, that sort of burden of parents certainly not thriving, not being able to cope very well in very confined settings, with limited amounts of money.
And I think the one thing that we've done is we've allocated around £200,000-worth of voluntary income throughout Wales during the last year, and some of the requests for that have been really straightforward, like, 'I just need a fence building so my disabled child can go in the garden' or 'I need a skip to empty a back room to create more space.' So, all these sorts of things that we've been able to respond to, but they've been quite unique really, really, really unique requests for help and support that we've never really acknowledged before, I've got to say.
Thank you for that. I'm sure this affects different families in different ways, which will emerge in other questions, I'm sure, Chair.
Okay. Thank you. We're going to move on now then to some questions from Siân Gwenllian.
Diolch yn fawr, a bore da. Dwi eisiau jest drilio i lawr ychydig bach mwy ar yr effeithiau negyddol sydd yn dechrau eu hamlygu eu hunain rŵan ar draws y cohort rydyn ni'n ei drafod y bore yma. Ond yn benodol, ydych chi'n gweld bod yna rai grwpiau penodol o fewn y diffiniad o blant sy'n agored i newid, oes yna themâu yn dechrau dod allan fod yna rai grwpiau yn cael eu heffeithio'n waeth na'i gilydd, neu angen mwy o gefnogaeth na'i gilydd? Er enghraifft, rydyn ni wedi sôn am ofalwyr ifanc. Ond plant anabl, plant sydd efo anghenion dysgu ychwanegol, ac yn y blaen, oes yna ryw dueddiad—ydy'r gefnogaeth angen bod yn fwy ar gyfer rhai grwpiau?
Thank you very much, Chair, and good morning, everyone. I want to drill down a little bit more into the negative impacts that are starting to emerge now across the cohort that we're discussing this morning. But specifically, are you seeing that there are some specific groups within that definition of vulnerable children, are there themes starting to emerge that there are specific groups being affected worse than others, or that need additional support, or more support than other groups? For example, we've talked about young carers. But what about disabled children, children with additional learning needs, and so on, are there any trends there, does the support need to be greater for specific groups?
Who'd like to start? Cecile.
Yes, thank you. Diolch for your question. I think—and I'm sure Brigitte and Sarah will have lots of other comments—for me, there's a particular group of children that we haven't maybe talked about as much as we should, and that's babies and infants. Obviously, I think their needs have been really severely impacted by the pandemic, and their development sometimes has been impaired by the lack of opportunities for social interaction, and also because of the limited support for parents. What we've seen during the pandemic is that the support for parents during the perinatal period has really been affected, and we know that that's really been a struggle for new parents during that time. There was a report recently published by the Maternal Mental Health Alliance that says exactly that—that families have really struggled to access the support that they need. We already know that up to one in five mums, and one in 10 dads, experience mental health issues during pregnancy and within the first year after birth. And so, it's making it really difficult for them to care for their children in the way that they want to and in the way that they need to. So, for me, that's the first group of children whose needs have been impaired, and we really need to make sure that there are more opportunities. Obviously, we really welcome that recognition, and the fact that families with children under one could form a bubble. I think there's been a real recognition that babies perhaps have been a little bit overlooked during the first lockdown and there'd been so much talk about children in school, and so on.
But there's also, of course, the children who live, who experience abuse, of any kind—[Inaudible.]—for example. We know that vulnerability to online abuse and instances of online abuse are going up. We're seeing that in our direct services, we're seeing it through calls to Childline and our NSPCC helpline. And these children are obviously at home, sometimes with perpetrators, and with less support, obviously, than they had before—not being able to go to school and rely on their usual support within that.
And the last group for me, I think, is children who live with, who are impacted by domestic abuse. We know, obviously, that support is patchy already for these children, and so, a real need to act and to make sure that the therapeutic recovery support is there for these children, because lockdown has really brought domestic abuse into sharp focus for these young people.
Thanks, Lynne. I won't repeat anything that, obviously, Cecile has already said—all those groups I would absolutely concur with Cecile on. I think the one thing I would want to highlight is the children in the school system who are transitioning, so, those in year 7 and those leaving school, and particularly those leaving school where, actually, prospects will probably appear pretty hopeless at this point in time, in terms of potential apprenticeships, training, education, and the fact that they're coming out of a situation where they've been very isolated, so confidence and mood are probably all low. So, in order to take those new, brave steps into an adult world, I think some of our children will need supporting in that, and how, potentially, we've got to protect those children that are at risk from exploitation, because it's that group of children that can maybe be diverted onto the unhealthy paths that we don't want them to be diverted onto. So, I think that age group is really critical.
Thank you. Sarah.
To pick up on the early years that Cecile was talking about, we've got to recognise, I think, that we're going to have very young children who haven't had the social and emotional connection to anyone outside of their family. We're going to have toddlers that have never played with another child if they're an only child, and I don't think we really understand, right now, the impact that that's going to have, and not only for children in their early years. We've got children at every stage of their development who will have had restrictions on them that are unusual and their stages of development won't have necessarily gone through the usual patterns, particularly if we talk about transitions.
Children going from primary school to secondary school, they won't have had that supportive transition into that new environment. We've got young people going from school into college, and they won't have experienced that either. So, I think, we're going to have to look collectively at how we support children and young people and their families to catch up on some of those social, emotional and relational stages in their lives that we've probably never had to do before. You will see some elements of that in possibly neglect cases and attachment issue cases. But I don't think we've ever seen it necessarily across a whole cohort of a population over this period of time. So, I think that's something that we need to be cognisant of and we need to be aware of, and how we might address that. And, we're already looking in Newport at a cross-organisational multi-agency working group to see how we can essentially look to catch up all of these children and young people and families, and how we might actually do that.
I think another group that we haven't talked about is black, Asian and minority ethnic children and young people. They are not regular accessors of our services and that's to the detriment of us as organisations and those families. They often find it difficult, because they don't see themselves reflected in the provision. They don't think the provision is necessarily for them. We've had greater impacts on black, Asian and minority and ethnic children and young people with the impact of COVID and higher death rates within that population, and greater levels of bereavement and loss, and also greater levels of caring roles within larger house populations and higher density populations.
We've also seen a digital divide. So, we had a lot of children and young people who have not had access to laptops and to phones to be able to undertake their education, and I think they've been missed out a lot through this pandemic. And we've also provided digital devices, and I know Welsh Government has the roll-out programme, but I don't think, to be honest, it has been sufficient enough, and we've had households sharing one device or two devices. So, I think those are the groups that I would want to highlight beyond.
And, then, I think we've seen a greater level of poverty. We've got financial hardship in levels that I don't think we've seen before in our recent history. And what we've been trying to do is support families with maximising their benefits, getting access to food banks, and we've been actually delivering food parcels and food vouchers throughout this time. And those are the families that are normally okay, but they may have been furloughed, they may be in in-work poverty, they may have lost hours. And so we're seeing greater levels, I think, of in-work financially hardshiped families, and they could be being missed throughout this.
Thank you. Siân.
Gwnaf adael y cwestiwn am ysgolion i'r lleill, Lynne. Ond jest i orffen gen i, felly, ydych chi'n cael y teimlad bod Llywodraeth Cymru a'r awdurdodau lleol—? Oes yna ddigon o waith yn cael ei wneud i weld yn union lle mae'r gefnogaeth angen cael ei sianeli? Os ydym ni'n sôn am y blynyddoedd cynnar, fel enghraifft, felly, ble mae'r drafodaeth yna'n digwydd ynglŷn â lle mae angen buddsoddi a lle mae angen y gefnogaeth yn y cyfnod wrth inni adfer o'r COVID?
I'll leave the question on schools to the other Members, Lynne. But just to conclude from me, do you get the feeling that the Welsh Government and the local authorities—? Is there enough work being done to see exactly where the support needs to be channelled? If we're talking about the early years, for example, where is the discussion taking place in terms of where investment needs to be made and where the support is needed in this period of recovery from COVID?
Who'd like to start? Cecile.
A lot is being done already. We know that local authorities and the Welsh Government have been working to adapt, like everybody I suppose, to these new circumstances. A lot of these conversations as organisations we're having with the Government's vulnerable children advisory group on which we all sit. So, these are conversations that we are having with officials. What I would say, though, is that I think it's absolutely crucial to stress that recovery is going to have to be long-term—it's not going to be a short-term fix. So, we are talking about funding that's going to have to support children's needs for many, many years to come. This is going to have to be a sustained effort over a long period of time. What we really want to see is a recovery plan that puts children and families at the centre, because, obviously, announcements have been really welcome and they are helping, but we really do want to see a long-term road map in terms of how we're going to support these children and families and how we are going to adapt for this newly vulnerable cohort of young people who Sarah was talking about earlier on. So, to us, I think that's the really crucial point that we want to make.
Thank you. Who'd like to go next? And then I want to bring Hefin in, because we are short of time. Sarah.
We would 100 per cent support a road map putting children and young people at the heart of this recovery for Wales. What I'd say though is that we have seen funding come through. Local authorities and the Welsh Government have made a determined effort and, I think, a valid effort to try to address this issue. But we are still funding in silos. We're still talking about these issues in silos. We're talking about children's mental health over here, we're talking about children with disabilities over here, talking about children in education over here. And what we're not doing is we're not putting together a coherent recovery plan with children at the centre. What we're doing is we're funding pockets, like family group conferencing or early years additional money over here. What we're not actually saying is, 'Families are at the heart of this, how do we support those families in every service that they access, how do we support them through this period of time?' So, I would advocate for a recovery plan that looks at funding and looks at shared services across all those areas and puts the third sector as the local provider, along with local authorities, on a similar footing.
Thank you. Brigitte, are you all right for me to bring Hefin in and then you can—yes? Because we're short of time. Hefin.
