Empowering the Freelance Economy

Could freelancers make children’s homes happier places?

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OPINION

The news is bleak: children with complex needs in the UK are languishing in care, waiting years for a stable and loving home. This isn’t just a statistic; it’s a heartbreaking reality that begs the question: what can we as freelancers from many skill sets and life experiences do to fix it?

You may be thinking, I don’t have a degree in social work, so how can I help? That’s the thing, you will have a unique set of skills, life experiences, life skills and even a sense of humour that could vastly improve the outlook and well-being of a child in care and not even realise it.

Yes, the same freelance workforce bringing you dog walks, tutoring, software development, writing and graphic design projects could hold the key to unlocking brighter futures for vulnerable children.

Why the urgency?

Ofsted warns that many children with complex needs are living alone in homes, often with high numbers of staff, which risks leaving them isolated and vulnerable to mistreatment. Many of these children are in limbo because local authorities struggle to find homes for children with “complex needs”, with children sometimes waiting years for a suitable placement, according to a new report.

The latest statistics on looked-after children published by the Department for Education show the number of children in care in England has continued to increase – with 33,000 children taken into care in 2022.

The total of children looked after stood at 83,840 at the end of March 2023, or about one child in every 140.

There is no arbitrary number we can place on the number of children who should be in care. Every child who cannot live safely at home needs a loving, caring alternative.  

The Children’s Commissioner

“Sometimes children who should be coming into care are not, and are missing out on the legal protections it provides. according to the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, whose report on homeless 16 and 17 year olds found that 61% of homeless 16- and 17-year-olds accommodated by local authorities are not coming into care as they should be.  

When children are in the right education setting, it enhances their stability, and progress spills over into all areas of their lives. Home managers, social workers and virtual school head teachers need to work together, so that they can find or maintain appropriate school places for children, or make alternative educational arrangements when this is not possible.

There are challenges around schools accepting these children on their rolls. When there are fewer educational options for children, it limits their opportunities to reap the numerous benefits of education.    

Ofsted: How local authorities and children’s homes can achieve stability and permanence for children with complex needs
Category of needDescription
BehaviouralThis relates to when children present behaviours that can place themselves or others at risk, or that staff in homes find challenging. This includes aggressive or violent episodes and offending behaviours.
Mental healthThis relates to the care children require in order to support them with their mental health and the symptoms of poor mental health. This includes supporting children who experience depression or other mental health disorders, self-harm or suicidal ideation.
LearningThis relates to supporting children with learning disabilities or difficulties or other characteristics that can affect their ability to engage in learning. This includes autism, ADHD and sensory impairment.
SafeguardingThis relates to children who have substantial safeguarding risks, and need care that can protect them from these. This includes being at risk of sexual or criminal exploitation, gang membership and going missing from their home.
PhysicalThis relates to the care children require in order to support their physical health or cater to their physical disabilities. It includes the need for accessibility adaptations, nursing-style care such as tube-feeding or administration of medications, and support with addiction or substance misuse.
SocialThis relates to supporting children to maintain relationships and engage socially with others. In includes supporting contact with their family members or other people who are important to them.
Source: How local authorities and children’s homes can achieve stability and permanence for children with complex needs – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Which needs do children’s homes find hardest to support?  

Different homes are set up to meet different needs, which they outline in their statement of purpose. The government asked representatives from children’s homes what further needs make it most difficult for them to accept a referral. Most homes selected physical needs and behavioural needs, at 27% and 25% respectively.  

Here’s how vetted freelancers could be brought in to help:

  • Targeted skills for specialised needs: Children with complex needs often require specific therapeutic interventions, educational support, or even physical assistance. Freelancers with expertise in areas like music therapy, sports, fitness, primary and secondary tutoring, art therapy, or disability care can be matched with children based on their individual requirements, providing targeted support beyond the scope of traditional care settings.
  • Flexibility and responsiveness: The rigid schedules of traditional care systems can struggle to accommodate the unique needs of children with complex challenges. Freelancers offer flexibility, allowing them to adjust their schedules and approaches to meet the ever-changing needs of each child. Imagine a child needing extra support during a particularly challenging week – a freelance therapist could adjust their schedule to provide additional sessions, ensuring the child receives the crucial support they need. Or a gaming designer could teach a child new problem-solving and IT skills. A dog walker could make weekly visits to homes for children to interact with dogs as a nice distraction to what has probably been an emotional day at school.
  • Filling the gaps: The UK’s children’s care system is chronically understaffed and overburdened. Freelancers can fill critical gaps in care, offering specialised services that might otherwise be unavailable or rationed. This could include anything from football lessons, fitness, and music therapy sessions to respite care for families or carers struggling to cope with demanding children.

Therapy dog walkers could make weekly visits to children’s homes as a nice distraction to what has probably been an emotional or very lonely day for many children in care.

Of course, challenges remain:

  • Quality and regulation: Ensuring the quality and qualifications of freelance caregivers is paramount. Robust vetting processes and ongoing training would be essential to safeguard children’s well-being.
  • Financial viability: Integrating freelance support into the care system would require innovative funding models and fair compensation for providers.
  • Shifting mindsets: Changing the traditional care paradigm to embrace freelance support will require a cultural shift within the system and a willingness to experiment with new approaches.

Despite the challenges, the potential benefits are undeniable:

  • Improved outcomes for children: By providing targeted, flexible support, freelance caregivers, specialists and mentors can contribute to better emotional, social, and educational outcomes for children with complex needs.
  • Reduced strain on the system: By filling critical gaps in care, freelancers can alleviate pressure on overburdened social workers and care homes.
  • Empowering the freelance economy: Integrating freelancers into the care system unlocks new opportunities for skilled professionals, boosting the economy and creating meaningful work.

The children’s care system is at a crossroads. While systemic reforms are crucial, innovative solutions like leveraging the skills and flexibility of the freelance economy can provide much-needed support to some of the most vulnerable children in our society.

It’s time to explore this unconventional avenue and ask ourselves: can more freelancers become the missing piece in building a brighter future for children in care?

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