Two out of three local authorities are failing in their legal duty to appoint volunteer adults to befriend and advise children being looked after by social services who have lost contact with their parents.
"She's somebody I can talk to, she's a friend, so if I have any problems, I can go to her."
Young disabled woman describing her Independent Visitor
Under the 1989 Children Act, authorities are required to appoint "Independent Visitors" for children and young people in their care who have had little or no contact with their parents for more than a year. The volunteers are expected to make friends with children, visiting them regularly and helping them participate in decisions about their future.
But research supported by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that only one in three of the 120 authorities in England and Wales were using Independent Visitors - a situation today condemned as 'scandalous' by Sir William Utting, author of the recent government-ordered review of safeguards for children in care .
The study estimated that just four per cent of children and young people who would have been eligible for a visitor actually had one. Among disabled children being looked after, who were the particular focus of the study, it appeared that just one per cent of those eligible were seeing an Independent Visitor. Yet interviews with disabled young people who did have a Visitor indicated that such schemes were popular.
Independent Visitors were seen as friends that they could go out with and talk to in confidence, as well advocates who would speak up for them at meetings when placements and other decisions about them were being reviewed. The Visitors who were interviewed saw an important part of their role as introducing young disabled people to 'ordinary' experiences and activities.
Because Visitors had been checked by social services and police before being matched with young people, there was no difficulty about accepting invitations to lunch or to spend the weekend with the visitor's family. Young people preparing to leave care also described how their Independent Visitors had helped them to practise everyday skills such as shopping, handling money and cooking.
Some of the 23 Independent Visitor schemes studied were run directly by social services, while others ran in partnership with voluntary agencies. Although the schemes were valued by young people, there were difficulties in recruiting enough Visitors, especially men and ethnic minority volunteers.
Abigail Knight, an independent social researcher and author of the report, called on the Department of Health to ensure that all local authorities fulfilled their obligation to appoint Independent Visitors.
She said: "This study shows that the small group of disabled people who do have an Independent Visitor have gained considerable benefit. They see Visitors as special friends who help reduce the isolation and loneliness that many of them feel. By carrying out their duty under the Children Act to appoint Independent Visitors, child care professionals will be actively promoting their welfare and improving the quality of children's lives."
Sir William Utting, whose review of safeguards for children living away from home - People Like Us - was published in November, welcomed the latest research for underlining the role that Independent Visitors could play in supporting children out of contact with their parents and preventing abuse. He strongly condemned the widespread failure to implement the 1989 Children Act.
A former Chief Inspector of the Social Services Inspectorate and a trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Sir William said: "The situation revealed by this study is nothing short of scandalous. There can be no justification whatever for the persistent failure of local authorities to fulfil their long-standing statutory responsibility under the Act."
He added: "Ensuring that children who have lost contact with their parents have the support of a strong, independent advocate is an important means of promoting their safety."