I wanted to direct my question to Brigitte particularly. I'm aware of and have visited on many occasions the children's centre in Energlyn in my constituency, and many of the children who I would have seen two or three years ago would have been in school by the time the pandemic struck. What we found with regard to additional learning needs is that the Welsh Government's definition of 'vulnerable' in the early stages was quite narrow, and a lot of those children would have been excluded from attending hubs at the early point in the pandemic. We then met with the Welsh Government and they agreed in August last year to expand the definition of 'vulnerable' to include children with additional learning needs. And then we've seen now that a lot more children have had places. But what I'm struggling to get to the bottom of is how many children have, in those circumstances, had access. Is it patchy across Wales? Because I understand that Caerphilly is an exemplar, but other local authority areas are not as good. So, can you just address that question for me and just perhaps give me some clarity where possible on that issue?
Just in terms of how many children have accessed services with additional learning needs, I genuinely haven't got an overarching view. We don't collect that sort of detail of data apart from through individual contracts for an individual locality. It's something that I could try and endeavour to find out for you—
That's what we're struggling with.
I think it goes back to some of the points that colleagues made earlier around the fragmentation of the landscape. So, it's not only fragmented in relation to how we gather data, how we speak to children, how we engage children and families in conversations, and how do we help them inform policies moving forward—it is also about how we commission services and the short-term nature of how we commission those services, and therefore how we invest. So, there might be three agencies that might be able to answer that question for you that are not around this table today, but I suspect there aren't.
I'm thinking of doing a freedom of information request to the local authorities in Wales.
The data is so fragmented. So, unfortunately, Hefin, I can't—. I can give you an educated guess, but, obviously, it's data that—
In that case, do you feel that the definition of 'vulnerable' was expanded into the third lockdown that started in January this year or before Christmas? Sarah's nodding. Sarah, do you want to elaborate a little bit, then, in that case?
I think it was a helpful extension of support, and we saw more children accessing hub provision and support. I think the difficulty there is that every single school or every single hub or every single bit of provision is different, and we've seen a real variation in the quality of support, particularly with remote learning and access to hubs. We've seen children isolated in very small pockets. We've seen children across multiple age ranges in one environment, and I don't think we'd think that that's particularly conducive to learning, and not very conducive to children with additional learning needs.
Chair, just to finish on that point, I think it would—. Obviously, we've got the election coming up and everything else, but I think a continuing piece of work, if there were to be further lockdowns in the future, would be for this committee to understand how the placement of vulnerable children, with ALN particularly, is being done across Wales. I don't think we've got to the bottom of that, Chair.
Okay. Thank you. That's certainly an issue that we can pick up in our final report.
We'll move on now then to the last set of questions, some of which we've touched on, I think, anyway, in the earlier answers. Dawn Bowden.
Thanks, Lynne. Accepting that some of these have been answered, it's going to be a very general question, really—a question around reflecting on what has happened over the past year, and then your thoughts on what needs to happen going forward. So, some general reflections on how well you think the Welsh Government and local authorities responded to the pandemic, particularly in relation to vulnerable children, a bit about communications with you, and then your thoughts, really, about what needs to happen now, and what needs to be done better. What are you expecting of the Welsh Government going forward?
Shall I go to you first, Brigitte?
I think the one thing, Dawn, that I was taken aback by was the lack of IT kit and accessibility. I think some of the principles were laudable and you would support them, but ultimately, until you get down to the actual user—people were on mobile phones, and that's if you had a smart mobile phone. And then even if you've got the kit, it's the access to Wi-Fi. So, Wi-Fi coverage and the affordability. So, access to affordable Wi-Fi and the fact that you may not even have coverage. I think it's one of those things where you can't put all your eggs in one basket. You've got to create a plethora of choices for people to be able to progress, particularly during the pandemic. I think that really hit me—the fact that whilst we were talking about digital access, there were so many of our children doing completely nothing because they didn't have that basic access.
I think the other thing that I underestimated as well was people's shame around being labelled as vulnerable. Therefore, on the question that Hefin asked, sometimes people don't want to step into that space and say that they need help. I think that's something else that we've got to overcome and make things more universally available, and the fact that we underestimated just talking to people and being kind. There's no rocket science here; it's about creating kind and compassionate communities, whatever that community is. We've seen that schools are particularly the hub of most of our children's lives, and it's how we can actually grow that hub to be kinder, more responsive and taking a wider sense of service to the community.
Thank you, Brigitte. Cecile.
I would absolutely echo what Brigitte just said. It's about communities coming together. It's everyone's responsibility, really, to help. To come back to what you asked about the sense of how well the Welsh Government and local authorities have done, obviously, we've already touched on a lot that has been done, and we know local authorities—social workers in particular—continue to go out. They've continued to provide, as has the third sector, services to children and young people. And we have welcomed communication from the Welsh Government. I have to say, as I mentioned, we are on the vulnerable children advisory group, which is a really helpful forum, actually, to bring concerns, and we found the Welsh Government to be very receptive. I wouldn't fault them at all in relation to that.
Going forward, what I would say is we've talked about the support for children and young people in terms of their mental health and well-being, which is happening in school, and how critical it is, really, to support them to reconnect after long periods of being at home. Obviously, we're all keeping our fingers tightly crossed that we wouldn't go into another situation where we would face another lockdown and where children would be at home again, but, I think, for me, one of the things that we need to look at is how can this support continue. How can we be innovative, how can we think of new ways to keep the connection going? I know there's lots of good practice out there that you hear, anecdotally, of what schools are doing in terms of trying to keep young people engaged and keeping them together, even though they're not physically seeing each other.
I think it's trying to avoid that doing nothing, as Brigitte was saying—that kind of void in children and young people's lives. They go from being in school and being nurtured and supported to long periods of time where they, depending on what situation they are in at home, might not be able to access that support. So, it's about using, I suppose, all the new technology, all the new things that we've learned how to do over the last year; it's to use them to the best of our abilities to support them.
It's kind of moving to a new normal, isn't it? That's the thing. Sarah, I don't know whether there was anything you wanted to add to that.
Yes, Dawn. I think, actually, that's the really good point: what is the new normal? We're going to keep transitioning through these phases and stages and reacting to them, but we've got to, I think, come up with what works best for children and young people and families, because I don't think we've come up with that yet. That could be on an individual basis in terms of their own learning plan and having a blended approach to their learning; it could be how we support families with a mixture of face-to-face support and remote support. I don't think we've come up with that approach. But we need to, and that's where we need that collective recovery plan.
What I'd say is that there's been a lack of universal provision, I think, for the lower level, where people have low mood, anxiety, don't quite know where to turn. There is information, advice and guidance support, and there are early help hubs within local authorities, but there are still people not being seen, not being heard and falling through the net. What I'd also say is we have a really good set of national programmes—Flying Start, Families First—that are fantastic at the provision that they look at, but we could run them more efficiently and more effectively across the life course of those children, through a families perspective. What I'd also say is we need to ensure that the childcare system meets its full potential, because there are still prevailing barriers within it about sufficiency, accessibility, quality and cost, and that is preventing a lot of working families from truly maximising their income and coming out of poverty. Finally, I'd say I welcome the free school meals. I think we need to extend the free school meals offer to families who are in need and will be in greater need through this period.
Yes, thanks for that. And can I just, very briefly, because I am conscious of time now, ask you—? There's been quite a lot of strategic work, or there was prior to the pandemic, and a lot of Welsh Government strategic work, particularly around child exploitation—we had the ministerial advisory group. There were lots of things going on, which you would have all been involved in. Has the pandemic put a halt to that strategic work, or has it interrupted it in some ways? Has it slowed down? What's been your sense of that and the impact that that's had?
I'm going to have to ask you to be brief, I'm afraid.
Very brief, yes. Sorry.
If it's all right, I'll go. I've seen it continue. We've all continued offering the same level of services. I've seen Welsh Government's commitment there. We've seen Sarah Cooper's team and the safeguarding unit progress with our child sexual abuse strategy and national plan. We've set up an education programme and established an education programme for social services with Welsh Government support. So, I would say, yes, it's continued, and we're still tackling it together.
That's good to hear. Okay.
Anybody got anything to—? Brigitte.
Well, just to say that Action for Children during the pandemic has actually set up a criminal exploitation programme, so things have moved and continue to progress in that area.
Okay. That's helpful. Thank you. Thank you for that.
And Cecile, nothing to add—briefly?
No. I'd echo what everyone's just said. The CSA action plan has just been slightly delayed, but everything's carrying on as normal, so we have no particular concerns in that respect. But it's about making sure that there's progress in other agendas, particularly child poverty. We know that there's a lot of work to be done here, and that's going to be exacerbated by the pandemic. So, you know, child poverty, mental health are things where we're still going to have to carry on, because we're not there yet.
Okay. Thank you very much. And we've, unfortunately, come to the end of our time. So, can I thank you all for you attendance this morning and for answering all our questions? It's been an excellent session. You will receive a transcript to check for accuracy following the meeting. Thank you very much for your attendance. The committee will now take a just-under-15-minute break.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 10:02 a 10:14.
The meeting adjourned between 10:02 and 10:14.
Welcome back, everyone, to the Children, Young People and Education Committee for our second evidence session of the morning, this time on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on care-experienced children and also touching on what needs to happen for the recovery. I'm really pleased to welcome our panel this morning: Deborah Jones, chief executive officer from Voices from Care; Emma Phipps-Magill, well-being manager from Voices from Care; Sharon Lovell, who is chief executive officer at the National Youth Advocacy Service Cymru; Ben Twomey, director of policy and research at the National Youth Advocacy Service Cymru; and Jackie Murphy, chief executive officer from Tros Gynnal Plant. Thank you all for joining us this morning. We've got lots we want to ask you about, so will go straight to questions from Laura Jones.
