First published in Association of Child Abuse Lawyers (ACAL) Newsletter, March 2017
For some years now, Irwin Mitchell has been a supporter of the Victoria Climbié Foundation. Here Natasha Fairs, Associate Solicitor in the abuse team in Irwin Mitchell’s London office interviews Stephanie Yorath, VCF’s Programme Director to find out more about the work of VCF, their vision and current projects.
Q1: Tell us about how and why the Victoria Climbie Foundation was set up?
VCF – The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK was established by Mr and Mrs Climbié (Victoria’s parents) and current director Mor Dioum, following the Victoria Climbié Inquiry led by Lord Laming in 2003, government response and Every Child Matters policy. The organisation was set up to campaign for improvements in child protection policies and practices, and to ensure effective coordination and links between statutory agencies, care services and the community.
VCF has long been at the forefront of political debate, and our campaign for improvements continues in 2017, which started with a roundtable event and formal launch of a joint Advisory Group with the University of East London Centre for Social Work Research, for the safeguarding of BME and Migrant Children, supported by parliamentary host Sir Keir Starmer QC, Shadow ‘Brexit’ Minister and MP for Holborn & St. Pancras.
Q2: What services do you provide?
VCF offers an independent advocacy service providing advice and assistance, and legally- based casework support for families involved with children’s services, particularly children’s social care. For many families, we help them to navigate the child protection system and its processes, as many lack an understanding of statutory roles and functions, or even the legal framework in this country, in the context of their culture or faith. For young people, we offer one- to-one active listening sessions for victims of crime or circumstance to address immediate concerns, and to determine other support or therapeutic needs.
More broadly, VCF advocacy work has played a key role in supporting victims and witnesses involved in criminal investigations, children and parents in care proceedings, or other child protection processes, and in public interest cases to assist family interaction with the media and related legal obligations.
Q3: How do you receive referrals?
For the most part and in the early years of the organisation’s existence, families found us through word of mouth within the community, and self referred to our service. In recent times, we increasingly receive referrals from local authorities for advocacy support for parents and/or young people, or court-directed assessments. Several law firms have also contacted VCF for specialist advice in cases involving aspects of culture or faith likely to cause concern for statutory partners.
Q4: Do you work in partnership with other organisations?
Yes, VCF works with a number of organisations or individuals seeking to improve outcomes for children and families, across a range of safeguarding priorities, including aspects of culture or faith. Key stakeholders for this work include various child safeguarding bodies, Inspectorates, Local Safeguarding Children Boards (LSCBs) and Local Authority children’s services.
Key partners include the Department for Education (DfE) with whom we share the secretariat for the National Working Group on Child Abuse linked to Faith or Belief, a multi-agency policy group under VCF leadership comprising representatives from statutory, voluntary, community and faith organisations, as well as individuals with experience or specialist knowledge.
Protecting Children across Culture and Faith is the protocol that VCF uses to address such themes as FGM, Witchcraft & Spirit Possession and Radicalism, to ensure that these themes are appropriately considered within child protection policies and guidance, in addition to parental and child mental health, disabilities, and domestic abuse, with language and linguistic heritage particularly key for the BME and migrant communities with whom we work.
We are assisted in this work by the Centre for Social Work Research (CSWR), Mothertongue, HCL Social Care, Churches Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS), Advocacy Advice after Fatal Domestic Abuse (AAFDA), Chanon Consulting, One Step Forward Consultancy, Unity in Vision and members of the National Working Group on Child Abuse linked to Faith or Belief.
Q5: Tell us about the recent initiative in Dorset.
Dorset is part of a wider Community Leadership Initiative to address the emerging crisis both nationally and internationally for BME and Migrant children. VCF is proactively advancing political engagement and community partnerships to position the organisation to meets its vision and objectives for 2016-2020; to establish a global presence to monitor and respond to government policies by providing an independent environment to learn, research, share and develop best practice for the rights, care and protection of children, while still providing legal advice, advocacy and training.
In March 2016, VCF formalised its work with local community partner, Unity in Vision, through a Memorandum of Cooperation, to deliver family engagement services across Dorset, and to pilot VCF ‘community engagement’ and ‘parallel communities’ models, to enhance the life chances for every child within a world-class child protection system.
