All people are equal partners who have voice, choice and control over their lives and are able to achieve what matters to them
Vulnerable Learners Panel
The Vulnerable Learners Panel was set up at the beginning of the first lockdown in March as a partnership between services in Education and Social Care to identify support for children and young people during lockdown. It quickly evolved into an effective multi-agency group to share information, identify school and childcare places for learners, and alternatives to Free School Meal bank payments for families where needed. The panel adapted when schools reopened to identify play and respite opportunities for children and young people over the summer holidays, and began to meet weekly again with school closures in January 2021.
As a result of the panel we were able to:
- Ensure consistency in access for children in need of a place in school or childcare
- Open provision up as a preventative measure for families who were at risk of breakdown
- Liaise with the Young Carers Services about learners who were not necessarily known to their schools as vulnerable
- Identify the best source of funding for childcare placements
- Engage with families who were not responding to offers from their schools
- Offer places to vulnerable children and young people in schools and childcare
- Improve communication between Education and Social Care Teams on an operational and strategic level
A separate panel ran in parallel between the Additional Learning Needs service in Education, Child and Adolescent Learning Disability (Health) and the Disabilities Service in Social Care. As above, the multi-agency panel used this platform to share information, identify school places for learners and work together collaboratively to develop bespoke packages for individuals with complex needs.
What were the challenges?
We faced some challenges at the beginning in defining vulnerability and which learners should be prioritised, but the weekly panel meetings and information provided through the referral process enabled us to identify solutions. We were able to draw on other resources such as advice from the support teams in Education and Family Centres, and access grants and equipment for families.
The Vulnerable Learners Panel agreed that this was a valuable forum for sharing information and maximising opportunities for partnership work. It will continue to meet, and is flexible to increase the frequency of meetings if there are further periods of school closure.
Giving children a voice at their review
We have continued to carry out Looked After Children reviews during the pandemic, which, due to Covid-19 restrictions are being held via conference call. Young people continue to have contact with the Independent Safeguarding and Reviewing Officer (ISRO) prior to meetings, at a level which is age and developmentally appropriate. More recently, reviews where possible have been completed by Zoom video calls. The offer of advocacy continues to be made to children prior to each review.
Child Protection conferences are still taking place but via conference call rather than face to face. This aided parental participation with it being noted that parents are more confident to share their views. Child participation has also increased, with more young people either speaking with the ISRO beforehand, or participating in the conference, either partially or fully. The child’s views are recorded within the meetings, with direct work being completed with children to aid the conference’s understanding of what their views are. Again, the offer of advocacy is made to children and parents prior to the conference.
What were the challenges?
This has been a new way of working for everyone, including ISROs, children and young people, parents and professionals. We are currently exploring different meeting platforms to provide the best experience and functionality. At times connectivity has been problematic and unstable.
Changes to our recording systems with the introduction of the Wales Client Care Information System (WCCIS) have presented challenges to staff and ISROs who are still understanding the new processes.
A number of review meetings will continue to be held virtually, particularly if the young person prefers this to a face to face meeting. The platform for case conference meetings will be explored further to allow our key partners to fully engage in meetings. This should allow parents and children/young people to see participants as if they were in the same room.
The implementation of Mind of My Own is due to commence later this year, this being an opportunity for the young person to add their views as and when they wish to via an app, rather than the usual consultation booklet. This will also be extended to the Return Home interview.
Responding to people’s needs during lockdown
Opportunities for vulnerable individuals to engage with normal activities and hobbies outside of the home were very limited during the Covid-19 lockdown, so we had to think creatively, and work with them to find solutions and alternatives. Here we have some feedback from families of children with disabilities, who benefited greatly from relatively small contributions.
Keeping fit with Mum
K absolutely loves his watch, he’s had it a while now but still wears it every day. We have competitions together during our walks and at the weekends to see who can do the most steps. I find that it really motivates him and gives him a reason to carry on with his exercise and running, the support workers encourage him through his watch too.