Thank you, Chair. Great to see you all. Thank you for coming in. I want to ask you about the impact, obviously, on care-experienced children throughout this pandemic, but, last year, this committee held an evidence session where there were some positives, it became apparent, that came out of this pandemic, and that young people felt that they were becoming more self-reliant and it strengthened existing relationships, particularly during the early period of lockdown. But what I want to concentrate on today is that there are, obviously, a lot of underlying issues that have been exacerbated by this pandemic that aren't so good, and I was just wondering if we could explore those, because now, we're 12 months into the pandemic and it's becoming clearer what those problems are in terms of isolation and the impact of that reduced contact with family, mental health issues, and education, et cetera, and bereavement now, of course, and loneliness are two big themes as well.
But if we could start with education, perhaps. In the last evidence session, we heard about the impact on care-experienced children, on the transitions in school from primary school to secondary school, and secondary school to college, and those important stages that haven't been supported and experienced in the way that, in normality, they would be. Also, the problem that was apparent during many of our evidence sessions in the last year was access to or problems with getting digital devices, and the impact of that as well and the stress that caused. Just starting with those themes, because there are so many, I'm just wondering if anyone would like to comment on those. Thanks.
Can I go first? NYAS, Tros Gynnal Plant and Voices from Care have worked quite closely together to prepare for this meeting, so I just wanted to say that we more or less prepared and tried not to duplicate, and we will support each other. One of the things I want to bring in and talk about, and I don't think we've picked it up yet, is the children in independent children's homes across the country. Many of these homes do have education on the premises, and, for me, and for everybody who knows me, this has been a big issue for some time. In 2019, before the pandemic, we did some research into the residential visiting advocacy, which has been an added safeguard for many children in residential homes. Residential visiting advocacy is different to the national approach to statutory advocacy and normal advocacy, in that it's a service where advocates go into the children's homes weekly or fortnightly to befriend and to check that the children are safe and their rights are being upheld.
This was a recommendation of Waterhouse, the care inquiry, which states that children were more likely to tell an independent and trusted adult if someone was hurting them. Many of you will remember the Waterhouse inquiry; it was into horrendous child sexual abuse in some of the homes in north Wales. The inquiry was over 20 years ago, and I don't need to tell you that it shook the social work profession and our country to the core. And it's one of the reasons why we were the first country to appoint a children's commissioner and why we set up Tros Gynnal Plant Cymru in the first place, and why the Welsh Government and this committee have been dedicated to ensuring that advocacy is paramount for looked-after children. Yet, the recommendation for someone to visit these children regularly has not been enacted. And it's not included in the national approach for statutory advocacy, and that's why I wanted to talk about this now, because, since Waterhouse, the number of private children's homes has grown in Wales—the number of children's homes in general, but the ones that are run by the private sector have grown. There are 178 children's homes in Wales, and 155 of those are independent private homes, and only 23 children's homes are owned by local authorities, and yet it's the 23 local authority-run homes that have a visiting advocacy service. And only 5 per cent to 10 per cent of those private homes have this added safeguard. So, I just want you to think about that for a second: the children who are placed in the independent private homes are further away from their families; the homes are often located in isolated rural communities; they're not scrutinised by elected representatives, the local councillors; due to the distance, they're not visited regularly by our social workers; they often have education on the premises, so these children are not going out and being seen by anybody else; the staff tend to be less qualified, and the turnover of staff is greater than in the local authority-run homes. And if it was bad for those children before COVID, you just imagine how they're feeling now. They're feeling lonely, isolated, afraid, abandoned, and they feel lost. That's how they've felt for the last year.
Coming on to digital devices, Laura, many of these children don't have access to digital devices and the internet, and if they do, they're supervised, so they have no privacy to contact anyone and tell them about it.
So, those of you who are known to me, and I've spoken to you about this, know that this has been a personal mission of mine, to try and ensure that these children get advocacy, for over the last 20 years, and TGP have tried to engage these private homes to get them to commission a visiting advocacy service, but because they don't have to, they don't choose to. It should be a requirement of registration and inspection for any children's home in Wales to commission a residential visiting advocacy service. Every Welsh authority shouldn't be placing any child in a children's home outside of Wales unless there's a visiting advocacy service. You, the committee, have the power to make this happen. It doesn't cost the Welsh Government or the local authorities any extra, because these children's homes, these independent private children's homes, are already charging considerable sums of money for these children, and visiting advocacy is not an expensive service.
I just want to say it's been a pleasure to work with all of you, every single one of you, over the last four years on this committee. I know that you're as passionate as I am about ensuring that these children have someone to stand in their corner, because they haven't got a parent and guardian, and you're really passionate about keeping them safe. So, one of my recommendations is to urge the committee to take this forward into the next administration, because if you do one thing, if you hear one thing today, it's that these children cannot wait another 20 years. So, thank you. I hope that answered your question, Laura.
Thank you, Jackie. Before Laura comes back in, can I just ask you, Jackie, have you got any idea how many children are living in these 155 homes, please?
I have got the research. I haven't got it to hand, Lynne, but I can certainly make sure that you have that. I wouldn't want to give you a false figure.
That's okay, thank you. Laura.
Thank you, Jackie, and thanks for sharing that with us, and raising awareness of what is a very important issue. Thank you for that. My colleagues in this committee are going to expand on what you all believe the Government's priorities should be, going forward, a bit later on in questioning. I just wanted to see what your experiences are now and have been over the past year, just in this section right now. On the digital devices, you're right—it's connecting with family and friends that's just as important as the education part of having a digital device. But, yes, moving on—sorry, Chair.
Emma, then Sharon.
Okay. Sharon, would you like to go first, or are you happy for me to? I just want to hone in on that question in regard to education. I think missed education resulting from digital poverty—. Statistically, we know that care-experienced young people do not achieve as well in education as those from a non-experienced background. We've seen the pandemic has built on this statistic further due to the missed education and lack of support for our care leavers in higher education. Although we welcome the funding that we have seen available through many resources for the support of digital equipment, I think it can be said that it's come a little bit too late, resulting in many of our young people falling behind, which has brought increased pressures that have only added to the already evident well-being and mental health concerns that we are seeing through the pandemic in our children and young people, which has arisen from the isolation and lack of connectivity with services.
I really do believe, when we're talking about our children and young people, our care-experienced children and young people, we need to be giving them the opportunity of additional catch-up lessons to support them, through the education departments within the local authorities. We need to ensure they're not disadvantaged from their peers, therefore widening that gap of educational attainment further. We've heard stories of those young people leaving college and university feeling like they're being dropped and left in a state of flux regarding the lack of or viability of employment and housing, and I think we need to be reminded, in regard to our care leavers and those leaving university, that the personal adviser services are closed to them, so therefore their access to support is quite limited.
Okay, thank you. Sharon.
Thank you very much, Lynne. I just wanted to pick up on one of the themes Jackie mentioned in relation to residential care. I think there's been a lot of focus on care homes for older people, whereas there hasn't been so much focus on our children and young people in residential care. And I do think we need to really look at what that looks like for children and young people in the residential care sector—not having access to family, not having access to independent advocates.
I just wanted, if I may, to respond to Laura's question in relation to the picture for care-experienced children and young people. NYAS Cymru produced a survey called 'Young Lives in Lockdown', which consulted with over 600 care-experienced young people, and I know we shared that report with the committee. And what that looked like in the last 12 months was that there was little contact with their social workers, little contact with their family and siblings, and it looked different in different local authorities. So, some local authorities have been fantastic, where they've been really creative in ensuring that children and young people did have contact with social workers and families, but that hasn't been a consistent approach.
You're very right, Laura, in saying about the digital poverty issue. We know this has become an issue, and the inequalities of access to digital equipment in privacy is a real issue. NYAS had a grant from the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and we were thrilled to be able to give nearly 100 children and young people in care access to digital equipment, and there is no doubt that there has been a huge impact in relation to mental health and well-being. NYAS Cymru have had five times more safeguarding referrals that we have had to put into local authorities, when we compared and contrasted to this time last year. Those themes have been around self harm, suicidal thoughts, running away, conflict with foster families and residential care, and I absolutely know that if it wasn't for NYAS, Voices and Tros Gynnal Plant Cymru—this would have been a lifeline to many children and young people, and we've saved lives.
I also wanted to discuss the issue in relation to secure units, because we've been made aware during the pandemic that children and young people have been placed within secure units on the grounds of welfare issues, and there have been occasions when young people have been at risk of exploitation—sexual exploitation, criminal exploitation—and they haven't had what is known as a statutory entitlement to a return interview. It is a statutory entitlement in England, it's not in Wales, and it's very sporadic how that looks, those services. And because there have been missed opportunities to understand why children and young people have gone missing, it has actually advanced their risk. They then end up in secure units, where the whole theme of deprivation of liberty— basically being locked up for 23 hours, and these are care-experienced young people.
The positives have been that children and young people have fed to us that they've really welcomed the opportunity to have a say, and I know this committee has been so supportive of hearing the voices of children and young people. And we've been told they've really welcomed the engagement with you and with the Children's Commissioner for Wales as well. NYAS Cymru, in particular, have been providing our independent visiting service throughout the pandemic to make sure that some of the most vulnerable children have been able to see and have access to their independent visitor for consistency, for support and befriending. Thank you very much, Lynne and Laura.
Thank you, and I've got Deborah next.
Hi, all. Thank you very much—diolch yn fawr. I'm very privileged to be invited to this committee; I don't think we've met before, Lynne, so, hello.
