Independent advocacy is a process of helping children to express themselves and make changes. It empowers children to ensure their rights are respected, and their views and wishes are heard at all times and is a means of achieving social justice because ‘everyone matters, and everyone is heard’.
Independent Advocacy in Child Protection - Guidance for Policy Makers (National Children’s Bureau 2013)
EPIC was formally founded twenty years ago, and in that time has grown from an organisation of just three people providing independent advocacy to children and young adults in North Dublin, to a service providing direct one to one advocacy and participation programmes nationally, with offices in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Limerick.
The past 20 years of this EPIC journey has been one of discovery, often challenging, sometimes arduous, but always driven by a passion and commitment to ensure that children and young people were given a voice, that their voice was heard, and that they could participate in and influence decisions being made about them and also effect change in the care system, to ensure the lived experience of all children and young people in care will be a positive one.
The work of EPIC is predicated on the belief that independent advocacy and participation for children in care, is an integral part of our child protection and welfare system and the belief that it will be recognized as such. While it’s fair to say that we are not there yet in achieving this recognition, we believe that we have made considerable progress in reaching this objective.
Advocacy is relatively new to Ireland and still not widely understood. Indeed, advocacy services for vulnerable children were only established in England and Wales in 1987, when Leicestershire County Council established the UK’s first children’s rights service to, among other things, give information and advice to children in care and investigate and report on their concerns and complaints.
However, the need for independent advocacy within the Irish child protection and welfare system has been recognised for more than twenty years. The arrival in Ireland of the term ‘advocacy’ can be traced to the 1996 report by the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, ‘A Strategy for Equality’. Although it was the disability model which initially shaped advocacy services in Ireland, the concept was also used by the Department of Health and Children in the context of mental health in its Health strategy.
The ‘legitimisation’ of the advocacy concept by the Irish government was a significant development which triggered a further semantic shift when organisations began to call their campaigns - ‘advocacy services’. The government gave further credence to the notion of advocacy in its white paper, ‘Supporting Voluntary Activity’, which aimed to define the relationship between the State and the voluntary sector. This paper endorsed the policy-making role of the community and voluntary sector as well as upholding its right to speak, laying down principles of independence and freedom of action, and setting out the role of such organisations in supporting social inclusion.
Despite these, and other positive developments, the states relationship with independent advocacy has been, and remains, an uneasy one. The CRC Committee (1998 & 2006) stressed that the right of children to express their views in all matters affecting them, and to have these views given due weight, was still not adequately protected and realised in Ireland and, despite the National Children‘s Strategy 2000–2010 stating as one of its primary goals that ‘Children will be heard’, the state is not always willing or able to acknowledge or address issues raised by children in care.
Research commissioned by the OCO, and carried out by Dr Ursula Kilkelly, in 2007, found that ‘the lack of voice either by or on behalf of the child contributed significantly to their lack of rights’.
Dr Kilkelly also found serious gaps in the provision and quality of independent representation and advocacy services for children were absent in a number of areas. The result was that the child’s right to be heard was ignored, both in terms of process and with regard to their rights in the related substantive areas of child protection and health, for example. Issues also arose in the context of legal proceedings in terms of the difficulties children often face in court.
Further, it was found that children who reported child sexual abuse might not have an independent advocate to complain on their behalf and represent their interests independently to the statutory authorities. One recommendation to emerge from this was that an independent advocate should be appointed as quickly as possible to liaise with any child who makes such a complaint. This being particularly important to secure the child’s rights in light of their concern that they may not be believed.
Next year EPIC will be 21 years old, an age that traditionally signifies independence and the transition to young adulthood. As EPIC celebrates this milestone in 2020 the irony will not be lost that for many young people in care, their 21st year is not always something to look forward to, but for many, the end of any form of stability or certainty that they have known, often a time of uncertainty, and, unless they have chosen to enter continuing education or training, marks the end of the state’s duty of care, leaving them to navigate their future alone.
As I look back on the challenges that EPIC has faced in the past three years, the successes and failures we’ve learned from, the children and young people that we have been able to help, and that have helped us and the alliances we’ve built, I think we can be optimistic about the next phase of this EPIC journey. EPIC has established the concept and developed the professional practice of independent advocacy and participation for children in care in Ireland.
Even though I have only shared a relatively short part of this EPIC journey, it has been a profound and life-changing experience. Looking back to my arrival in January 2017, I little realised what the next three years would bring, and while it did bring challenges, some predicable, others less so, my overwhelming sense is one of profound gratitude for the enormous amount I have learned in that short time, and for the enormous privilege it has been to work with such a dedicated and inspiring team - most of whom will take EPIC forward to the next stage of the journey.
Looking to the future, we realise that the biggest challenges still await EPIC as an organisation. Our overall goal must be to be instrumental in achieving transformational change within the care system. However, this will only be achieved incrementally, and we must carefully select each step toward that goal.
Key amongst these is to increase awareness of advocacy and participation and the crucial role they play in enabling children and young people in the care system to communicate their wishes and feelings, and to play an active role in decision-making about key aspects of their lives.
Important within this, is to show the value of independent advocacy and participation in supporting the statutory sector to effectively meet their duties as corporate parents to children in care by improving both children’s experience of the care system and their outcomes, as well as delivering financial savings.
In all of this we are at least fifteen years behind our UK counterparts. The value of independent advocacy was recognised there in the 2004 Regulations (Section 26A) which came into effect on April 1st, 2004.
Under this, all local authorities with social services responsibilities were directed to ensure that advocacy services were provided for children and young people making or intending to make a complaint under section 24D or section 26 of the Children Act 1989. This imposes on local authorities the duty to make arrangements for the provision of advocacy services for care leavers making, or intending to make, representations under section 24D of the Children Act and for children making, or intending to make, a representation under section 26.
The UK government has also developed a set of National Standards for the provision of advocacy services and Guidance for the provision of advocacy services under The Advocacy Services and Representations Procedure (Children) (Amendment) Regulations 2004.
When we compare ourselves to the UK, we can see that we’re still are some way behind in recognizing the importance of independent advocacy. Nonetheless, opportunities exist to reduce the gap between ourselves and our counterparts in the UK and other countries. One of these is for the Irish government to enshrine independent advocacy in legislation through the review of the Childcare Act 1991, and in our submission to the Childcare Act review we have requested that the government would give due consideration to this.
Another is to ‘continue’ care to 26 years of age. This would help to ensure that all young people, having left care, and particularly those with mental health, addiction and other challenges, would be given sufficient time to transition to independent living and take up education or training at a later stage than is currently possible. EPIC will begin to campaign for this in 2020.
Other objectives that are planned include the development of a foster care campaign to increase awareness and understanding of advocacy and participation amongst foster children and the development of an under 18 National Children’s Council as a counterpart to our National Youth Council
If we compare our journey so far to the Heros’ Journey, then I believe that EPIC has come through the ‘ordeal’ and is now beginning to seek the ‘reward’. That reward for us will be that the voice of the child, which has been silent for so long, will finally be heard. Our work now is to enable that voice to become increasingly louder.
On behalf of the team at EPIC, Wishing everybody a very Happy Christmas and a Peaceful and fulfilling New year!
CEO of EPIC