Q6: Can you give an example of your advocacy work
Let me share a recent case summary from our Achieving for Children and Families series:
A grandmother supported by VCF has successfully managed to secure a brighter future for her grand-daughter, by increasing consistency in [court-ordered] contact for her son, the girl’s biological father, who is successfully managing his past mental health issues – in addition to the fortnightly weekend contact she currently enjoys. Ms Y represented herself at court, as did the other parties; the maternal grandmother with whom the child resides, and the biological mother whose involvement in her daughter’s life has been limited to-date. This led to ongoing conflict between the parties and a lack of effective communication at court. With VCF support, Ms Y was able to present a well-considered statement to the court outlining her concerns and wishes for her grand-daughter, and whilst she did not achieve everything she wanted, was happy that she had been listened to, and that the Judge had been largely supportive of her views. Ms Y now accepts that by adjusting her approach and focus, in her determination to safeguard her grand-daughter, the ongoing contact that she has secured with this child may yet prove to be the greatest gift of all.
Clearly, there are complexities in this case, and affordability issues, yet the determination of this grandmother despite advice to abandon the case led to a more than satisfactory outcome and a feeling that she had achieved all she could for this child. This is a woman who had cared for this child from birth and gave her back to the biological mother when requested to do so, who promptly left the child with her maternal grandmother.
Q7: Have you been involved in research at all?
VCF has a wealth of anecdotal evidence from its work with children and families, and has contributed to numerous research papers directly, or to facilitate service user involvement. VCF now offers an independent environment, and together with the Centre for Social Work Research, we provide research to influence policies and practice for the benefit of practitioners.
Since 2014, VCF has delivered research in collaboration with HCL Social Care (Voices from the Frontline; supporting social workers in the delivery of quality services to children), Mothertongue (My Languages Matter; the multilingual outlook for children in care), University of East London Centre for Social Work Research (Engaging children and families; the role of advocacy within child protection) and the Manchester Metropolitan University (An Exploration of Child Abuse linked to Faith or Belief), and an academic article for the Journal of Health Visiting.
Q8: How can ACAL support you in your work?
VCF has always benefitted from the goodwill of our legal partners, and we are proud to say that a number of ACAL lawyers are already supporting and sharing information about our work, with one or two offering specialist advice which has helped to keep us updated on changes to the public law outline and other family justice reforms to be able to gauge the impact on families, or even social care.
VCF offers opportunities to lawyers to share aspects of the legal process with multi-agency audiences, and Irwin Mitchell has been particularly supportive in promoting the foundation’s work as well as sponsoring events.
At a practical level, we have previously responded to requests for informal internships for trainee solicitors, which we would happily offer through a more formally-supported structure, to offer pro bono support for some litigant in person clients. We can also be contacted for independent specialist assessments and endeavour to be as flexible as possible to meet the required, and often short notice, timelines for the child around safeguarding concerns linked to FGM, Witchcraft/Spirit Possession or Radicalism.
But above all, we ask ACAL lawyers to remember why we do the work we do and to sometimes go the extra mile to advocate for families involved in care proceedings in circumstances that could have been prevented; to challenge more thoroughly where and whenever injustice occurs, and not to accept so readily, information provided on paper, if we are not to see a complete breakdown within a society delivering increasingly poor outcomes for children and families.
Q9: Working within the child protection setting can expose people to secondary trauma.
How does the VCF support its people working within it to stay healthy?
At VCF, we are often asked this question and we have identified that individuals within the VCF team adopt various coping strategies. Regular supervision is the formal mechanism to identify issues and/or concerns, and a positive working environment is equally as important for a workforce focused on supporting, often chaotic, children and families within child protection processes. Team members are well supported, including by their peers, and do not work in isolation or for consistently long hours in our quest to keep cases moving forward. Together,with our structured approach, our trustees, partners and specialist advisors offer an added layer of support to our management, staff and volunteers.
VCF is not a critical frontline service, albeit an extremely important and trusted service for the children, families and communities we support.