I'm not going to take too much of the floor; I don't want to scare you, but I clearly sound like a Dalek, because my voice is going. I don't really want to echo any more than anybody has said here today about the details. All I can say is it's been a huge learning curve, I think, particularly for Welsh small organisations like ours. Voices is very different to advocacy providers, as in, as you heard mentioned with Jackie, we campaigned for the north Wales inquiry and we were represented in the north Wales inquiry, and witnessed and took on board the views of young people to put forward recommendations like the children's commissioner, and also again—my voice is going, sorry guys—and also the Children's Commissioner for Wales. So, we've come a long way as an organisation, as a national voice, and also, if anybody does know me, you will know I'm quite controversial; I'm not scared to challenge Government on issues that we feel are kind of—you know, in securing the rights of children in care in Wales.
We also do a lot of international work, and, during COVID, in terms of education, what became more important, Laura, was actually survival. So, young people were reaching out to us initially for help with food packages, and one of the fantastic learning areas for us is we quickly—because we're a Welsh organisation; I say that from experience—were able to link into Welsh areas that no-one else, I think, could have linked into, outside of TGPC and NYAS. And that was things like butchers delivering locally to young people, because they understood the vulnerability, food banks—. I mean, we've worked in partnership right throughout. In terms of the education, it was really difficult for young people not just to access the actual equipment but the platforms—so, there's a poverty even about subscriptions to social media platforms. So, you could have a computer but, if you can't access anything, it's difficult. Also, I know, again, echoing Jackie, really, in residential units, it was very difficult for young people to access homework, because it was restricted times. And, as Jackie said, young people were being supervised—so, again, quite worrying concerns coming through.
I think what I would want to say, because I don't want to get into detail, because I don't want to take the stage too much, but I think what we've noticed is the connectivity for Voices as an organisation to our care-experienced community has been second to none. It's improved and young people have joined in in events that they've kind of designed, really, as a bit of a lifeline for them to link up with not just Welsh young people, but we've recently, I think, about two weeks ago, held a national care day across the five nations, which linked young people up to a wider community. We are equally an international community. So, just to let you know, #CareDay is an equivalent of Pride, really, for young people, obviously in the care-experienced community.
And again, I won't go on, because Emma will touch on this, but one of our biggest concerns has been care leavers, and that's been from the age of 15 in particular, because people consider care leavers to be usually 18+, but they actually leave care—some young people—at 15. They've been found in police cells, because foster placements have not been available. As Sharon said, they've been placed in secure units, which again is a complete breach of their rights. But I think, fundamentally, to tie this up, this is about an equality issue, and the equality has not been recognised across all services. There have been pockets of good services within social services, within the sectors, but they very much have worked in silo, and a huge job for Emma and I during the last year—and we're exhausted, by the way, so no wonder the voice has gone—has been really about saving young people's lives directly. As CEO, I'm working as we speak with a young girl who's been trafficked in Cardiff. People are not seeing this, because they're not connecting together. So, I think one of the fundamental things, and then I'll shut up—I promise, Lynne, I'll shut up. But one of the fundamental things is corporate parenting, is a core method framework to join these bodies up who have that responsibility. As it stands, I think that needs to be strengthened now more than ever, because we have seen certain pockets of our corporate parenting arena actually making things a lot worse for young people than they should have been. And an example of that is criminalising young people when they have been forced to be trafficked. So, heavy stuff. Very good, positive learning, Lynne—I think we can take a lot more forward quite more comprehensively than we ever did. I hated, by the way, things like this, but now it's secondary to my nature. So, I think we can connect a lot more on social media and have a focus on that in the future.
And, at that stage, I'll finish and hand over to Emma for the narrative of the details, really.
Thank you. Emma, have you got some—? You'll have to be fairly brief, because I want to go to Siân Gwenllian on care leavers.
Yes, I think Deborah's really highlighted some of the issues that we're seeing, but I think what we need to recognise—. I think, overall, the issues are still relevant, and there's still very much evidence of what our care leavers were experiencing in the first three months, six months, and now 12 months on from the pandemic. Our projects are still dealing with the breakdown of placements, which were resulting in young people being placed elsewhere, some of them in regulated homes, sofa surfing, and being moved without the critical support. We recognise that children's services and PAs have been dealing with a crisis. However, this has led to the critical lens being taken off preparing for transitional support. So, we are seeing that increased demand on services to support young people in transition. However, the project within Voices from Care Cymru is only funded to be delivered in three local authority areas. So, we know that there are many young people not getting the right support at the right time.
And I think one last point from me is the increase in financial commitment for our care leavers. We know, as working people, that staying at home has seen increased financial demands. We've seen increased utilities, expansion of Wi-Fi packages, even the purchasing of masks and sanitisers. But our young people, our care leavers, have no further income to support this increase to the daily cost of living. So, we have seen the result in greater demand in food banks, applications to discretionary assistance funds, an increase of rent arrears, with the threat of evictions. And although, as Deb highlighted, Voices from Care has built that community partnership with local shops, butchers and charities, it's resulted in a sticky plaster to fix the crisis at the time and not the long-term solution. So, now we need, I think, to look forward and look at that long-term solution and make sure we're investing where we need to invest.
Okay. Thank you. Laura, you're going to have be really brief.
I know. This has gone on a bit, and most things have been covered, but I think we really need to, just quickly, if it's okay, talk about how you think the impact's been on specific groups, like black, Asian and minority ethnic children, care-experienced young mothers—I know we've had problems with perinatal—and that sort of side of stuff, because I think that's an important thing to get to grips with, if that's okay, Chair.
Okay. I've got Sharon, then Ben.
Thank you very much, Laura, for that question. We work exclusively—one of our projects in NYAS Cymru—with young women who are pregnant in the care system, Laura, and I think the pandemic has been very challenging for those young women in particular. We have had advocacy cases where they have not been able to see their babies, they have not been able to breastfeed their children, when that was an arrangement prior to lockdown. There have been doorstep visits. More children are potentially being up for adoption, and what is one of the key themes that has come out is that child protection conferences during the pandemic have been taken virtually, by digital means. And for those young women, and young men, who need to be part of decision-making processes to care plans, where they're very long meetings—sometimes they can be up to two hours, child protection case conferences—to do that via a phone when they have limited funds for their contract with the devices, no additional financial support, when you're actually talking about highly sensitive, highly complex issues, that has been really challenging for young women with their babies. Young women have been placed in unsuitable accommodation, via youth hostels and B&Bs in some cases. So, I think it's been a concerning time, absolutely, for young women who have been pregnant or have children and they are then at risk of being also in the care system themselves.
Some of the positives have been—. Through our Project Unity service we've been running intense support sessions for young women virtually. We've been able to do that with a grant from Welsh Government, and that has been a lifeline to many of the young women we have supported through peer support.
And the other thing that young women have spoken with us about is how, financially, some of them are better off, actually, because they were tempted before lockdown to be involved in loan deals, where people were knocking on their door and asking them for high-interest loan opportunities. That has reduced, and there has been a degree of stability and care through our services, and I know Voices have been providing excellent services as well for care-experienced young women. But I do think we are at risk of more children going into the care system, if we don't critically look at supporting young women to stay with their children. And part of the recovery has to be for them to connect with their children and babies as soon as possible, and have more of a hybrid model of meetings with local authorities, whereby they are physically able to be at meetings as soon as possible, rather than have very challenging meetings over a digital platform space. Thank you, Laura, and thank you, Lynne.
Okay, thank you. Ben, anything brief to add before I go to Siân Gwenllian?
Thank you, Chair. Just a quick one. Mental health we'll touch on, I'm sure, later on, but all of our organisations work with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, and that's particularly an issue when we think about over half of those children and young people are considered to have post-traumatic stress disorder. What that really means is feeling in danger all the time. So, you can imagine how a pandemic such as this, a global pandemic, with the fear and anxieties that come from that, will have a real direct impact on those young people. In a broader sense, we've seen our safeguarding referrals increase significantly relating to self-harm and suicidal ideation during the pandemic. And the results from COVID, although that's a direct result, in a sense, from the pandemic, it's not one that's going to go away very quickly as we emerge and recover, because these kinds of traumas and mental health impacts will have a long-term effect.
Thank you. Siân.
Diolch. Rydym ni wedi cyffwrdd yn barod ar bobl ifanc sydd yn gadael gofal, neu yn y broses o adael gofal, ac rydym wedi clywed eich pryderon penodol chi am y grŵp yma o bobl. Ond, wrth gwrs, mae gan yr awdurdodau lleol gyfrifoldebau penodol tuag at y bobl ifanc yma. Felly, mae'n debyg bod beth rydych chi wedi ei ddweud heddiw yn tanlinellu problem sydd yna beth bynnag, felly. Mae yna broblemau yn digwydd efo'r cohort yma. Felly, ydy'r cyfrifoldebau yna ddim yn ddigon clir? Oes angen deddfwriaeth newydd? Neu ddim digon o bobl, dim digon o fuddsoddiad o fewn y gwasanaethau, ai dyna ydy'r broblem?
Thank you very much. We've touched already on young people who are leaving care, or are in the process of leaving care, and we've heard your specific concerns about this group of people. But, of course, the local authorities do have specific responsibilities with regard to these young people. So, it appears that what you've said today underlines an existing problem. There are problems with this cohort. So, are those responsibilities insufficiently clear? Do we need additional legislation? Or is it that there is insufficient investment or human resources within the services? Is that the problem?
Okay. I've got Deborah first, then Jackie.
[Inaudible.]—question, I think it's very interesting, because I think what COVID has exposed—and it relates to a report, if you'd like for us to send it, in terms of young parents—a lot of young children are going into care based on judgment that they have been in care themselves. So, I just wanted to end that part.
And coming back to the question of, 'Is there guidance? Is there enough legislation? Is there enough policy?' The problem is that there is a gap between the interpretation from—no surprise to you, Lynne, I'm sure—legislation, which is very goodwilled, I would say, to practice. There's a whole different set of interpretations that are not consistent and are not clear.
Okay, thank you. Jackie.