K likes to wear it when he’s in the gym because it tracks different exercises. He has the same one as one of his support workers too which he loves, he likes to be like him. K was so pleased with it and it came in the middle of lockdown where his motivation was low. As a family [we] really appreciated him being able to have something like this from you.
Facilitating computer time
‘H’ was provided with a protective computer desk because he was spending more time online due to lockdown, but, due to his set-up, was damaging his equipment. His Mum told us how the desk made a real difference:
It was a huge help in the first lockdown having the desk arrive. I don’t know what H does on the computer but it makes him happy and he can spend ages on it. He makes PowerPoints and likes to watch videos; some of the videos he’s made himself from his iPad. Playing on it calms him and makes him a lot happier at home.
Having the desk means he isn’t going through computer after computer, because they constantly break or the monitors get smashed otherwise, and then he gets so upset. He was just over the moon when it came, it’s in his bedroom for him.
Offering alternative care models: Disability day services
At the beginning of lockdown in March 2020 our building-based services closed. In response to this we offered individuals, and their carers, increased domiciliary care, Direct Payments, and outreach from our day provision, as an alternative to meet their well-being needs. Although disability services have re-opened the day provision for adults, we’ve had to acknowledge that resuming day care may no longer be possible or safe for some individuals, due to the risks associated with ‘cohorting’ groups of people together. We have been unable to resume normal provision of our children with disability clubs, focusing only on meeting the needs of the most complex children, including those on the edge of care and only during the school holidays. Our main difficulties have centred around suitable venues, given the need to sanitise and prepare the setting for the next users in line with Covid-19 guidance. As a result we have had requests for additional Direct Payments to enable families to maintain resilience.
The increased care packages, via commissioned support or direct payments, although intended at the time to be a temporary measure, may now become the preferred means of supporting those vulnerable individuals at home. Those who are now managing at home with the alternatives we have put in place may prefer to do so in the long-term, rather than be admitted into care or return to day provision. Within Disability Services we have already seen a number of requests to amend Care and Support Plans to reflect individual preferences going forwards.
In addition there is a large percentage of those who previously accessed day provision who have not yet returned to services of any kind due to the risks they feel are associated with increasing their contacts. Many such individuals are supported by carers who are themselves vulnerable, so this is an area we will be watching carefully, especially if the Covid-19 risk is significantly reduced.
We have been working with our internal and independent day service providers and third sector partners to develop an alternative offer to attendance at a building-based service. We have established a Digital Inclusion group, including third sector partners and colleagues from Denbighshire and the regional Learning Disability (LD) Transformation Team. The group is focusing on removing barriers to digital inclusion and developing practical solutions to support people to get online. Within Conwy Disability day services the Direct Care Team have developed a digital offer which includes online sessions for people who are currently not able to attend, for example, coffee mornings, music, and Conwy Connect sessions. The response to date has been very positive.
Spotlight on advocacy
Conwy Social Care has a Service Level Agreement (SLA) with DEWIS CIL to provide independent advocacy services for people with a disability and older people. Advocacy is about taking action to help people say what they want, secure their rights, represent their interests and obtain the services they need.
Advocates and advocacy schemes work in partnership with individuals and they always support and take their side.
Advocacy promotes social inclusion, equality and social justice
Fundamentally, advocacy is concerned with supporting people to have a voice, choice and control, and to express their views, wishes and feelings, in contrast to the role of most other professionals who are primarily concerned with promoting the individuals’ best interests.
Covid-19 has forced everyone to work differently, and for support services this has mainly meant shifting towards telephone support and communicating via internet technologies e.g. Zoom.
Dewis have proactively re-iterated to partner agencies the need for advocacy, reminding agencies that it is important not to forget that all individuals who face barriers to communicating their wishes and feelings or understanding processes are entitled to advocacy around their care and support needs (as defined by Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act), and that these needs may be greater due to Covid-19 related circumstances, such as:
- Does the person face barriers i.e. communication, or understanding the process?
