Cat Rowe of AdvoCATe Services is an advocate for people with learning disabilities. Here she outlines the role of the Lay Advocate and the positive difference this can make for vulnerable parents who are in proceedings.
The purpose of Advocacy is to provide a voice for vulnerable people. An Advocate will help an individual speak out; supporting them and empowering them in what may feel like a bewildering and threatening environment, as well as clarifying and calming these situations. Within Child Protection, Public Law Outline (pre-proceedings), and Court proceedings, this is essential for vulnerable parents. The word “vulnerable” can mean many different things for different people in different situations. In this instance, I am talking about parents who are somehow disadvantaged compared to their peers - whether this is a parent with a Learning Disability, learning difficulties, a Mental Health condition, trauma from childhood, substance misuse, domestic abuse … the list encompasses a whole range of parental situations.
Having professionals involved in your family life is intimidating. There is an immediate power imbalance, and many families assume that social workers only get involved with the intent to remove children. This, of course, creates a defensive barrier and with parents that may struggle to communicate effectively, this puts a more complex dynamic on the relationship between the social worker and parent(s).
Social workers want to work with families to improve the life of the children and are ultimately trained to work with children. This can mean that as well as the parent finding the process frightening and not knowing what to expect, the social worker may also feel out of their depth working with an adult with additional needs. The way in which information is relayed to a parent, and their ability to understand it, is going to be key if effective change is to be made and maintained.
Social workers can sometimes forget that a job they do day in, day out, can involve significant amounts of unfamiliar terminology and complex processes that can be difficult to comprehend. Also, more serious concerns generally involve more complicated processes and very often there are more professionals involved, which again, can be completely overwhelming for parents.
Advocacy seeks to address some of these issues and act as a “bridge” between professional and parent. An advocate takes the time to explain the process in a way the parent understands, to help them to manage their expectations, and understand what is happening. They support the parent to voice their opinions with the professionals involved, which they often feel is unheard, and some even worry that they will be penalised for raising concerns, or their opinion.
Lay Advocates, as they are often referred to within the Child Protection arena, (to differentiate from Legal Advocates) have experience working with adults with additional needs, and ideally are qualified in providing advocacy to adults.
To be most effective, the Advocate needs to build up a positive, trusting, working relationship with the parent. They also need to know what the Local Authority’s concerns are, and what is being asked of the parent. The Advocate can then help the parent understand why these changes need to be made. This may take some time, it may require multiple meetings, or for the Advocate to prepare visual aids - all dependent on the requirements of the parent they are working with. It is all tailored to suit that particular parent.
Local Authorities need to be willing to fund this support and the earlier it is put in place, the more effective it can be. Sadly, at times, funding has only been in place to work with a parent to attend an Initial, or Review Child Protection Conference, and given an extra 30 minutes before and after the meeting with the parent 1:1. This is just not effective advocacy and appears to be purely a formality. An Advocate cannot fully appreciate the difficulties facing a parent, adapt things appropriately and support them to understand the often-complex concepts arising, with only one hour outside the conference time. Local Authorities should not expect a parent to better understand, and implement change, as a result of this brief interaction.
Currently, funding of Advocacy is delivered via several different sources depending on the stage of proceedings:
Court hearings are funded by HMCTS.
Solicitor appointments and court bundle work are funded by the Legal Aid Agency.
Meetings held by Children’s Services are funded by the Local Authority.
It is essential for effective Advocacy that the same Advocate is funded throughout the parent’s journey through the Courts (and before this stage) to ensure continuity and reassurance to the parents.
Advocacy for parents going through Court proceedings is vital for those vulnerable groups described above.It gives them the best opportunities through the process and helps them to engage with the improvements required of them.Consistency of service from individual Advocates to individual parents is required to get the best service, and that consistency must be provided by the funding routes. This enables them to a fair trial, and the best outcomes for the family.