We run a service that's funded by Welsh Government housing team around the tenancy, in north Wales. It basically started in Wrexham and Conwy and it's just expanding, and this just started just before the pandemic. And what we saw straight away is that when we went into lockdown, social services just moved personnel around. A lot of the PAs were put into front-line child protection work and what you found is that, very quickly, those young people lost contact with, and didn't know how to access, support from social services. And that's where the team around the tenancy really came in and we were able to—. And it comes back to devices and who to ring and how to put your points across as well, because there's the housing department, the social services department—there are all sorts of other agencies and the team around the tenancy was—. You know, there's a lot of preparation done for young people before they leave care, but what happens is, when they get out into the community, no-one knows—no-one can prepare you for your first tenancy, really, you know. It's not real until you have to pay gas, electricity, and you're feeling that loneliness, you're feeling that isolation. And most young people in the general population will move around tenancies: they'll go to university, they'll come back to mum and dad, they'll go somewhere else, they'll live with friends, they'll come back. And yet, we expect young care leavers to go out and live in a tenancy and hold that. So, I think, to answer your question, it is really about making sure that there's a bigger package of support for those young people to go to.
And coming back to mental health as well, you know, it is about the mental health, the loneliness, the isolation and the adapting to the new conditions and things. And what we found through the pandemic—there was one young man who had seen his psychiatrist before lockdown and then had been prescribed new medication and very, very quickly, it wasn't working out for him and he was starting to feel very, very paranoid and very unwell. And it was through one of their online sessions that we were giving in cooking instructions to a team around the tenancy, he was able to say—and it was always on a Friday afternoon and a bank holiday weekend—he was able to say to the advocate and tenancy worker, 'I'm not feeling very well; I'm feeling as if I'm going to hurt myself or hurt someone', and we were able to get the police out and we were able to get the psychiatrist to see him and to adjust his medication and to ensure support. So, it's just that people got lost. It's how do you stop people falling through those cracks when an emergency like this hits? And coming out of it, I think, we were very fortunate that a lot of support had been put around care leavers through the housing support and work that—I can't remember the name. What's the name of the organisation that looks after children and young people in housing? Llamau. You know, a lot of the work that Llamau had done as well around—. So, that was very helpful.
I think it comes back to what Debbie says, and Siân: it's about how we all are working with these young people on the front-line and we are supporting them. And we are providing mental health support as well and ensuring that they access the proper support through our services. So, I hope that answers that question.
Thank you. Sharon.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Lynne and Siân, for that question. There is no doubt in my mind that legislation needs to be strengthened in relation to corporate parenting. And I know that Welsh Government have done a lot of work to start inquiring about what that could look like. I think corporate parenting is everybody's duty to ensure that care-experienced children and young people have a system that is there for them and on their side at all times, as we would be for our own children. So, my view is that, it's not only essential services that need to have corporate parenting duties, it should be extended to health, education, youth justice, the youth service, leisure and education, so that we all sign up to be the corporate parents of children and young people within the care system. Diolch yn fawr iawn. Thank you.
Thank you. Ben, did you indicate? No. Emma.
Yes, if I can just build a little bit further on what Sharon was saying, we have seen, through Voices from Care, because we're quite pivotal in that role in working with Welsh Government in regards to driving forward that expansion of corporate parenting duties within Wales, and we've seen some really positive examples of corporate parenting working together during the crisis at a strategic level. However, in the short term, corporate parents need to build their recovery plan in co-production with care-experienced children and young people and we need to be looking at building that technology into services, such as reviews and taking a blended approach to the way that we are working with our care-experienced children and young people.
Thank you. Siân.
Yes, you're talking in general about corporate parenting. I'm talking specifically about the ones leaving care. Is there a need for specific legislation around those leaving care?
We've got Jackie, then Deborah.
Yes, I'm not quite sure about specific legislation, but I just wanted to bring in here as well that we're talking mainly about looked-after children and care leavers, but we also work with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and refugees, some of those who come in and out of care, and we also work with Gypsy/Traveller/Roma children and young people, and a lot of the asks that they are asking for are very similar to what care-experienced children and young people need. And I just feel that, sometimes, if we really provide the service for all our children and young people, then care-experienced children and young people can access these more generic services.
So, I'll give you an example, and we've already said that mental health services is one. One of the things that the refugee and asylum-seeking children ask about is whether they can have affordable access to gyms, swimming pools, football sessions and other leisure activities, because they don't have the money to be able to afford those. And sport is so important to them and it unites them. It unites everybody, sport, and it also improves our mental health. So, I think, if we can look at strengthening those services and making them more easily accessible to all our children and young people, it will help all these groups. And, again, with the Gypsy/Traveller/Roma families, they're very similar about them as well—they want opportunities to integrate and to be young people together.
Thank you. Deborah.
Hi, Siân. I think I'm going to give you a very unusual non-political answer to your question; in other words, I'm going to answer it as best I can. I think, in terms of leaving care, what we've got in Wales is an approach called When I am Ready, and we basically went to a funder to do a four-year piece of research to see if this scheme is working, and, in a lot of ways again, it is, but in a lot of ways it's failing because it's a scheme; it's not an Act. And what we're finding is there's huge confusion for foster carers who do not want to become landlords, and that's part of When I am Ready. So, if a young person wants to stay on until they're 21, one of the conditions is, basically, the foster parent would be forced into being a landlord, because they'd have to apply for benefits from the overall benefit system. So, there's one of the problems.
I mean, I can certainly send you some updates on the kind of project we're running at the moment, where we're going into the last year, which is about really accumulating all the stats and the information, to give an answer as to what's working and what isn't. In my view, I worked with Gwenda Thomas on this back in the day, and I always felt we'd move to a more, I suppose, legislative platform for it to sit in, so it would move from a scheme to being a universal part of legislation, really. So, I hope I answered, Siân, there, but that's one of the significant areas that's affecting that particular age group.
Thank you. Emma.
I think all our organisations really would like to see a renewed meaningful commitment to care leavers across Wales, with specific focus on that transitional support. We need to really look at that support into independent living, the work experience, paid employment; we need to be looking at innovative opportunities to broaden the care leavers' horizons. And within that is that offer of quality housing, so no care leaver is ever placed in unsuitable or unregulated accommodation. And I think we need to see, as Deborah said, that expansion of When I am Ready for those in foster care, but also the commitment to those young people in residential care.
Okay, thank you. Deborah.
Yes, sorry, just as way of information in terms of care leavers: I recently spoke to an international conference in India, and, as you can imagine, the state of the care sector in some of these countries is very, very, very poor. But Voices has been busy with Eurochild—so, the European members and also the international members—and it's really exciting, and Wales, in terms of Voices being representative of Wales, is signing up to a care leavers international covenant. So, that's coming. There's a real zeitgeist of change that young people wear. And I myself, for anyone that doesn't know me, was in care myself. The community is the strength. We need to recognise care—. Particularly care leavers, because they're more vulnerable, need to be seen as part of a community, and need to be given a protected status almost, which, again, we're working on with the five nations. So, a lot of—. The reviews that are going on in Scotland and England at the moment of children services, we're hoping to kind of tie up in our '1000 Voices' campaign, which we'll talk about later. So, I'm kind of rushing there, but I really wanted you to know that, as an Assembly, there's an international change coming, and it's going to affect us all in terms of young people becoming part of a community.
Okay. Thank you. Siân, are you okay?
Yes, thank you.
Okay. We'll go to Hefin David, then.
I just wanted to ask about children in care with additional learning needs, and just for the panel to elaborate on their experiences during the pandemic, and their access to education. I just want to understand how, if in any way, it was different to children elsewhere who may have had additional learning needs and those experiences, if that makes sense—I hope that makes sense.
Who'd like to comment on that? Deborah.
I'm just being brave and, again, I'm talking much more than my throat can handle here, but I'll try and answer you really in that respect. I think it's a wider issue for young people in education with special needs and being care experienced, because, you know, there have been really good pockets of whole-school approaches and dedicated services for young people with special needs, but, again, they're not being shared. So, where good pockets of practice could have supported, even more during COVID, their needs, it didn't because it hadn't really been shared across Wales on a level where we all could have had that almost whole-school approach. So, I hope that answered, then. Thank you.
My experience of children with additional learning needs in mainstream education and in resource hubs and resource schools has been that there's been an improvement with regard to access during lockdowns later—through later lockdowns than earlier ones. Is that common for children in care as well, or are the experiences different in those circumstances?
Does anybody have a view on this?
I'm trying to—. Sorry.
Go on, then, Deborah.
Again, it's really difficult to answer because there's a double whammy for care-experienced young people, and equally, when they're going through, for example, assessments of their learning needs, it's very delayed and it's very bounced around departments. So, there's no coherent, systematic approach particularly to this group of young people.
Okay, thank you.
Okay. And I think the response—or lack of response—suggests that we just don't know enough about this, and that's what we're trying to drill down to at the moment as a committee. Sharon.
Thank you. I would agree, if I'm honest. I don't think we know what that picture looks like. I know in NYAS Cymru, we've worked more with parents, actually, through our parent advocacy programme that we have, who have learning difficulties as parents, and how challenged they have been in terms of home schooling during the pandemic, and being able to support their children with home education. But that's very much from a parent's lens, not from a child or young person. So, I'm sorry I'm not able to provide you with more information, but I think you're right: the fact that we don't know what that picture looks like in all its entirety tells us that this group of children and young people, we need to look at what that picture has looked like for them inclusively. Thank you.
And Emma wanted to come in as well.