- Has someone moved in after being discharged from hospital?
- Has someone been moved from their normal residence?
- Are they objecting to being moved?
- Did they understand what the move meant for them?
- Has their care changed?
- Did they have appropriate family to support them in this decision? (as defined with SSWBA)
Conwy also commission a children’s advocacy service, Tros Gynnal Plant Cymru. Children’s advocacy is where a child advocate can offer advice and support to a child or young person. The main purpose of a child advocate is to enable children to express their wishes and feelings with the aim of encouraging empowerment of children and upholding their human rights. A child advocate will try to prevent children from being harmed and may try to obtain justice for those who have already been injured in some way. A child advocate may also seek to ensure that children have access to resources or services which will benefit their lives such as education, childcare and proper parenting.
Since the outbreak of the pandemic, children’s advocacy referrals decreased (initially) and then returned to more normal referral levels. Currently the level of referrals is high and has been since Christmas.
Tros Gynnal Plant Cymru (TGP), who we currently commission for children’s advocacy services adapted its approach to service delivery back in March 2020, with all staff moving to work from home and all engagement with children and young people becoming virtual during the first period of national lockdown. Virtual engagement has included the use of a variety of platforms, including the telephone, as led by the individual. Since September they have been undertaking face to face visits for children and young people (CYP) who cannot engage virtually for whatever reason, including lack of equipment, lack of ability to engage via a screen, lack of confidential space to engage with the advocate etc. All face to face visits have to be individually risk assessed and signed off by a panel of senior managers prior to taking place, in order to safeguard either the child or young person and TGP staff.
In Conwy we have been really pleased with how well CYP have engaged with support during the pandemic. A lot has been learnt from them in terms of being relaxed around virtual engagement; this is a generation who have grown up with such platforms as Facetime and WhatsApp! TGP have also used resources and tools to engage with CYP virtually. Things like books, arts and crafts and games, which were posted to the CYP prior to meetings taking place and which served as a good ice breaker when meeting CYP for the first time.
TGP have had to be reactive and responsive to a virtual engagement, e.g. rearranging meetings with CYP if confidentiality has been an issue and have engaged with CYP virtually via schools to overcome such challenges. They have experienced some challenges explaining things like privacy notices to younger children virtually, but again have been flexible in their approach to this, revisiting as many times as necessary and/or explaining to a parent/carer.
As mentioned TGP changed their approach a little during the initial lockdown and made sure they kept in contact with CYP to remind them of the advocacy service should they need it. Ordinarily, they would not do this as advocacy is led by the child, but as CYP had less interaction with professionals, they felt it important to be proactive, to remind them of the service and to provide the engagement opportunity, in case they had anything they needed to discuss and weren’t able to do so with other professionals due to changes in frequency/type of contact.
CYP have continued to have voice, choice and control over their lives through accessing advocacy. We have seen more CYP wanting TGP to attend meetings on their behalf than usual. CYP tell us this is because they don’t like attending big meetings virtually. They are fine on a one to one basis but not so keen on multi-agency meetings being held that way.
TGP have also continued to provide advocacy to LA residential homes during the pandemic. Again these have been undertaken virtually or via the telephone. TGP are very aware that the young people residing in residential homes are less visible than others, and were keen to ensure they had access to an advocate during the pandemic. Residential homes now receive weekly reminders of this service alongside other professionals/social care teams, ensuring their ongoing awareness of how to access our service.
Feedback received about the service has included:
It wouldn’t have been possible without you by my sideYoung person
I will not forget you in my whole lifeYoung person
We couldn’t have made this breakthrough without your implacable support and strong advocacy…it has been one of the most challenging cases I have ever had. Thank you for your support.Social Worker
Children’s advocacy services continue to monitor the Covid-19 situation closely, and to follow WG guidance around working practice.