Just to quickly say, I think, during the pandemic, Voices from Care Cymru has put on some virtual events, Hefin, and they've been successfully attended, and some of those events were attended by children and young people with special educational needs. And what was evident from that—. The care packages that we sent out prior to the events to make sure the full inclusion of all our young people in the activities, taking part in the virtual events, we had to ensure things were translated into Braille, that full instructions were given, that the computer set-up was right at home for that individual, to ensure that they could positively engage and get out of that experience of that virtual event as much as any other young person who did not have a learning need. So, I think that what that brought home is that, sometimes, there were barriers for young people to actually connect with those positive activities that were happening when they were at home and not in school.
Yes. Okay, I appreciate that. Thank you.
Okay. Can I just ask one final question, then? I think you've been very clear about the reforms that you feel we need to see in Wales for care-experienced children. Have you got a view on how effective the ministerial advisory group is as a vehicle for driving that reform, and do you think there should be any changes in structures to deliver these reforms? Sharon and then Deborah.
Thank you, Lynne. There is no doubt that the work of the ministerial advisory group has really advanced the outcomes for children and young people in the care system. In particular, we have the active offer now for every child and young person who accesses the child protection system or becomes looked after. And I think we should be really proud of that in Wales, that now young people and children have that active offer. It forms part of the national approach to statutory advocacy in Wales. And, although there have been many positives around the NASA approach, we would call for an independent review on that, because there are elements that still need to be improved. If you remember, Lynne, it was this committee that did the inquiry into the statutory advocacy provision in Wales, and although it has been advanced, there are still things that we need to improve. The commissioning arrangements still need to be looked at, the range and level tool, the national information, and this whole theme around, 'Does the commissioning of independent advocacy now allow us to be independent from local authorities when they are still the organisations that directly fund us?' And we would call for that review to be co-produced with young people involved at the heart.
The MAG has been instrumental, and David Melding, who has been the chair of the ministerial advisory group, has been hugely committed to taking forward many of the themes and issues we've discussed. It's my view that some form of the ministerial advisory group should happen in the next term of government to hold to account. What's been good is the cross-party work as well and the collaboration between the voluntary and the statutory sector on the ministerial advisory group. So, absolutely, I would advocate for there to be, if it's not the ministerial advisory group, some form of arrangement of co-production, of recovery from the pandemic, but through a lens of children and young people in the care system.
Thank you. You're going to have to be brief, I'm afraid. I've got Deborah then Jackie.
I'll be very brief, Lynne. I'd like to talk about this all day, but I think the significant strategic usefulness of the group is that it's been able to touch communities through the members of the group. I think the difficulty with the group is it's huge, and the agenda items are equally very wide for a group to immediately address some of the concerns and issues that come to the group. So, I think, whilst it's absolutely instrumental and I echo everything Sharon said, really, it's equally very big and there's a very big agenda. So, if we can strategise and prioritise when we go forward with MAG, I think that would be useful, Lynne. Thank you.
Okay, thank you. Jackie.
I'd reiterate everything that Sharon and Debbie said, but the one thing that came out of the NASA—several good things have come out of the NASA, but one of the things that has come out is that we can now collect stats on all the children using advocacy in Wales, in all the 22 local authorities. We can break it down into which local authorities, which regions, what the children's ages are, what their gender is, what their issue is, and that is amazing. And I never thought it was going to ever be possible, and it's the first time it's been done anywhere in the world. And I don't think that we celebrate these things enough.
One of the lost opportunities is that, although we can now collect this information, we could collect so much more about what the outcomes are. So, I'd like to see that taken forward, but yes, definitely continue with the MAG; there's a lot more that we can do with the NASA, but I do think it needs a complete overhaul and a review, because there are some aspects of it that are not working.
Okay, thank you. Emma.
Thank you very much. I think Voices and the young people and the organisations here, we've had really good connectivity over the pandemic with Welsh Government and the Deputy Minister and this committee, and updating them on the trends and the themes that we are hearing from young people, and we can see much shift in trying to address those issues. But I think for me, it's that we would encourage this committee in particular to really play a key role in upholding and driving forward the development of a recognised community for care-experienced children and young people with its own protected characteristics. And I think that first step in building the recovery after COVID is to listen to the care-experienced children and young people and recognise that crisis can lead to innovation, and from this, we can build a care system that's built on those aspirations and relationships, so we would really call for that commitment and that driver in taking that forward and to listening to those thousand voices of care-experienced children and young people.
Okay, thank you. And last word to Ben.
Thank you, Chair. Just two quick, brief points, if that's okay. First I wanted to say that the committee, this committee and the MAG have been excellent avenues for us to put forward the views of care-experienced young people. One of the things that that has done is it's genuinely saved lives, I believe, because it gave us an avenue in which to pitch to the Welsh Government last spring to pause transitions from CAMHS, from child and adolescent mental health services, when people were reaching 18, because it was coinciding with leaving care and the pandemic, and Welsh Government agreed to that; they paused transitions during the lockdown last year, and it will have saved lives, because it's such a tricky and risky time for care leavers.
The second point is that we asked young people to help create our manifestos, as all of the charities here did, and one in three care-experienced children and young people that we spoke to described in a single word their experience of care as something positive—only one in three. We hosted a debate earlier this week between the major political parties, and every single candidate at one point said the word 'wrong'. They said, 'What's happening is wrong. Your experience, it shouldn't happen.' So, how do we make that right? The top priority for the young people we spoke to was voice, so it's being listened to and taken seriously. So, my final point would be to urge whatever the next Welsh Government does, it empowers the voices of those young people, because everything else in terms of rights, safety, support, flows from that. When they're listened to and taken seriously, those young people know what is going to be the best impact on them to give them a stable and loving time in the system.
Okay. Thank you very much, and unfortunately, we have run out of time, so can I thank you all for attending? We've covered lots of ground in the time that we've had available, which has been really useful and informative for the committee for our final report. And Sharon?
I just wanted to say, Lynne, thank you so much for your leadership, and the committee. And we all really hope that this committee can definitely go forward into the new term. And I just wanted to say, your passion and commitment for children's rights and young people's rights as a committee has been outstanding, and thank you very much.
Thank you for those kind words, which are much appreciated by the committee. And thank you all for attending. We'll send you a transcript to check for accuracy following the meeting. But thank you again and thank you for your engagement with the committee over the previous five years as well. Diolch yn fawr. And the committee is now going to break until 11:15.
Gohiriwyd y cyfarfod rhwng 11:09 a 11:16.
The meeting adjourned between 11:09 and 11:16.
Welcome back, everyone, to the Children, Young People and Education Committee, to item 4, which is an evidence session with heads of children's services. I'm very pleased to welcome Sally Jenkins, head of children and family services at Newport City Council, Jan Coles, head of children's services at Powys County Council, Nicola Stubbins, president of the Association of Directors of Social Services, and Jonathan Griffiths, director of social services and housing at Pembrokeshire County Council. Thank you all very much for joining us. We've got lots to cover so we'll go straight into questions from Laura Jones.
Thank you, Chair. Thank you all for attending. We've heard a lot of evidence this morning about how there are some good things that have come out of the pandemic, but also that it's exacerbated problems that were already there. I'm just wondering what your experiences are on the levels of safeguarding referrals that you've had yourselves, and the extent to which children who have become more vulnerable due to the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic are being identified by you and by statutory services including social services and schools.
Who'd like to start? Nicola.
Bore da, bawb. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. ADSS Cymru welcomes this opportunity. Can I invite Jan and Sally to respond to this question, please?
Right. Who's going first, Jan or Sally? Jan.
Diolch yn fawr. Bore da. Thank you for the opportunity today. I think the clear message is there's not an all-Wales picture. Local authorities are experiencing changes in demand differently. For example, in my area we've seen an increase in demand since the ending of the first lockdown right through to the current lockdown that we're in. Other local authorities will have had a different picture. I think the important thing to say is that we continue to respond to all children who've been identified to us in the way that we previously did. Social workers continue to visit, support staff continue to be there meeting with families. We may have done that differently in some ways, with some families, but we are still working in our communities supporting families in every way that we can. So, I think that's really important to say.
Regarding how children are being identified, of course, we rely upon on colleagues in universal services, in other statutory sectors and our colleagues in the third sector and communities to identify children who may be in need of care and support from social services. Where children are not in those environments—they haven't been in school, they haven't been seen by GPs, for example—where those other people aren't able to see children, perhaps they then aren't able to draw those children to our attention. But there's not an all-Wales picture. I think that is something I would underline.
Okay. Thank you. Sally.
I'd agree with Jan. I think that, across Wales, there are differing pictures. I think what we do know is that even where the numbers are fluctuating, what we're beginning to see is increased complexity in the children that are being presented to us now, whether that's because, perhaps, referrals have been slower getting to us—so, by the time they get to us, things are a little bit more entrenched and more challenging for us to deal with—or just the fact that we've now all been living with this for over 12 months. The impact that that's had on all children, all families, and all of us is obviously growing exponentially. I agree with Jan; I think what's really important to emphasise is that our door has been absolutely open all the way through. Nothing has changed from that perspective for us. The challenge has been how we ensure that other agencies are still able to access, where necessary. I think in some instances, that means that we've had to change and actually increase some of what we've done to try and compensate for some of the services not being able to visit in the way that we have. But it is a challenge and, I think, going forward, what's going to continue to be an issue for all of us is looking at what happens now.
Thank you. Jonathan.
Thank you for allowing me to offer a further comment. Just picking up on the comments that colleagues have made, I think we're in the early part of that universal service offer opening up, aren't we, with schools coming back, et cetera. We're going to see, readily, some of the issues that may be prevalent across our communities that I'm sure have been mentioned to you as a committee, around domestic abuse scenarios, unemployment, poverty, isolation, et cetera. So, there are a number of factors there, and I think, from our perspective, what we're concerned about is ensuring that we meet the whole of that pathway, together, with the partnerships that have been outlined by our colleagues, and that we do need to work together.
Our concern, I guess, in that context is about how we can create sufficient resources to meet what is inevitably going to be an increased demand. That's our feeling in terms of that demand. I think we've got to, in effect, be open and transparent about potential financial pressures that could happen within a local government setting. We're not clear on what that demand will look like, but from a professional's perspective, we expect that to increase. So, I think it's important that we raise that issue.
Okay. Thank you. I think Laura's next question was going to be specifically on the finances. Laura.
Yes, I've got two questions. For the first question, I'd just like to follow on from what you've said and ask you why you think it is, perhaps, that groups like women and children, and all ages from BAME backgrounds, aren't presenting to you and accessing the services in the same way as other groups.
And also, then, moving on from what Jonathan just said, I just wanted to ask you about the pressures on you, and whether you think there's enough funding available to statutory services to enable them to reach out and protect all these children that we're mentioning. Thank you.
Diolch. I think those groups that you mentioned are groups that we recognise are already disadvantaged, and that disadvantage has been further exacerbated by the pandemic. We know the community support that those different groups would ordinarily turn to has not necessarily been available during the pandemic as well. So, yes, we're definitely seeing that. We do try to address those different groups in a variety of different ways, but it is a challenge and it will continue to be, no doubt, as we move forward.
Okay. Thank you. Does anybody else want to come in on that before we go on to the funding issues? Shall we move on to funding, then? This is your opportunity to tell us how much extra money you need so that we can put it in our report. Who'd like to start?
I'll start. We would always welcome extra funding, and I'm sure social care colleagues would always value that. I think, in terms of the financial impact, and the actual pressures on the system, we collectively believe that it's actually the children themselves that have paid the heaviest and the most disproportionate price of this pandemic. So, I wanted to say that first, really. In terms of funding, I have to say that the hardship fund has been of significant value to local authorities, and we have welcomed that financial support from the Welsh Government. However, we have to be really clear that children's social care was under financial pressure prior to the start of the pandemic, so it would be wrong to consider the pressures and the financial pressures purely in relation to the impact of COVID. Those challenges are around balancing the costs of services, increased demand on services, but also the additional workforce costs. As Jonathan said, I think there are a lot of unknowns in terms of what we will face on the demands on services moving forward as we begin to come out of the pandemic, and those longer term impacts on children and their families, particularly around mental health and mental well-being. But what we do know as local authorities and children's services is what works. We know our core services work and what we actually need is a long-term sustainable funding solution to enable us to deliver those core services. And when I say core services, we absolutely include early intervention and prevention work within that. If I could ask Jonathan to come in on the pressures on the workforce, please.
Thank you, Nicola, for bringing me in there. I think that, ultimately, we've seen a staff resource throughout the pandemic that has responded incredibly to the challenges faced during the last year, and this gives me an opportunity, to you as a committee, but in terms of a wider audience, to thank people again for their incredible work over the last 12 months as a workforce coming together and providing innovative solutions over the last year, to support children and families in need, and we continue to do so as a statutory service across Wales. That's inevitably the first port of call, really, in terms of thanking people. As I said, we've particularly risen to the challenge of supporting families, but in terms of our workforce challenge, we still face challenges in the workforce around recruitment and retention within front-line social work in children's services in particular in Wales, and that recruitment and retention issue may become more prevalent in terms of the pressures some people have faced, in terms of the age demographic of our workforce—we've got some challenges there, as people come towards that retirement age.
The other challenge for us as a sector in Wales is actually attracting and continuing to attract people into the social work profession and valuing that profession. I'm a social worker myself, and we, certainly, from the social work family, value the profession. But people have seen and do see extreme pressure during that system, and taking that individual professional responsibility in very different working environments over the last year, to some extent, will take a toll on some individuals and possibly not others. So, the working models that we have as a workforce have changed in that year, as we operate in much more agile, virtual environments. We are constantly, therefore, having to ensure the well-being of our staff is in place. We've worked with Social Care Wales and other organisations to provide that level of support for anyone who's experienced any trauma through that period. We're concerned, as well, about the trauma impact over the long term, which again will cause some challenges, we feel, around retention, if we don't work collectively to manage some of that and support people effectively.
One of the main issues for us is actually attracting, as I said earlier, social workers to qualify, to come into the profession, to be valued in that profession, and we are seeing early signs from our university colleagues that uptake in applications is lowering in Wales, so we need to be mindful of that. Why aren't we attracting the same numbers to the sector as we did previously? So, that's a matter of some concern to us, but we will work with the sector in that regard.
I think also we've got to be clear that, in the workforce scenario across Wales, we do have positions around professional grades that are different across the workforce in Wales. We've got a joint workforce strategy that was approved that's not, in essence, been enacted fully in terms of setting the actions on that, but I think one of the key factors we need to look at is actually the professional grades across Wales, where we create internal competitions across local authorities based on different terms and conditions across the country. And there's some work I think we can do with Government and others about how we can overcome those challenges, which will help with keeping more continuity in our local authority roles and numbers of social workers, avoiding that internal across-Wales competition across local authorities to attract staff and effectively fill gaps. So, we're very mindful that we'll need to work on that over the coming period.
So, there are workforce concerns within there and, as I say, I'll leave it there, Chair, and hope that the committee take that on board.
Okay, thank you. And, Sally, were you going to come in on the finance?
The only thing that I'd want to add is to reiterate Nicola's point in terms of core funding: what we don't want to see, and which I think would really derail much of our work, would be go forward with shiny projects and grant funding. What we need to see and to ensure is that the core funding of local authority social services can be preserved and, if anything, enhanced. To have small projects over short periods of time just undoes all of the good work we can do. So, it's a real plea, really, for not too shiny.
Thank you. Jan.
Diolch—thank you. Yes, I would just like to make one really short point, please: children and young people have borne a disproportionate burden through this pandemic; we don't know what the long-term impact on them will be, but we do know what works in supporting children and young people. And the first thing we know, from research, is that relationships with children and young people are the vehicle through which any support needs to be delivered, and, to do that, we need people in our services, we need them trained, we need them equipped, we need them supported, we need them healthy, we need them positive, we need them excited and exuberant about the work and the opportunity that working alongside families is. It's such a privilege. It's such a privilege to be a social worker, such a privilege to sit alongside a mam or a dad in crisis and say, 'There's a way forward, it won't be like this forever, we can, together, figure out how things can change for the better.' It's an amazing thing to be able to do, but we need people to feel that they can do it. We must support them and, as already been said, what we need is to fund those people to be able to do that core offer, from early help and intervention right through to leaving care—that whole span of provision that is our core service offer. That's what we need to fund, long term, in a stable way into the future. Thank you.
Thank you. We'll move on now, then, to some questions from Siân Gwenllian.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, a diolch, Jan, am hwnna. Dwi'n cytuno efo'ch gweledigaeth chi a'r ffordd rydych chi'n ei rhoi o drosodd hefyd mewn ffordd angerddol. Diolch yn fawr.
Troi at y pwyslais sydd wedi bod, yn sicr gan y Prif Weinidog, ar leihau nifer y plant mewn gofal, rŵan, pan ddaeth hyn ymlaen, roedd yna dipyn o drafod ac anghydweld yn ei gylch o, oherwydd y gallai o gael canlyniadau anfwriadol o safbwynt diogelu. Ydy hi'n bryd, am gyfnod y pandemig, i anghofio am y nod yna? Ydy hi'n realistig meddwl bod yna leihad yn mynd i fod, ac oes yna beryglon, mewn gwirionedd, mewn ceisio cadw'r niferoedd yn isel?
Thank you very much, and thank you, Jan, for that. I agree with your vision and the way that you've expressed it in such a passionate way. Thank you very much for that.
Turning to the emphasis that there has been, certainly by the First Minister, on decreasing or reducing the numbers of children in care, now, when this was put forward, there was a great deal of discussion and disagreement with regard to this issue, because it could have unintended consequences in terms of safeguarding. Is it time, for the pandemic period, to forget that particular objective? Is it realistic to think that there is going to be a reduction in the numbers of children in care, and are there dangers or risks associated with trying to keep the numbers low?
Who'd like to start on this? Nicola.
Diolch. Yes, the number of looked-after children has been a challenge for local authorities and partners not just within Wales, but across the whole of the UK now for some time and I think we are all committed, whether that be directors, heads of children's services or anybody working within our services, to try and address and reduce—[Inaudible.]—proper that children do have that safety net if there are risks. And that's absolutely the fundamental core business that we have. But care and children coming into care is not just social care; it's a multifaceted issue. And those issues have increased during the pandemic, and therefore numbers of looked-after children have also increased during the pandemic, despite the plans that we had in place to try and reduce those numbers. But I think it's remarkable that the numbers have only increased as they have done, because we have been in a worldwide pandemic, and if we consider that schools were closed for many months, that we've had increases in the prevalence of domestic abuse, financial hardship and unemployment for many families, those pressures on children's services and on safeguarding in particular have been significant and will continue to be so.
I think there's an acknowledgement from all partners that there is no simple answer to reducing to an arbitrary figure. It is about ensuring that all of those factors and all of those support networks are there in place and we do the right thing for the children and families that we work for. So, I think that it's right to challenge local authorities on our practice, but we ensure that we continue to try to meet the very, very best—[Inaudible.]—children and families. There are no easy solutions. It's a very complicated matter, but we will continue to try and do the right thing for children and families. Diolch.
Thank you. Sally.
I'd absolutely echo what Nicola said, but I would add to that. I think what's really important, looking forward, is ensuring that the right children are in care, because I think part of this debate now has become so challenging for all of us that we have to find a way forward. Absolutely, we should be challenged as local authorities, and I think what we would all agree on is that care experience for many children is not positive and we have to find ways to improve that.
I do think that Nicola's point about the pandemic is absolutely right. This has been the most challenging year any of us have experienced, and yet for the looked-after children numbers to remain reasonably static has therefore been extraordinary. We do know in Wales that public law, so the law that we're all involved with, has largely held steady. We've been able to work through cases. We have a very low backlog in Wales, unlike in England, where there are areas of significant backlog. We've not had the same sorts of delays in adoption that they've had in England, and I think that's credit to our colleagues in family justice across the whole of our family—so, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service Cymru and the judiciary, as well as the local authorities.
I think, going forward, we have to look at some learning from this period, where there have been some really difficult discussions across the sector in terms of reduction. And I think we have to understand risk, because I think one of the things that has often been left out of this discussion is about how do we all, across all agencies, manage risk. So, that's not just about local authorities and that sharp end of children's services, that's our colleagues in the police, that's our colleagues in health, particularly in specialist child and adolescent mental health services, and that's our colleagues in education. Because I think sometimes what we've forgotten is that children's services are the hard end of children coming into care. We're the end of the process, not the beginning, and we have to rethink that whole and that holistic approach for children. I think in Wales things like the whole-school approach maybe will assist with that, but I still think that we have to rethink and reframe some of the debate and actually find a way to have some common and perhaps more appropriately challenging discussions, rather than crude discussions about a target, going forward.
Can I just pick up on—? I think Nicola called the 2 per cent increase 'remarkable', and Sally, you called it 'extraordinary'. To me, it rings some alarm bells, to be quite honest, the fact that it is only 2 per cent, during a pandemic, when we are hearing—anecdotally, yes, but hearing—so much about an increase in violence in the home et cetera.
But I suppose what that comes back to is the discussion that we've already made—that significant bodies of support have remained in place. I agree with you that I think there are concerns, but I think, sometimes, in other places, in other discussions, it's almost been assumed that we've stopped, and we haven't. We've carried on investigating safeguarding, and, yes, I think there may be a period when we see a further increase, but we're not there at the moment, and that might be why.
I also think that in some circumstances—I can speak for my own authority—it's that, on occasion, we've absolutely gone above and beyond. Some of the steps that people have taken to support families—some of them very practical; so, that's in terms of food and access to IT, access to telephones, trying to get support into families, continuing with short breaks for disabled children, looking at really creative ways to support children in foster care—have actually really enhanced some of our practice, rather perversely, during this period, however hard that has been.
And I think the other element in this is that we also have seen that for some of our children, actually—I mean, again, rather oddly—some of the pressure of not having to do some of the things that they normally do has improved their lives, so there is a tautology in there for some of our children. So, I can understand why there is a concern, but I think we need to balance that with the recognition that services have continued, in a way. We haven't stopped going into court, we haven't stopped having child protection conferences; all of that work has continued. I think it's been tough, but I think that it probably is thinking about what comes next that's more of a challenge, rather than what's happened during the course of this year.
Okay. Thank you. Jan wants to come in on this.
Thank you. Yes, I think that, in the face of an unprecedented situation that none of us have ever experienced in our careers before, a dedicated, committed workforce stepped forward and said, 'We will do everything that we can to support families, even in a way that we never have before', and the emergency that we found ourselves in almost brought a freedom for people to think of extraordinary ways and lengths that they could go to to keep families safely together, and I think that that workforce should be applauded for that, and I think that's where the idea of it being extraordinary and incredible comes from, really.
But, in some ways, I think that, some of our workers, they're keeping going on adrenaline and coffee, perhaps, at the minute, and, at some point, that adrenaline is going to come to an end, and that's why what happens next is so important, because people can't keep going at the pace that they've been going at. As Sally said, as Jonathan has said, children are now going back into school; that first piece of the universal service puzzle is being put back in place. We don't know what's going to happen next. But all of those services have carried on—edge of care, intervention and prevention, people working in wonderful ways with families—and I think that is how we've managed to keep families together in the way that we have.
And what about the target of reducing the numbers? Is it realistic?
I'm really proud to be able to celebrate the numbers of families we've supported to stay together, that have perhaps prevented inflation or an increase in those numbers, and I love it when people ask me about that, and I'm always really pleased to be able to celebrate those figures that we're achieving by supporting families to stay together and keeping children out of care, where we're able to do so safely and when it is in the child's best interests.
Can I just ask: have you felt that Welsh Government has been sufficiently understanding of the unique pressures of the pandemic in any discussions about the target while we've been in the pandemic, or have you felt pressure to continue to bear down on the numbers of looked-after children? Sally.
Obviously, we're all very aware and we still report on the target. In addition to the quarterly reporting we're already doing, we've been doing weekly reporting and a data checkpoint throughout this period, as you're probably aware. I don't think there's been any additional pressure throughout this period. I think inevitably, and absolutely naturally, given where we were at, say, the first six months of this year, adult services, given the particular issues there, perhaps were more on people's radar, and I understand why that was. So, I think sometimes, at times, that's meant that there's been kind of less of an eye on children, just because of need, really, as much as anything. But it hasn't gone away, and those discussions continue on a very regular basis with Welsh Government in terms of looking at the children that we have in care, looking at exploring our population and why that is. So, no, it hasn't gone away. I think it has changed over this year, and that was inevitable given the pandemic.
Thank you. We'll go to some questions from Suzy Davies now.
Thank you, Chair. Yes, I'm quite taken by that very recent comment you made there, Sally, about no additional pressure with regard to the target. At a time when we've already heard that the number of children coming into the looked-after care system's gone up by 2 per cent, potentially more, and we've heard that there are pressures on the finances, my questions are about the stability of places and availability of new places, but if I'm taking those three elements together before I even ask that question, I would suspect that existing places are probably less stable than we might want, let alone the potential for having new places.
I suppose the pressure is about whether or not it's the Welsh Government pressure or whether it's the pressure in terms of the system, so it's two slightly different things. I think the pressure in the system is absolutely there. I think it's that kind of discussion in terms of the targets with Welsh Government is what I was referring to in terms of less—
Forgive me, but doesn't one then lead to the other, effectively?
As a head of service, when I'm sitting there as a head of service and I've got real children and real families in front of me, that's what's in front of me, not anything else. I'll be absolutely frank—and if my chief executive and leader were listening this, I think they'd have a hissy fit—my position is that child and that child's needs, and that family's needs, are what matters. The reality in terms of political discussion, in terms of financial pressure, goes away. It's that child and how we meet those needs that becomes the absolute imperative, and that's the way it should be. Like others, I'm a social worker—that's my job, and that's where I see it.
It has to be the right children going into care, doesn't it?
Absolutely, and on a day in, day out basis, I'm sure, like Jan, I'm very aware of that. The children who come into care in my local authority I know about. It's not as if this is a hands-off world for us at all. This is a world where we know those children, we know those children's names—they are real for us. I think it is one of those areas where senior officers have an incredible grasp of the operational reality of what their staff are working with.
I think in relation to placements, like in many areas of this, what the pandemic has done is heighten existing pressures in the same way as it has done with finance. So, we were already short of placements at the beginning of this process, and inevitably this has been more difficult. We've had to work with the COVID restrictions throughout, we've had to work with the impact that that's had on workforces in residential care throughout Wales, and then we've had to work with what that's meant for foster families. I think what we've perhaps, and I hope, seen is that, for many people, they've reassessed what they want from their lives, so actually we've recruited more foster carers as a local authority during this period than we did before, and I know we're not alone in that. So, I think people have had a chance to rethink. I don't think that takes away from the fact that what we've asked of our foster carers has been absolutely—. We talk about 'extraordinary', but we've asked them to care for children 24/7, seven days a week, all the way through this—to take children into their houses, sometimes children who are coming from families with COVID, where someone has tested positive, and we've not known whether the children perhaps have the virus and that's come into families. We've had foster families who've had to self-isolate for the whole of quite substantial periods, say, pre adoption. So, what we've asked of our foster carers has been enormous, and they have stepped up to that. They have absolutely stepped up to that challenge and continued to care for our children all the way through this.
If you look at the data checkpoint, the breakdown in foster care and residential care is very, very low. We've not seen a big increase in breakdown in placement. We still have a shortage of placement, but we've not seen a breakdown in existing placement, which is really interesting. I think, on searching for placements, particularly for older children and for the siblings group, what was difficult before has become more difficult now. A number of local authorities already have in train plans to try to address some of that. I know that Powys is one, Newport is another. This morning we're competing with the residential children's conference, which the Deputy Minister opened earlier today. I think that there are some really good examples of where people are trying to address that locally and to develop further provision in our own local authorities and, indeed, regionally and on a regional footprint to address that. But it costs, and I think we come back to what already we've talked about and Nicola and Jonathan have outlined, which is that the funding pressure in terms of placements continues, not just in terms of paying for the here and now but in terms of developing. I think one of the things I would want to emphasise is that whilst placements are expensive, there is an element, for me, that says placements should be expensive. We're talking about caring for children in the best possible way. I know, as a local authority that has a substantial body of its own residential care, that doesn't come as a cheap option, but it does come with quality, and I'm very conscious of that.
So, there's a whole package of things in there. Yes, we've had challenges throughout the care system. They're no different from what they were before; they're just greater now because of the pandemic. Our residential carers and our foster carers have continued to develop in a way that is remarkable. We've continued to develop other alternatives and I think we'll absolutely drive those things forward across a number of areas. And what we come back to is that, as local authorities, first and most important is to answer to the needs of the children who are there in front of us right now, not to a target and not to a budget, but to that child.
Thank you. We're a bit short on time and I could see lots of nodding heads when Sally was speaking. Is there anything specific anybody wants to add to that—a slightly different experience? Jan, you mentioned that relationships are key to the success of all care placements anyway. Would it be fair to say that, across existing placements, there have been opportunities for those relationships to develop in a way that has been to the advantage of the child or young person, or have you had new types of instance that have been challenging for those placements? I was relieved when Sally said that the placements aren't falling apart, considering these families are now under pressure.