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Coming together to promote change:
developing parent advocacy in the UK

By Yuval Saar-Heiman, Marie skłodowska Curie fellow, Royal Holloway University of London and PFAN

On the 6th of July 2022, Parents, Families and Allies Network (PFAN) and the Department of Social Work (of Royal Holloway, University of London) hosted a conference to bring together parent advocates and their allies from across the UK to present different forms of parent advocacy. The idea behind the conference was to create a space for people committed to promoting parent advocacy to learn from, and connect with, each other. In this blog, I hope to provide an overview of the day, to present the main themes that arose from the presentations and to share my reflections and experiences from what was an inspirational day.

Overview of the day

40 people attended the conference in person at Senate House, Central London and 40 others joined on-line (and stayed with us despite some technical difficulties). 

First session – setting the context

The first session began with a presentation by Annie (Surviving Safeguarding) one of the pioneers of parent advocacy in the UK, during which she discussed her reflections on the journey to parent advocacy. Annie began by describing the traumatic experience of having her children removed to care, and then detailed her journey to becoming a parent advocate. Amazingly, she shared that 7 years ago, when she first started to talk about parent advocacy, people didn’t really know what it was or what it can be and do.  After describing the work she has done with several local authorities (e.g., Camden and Swindon) developing PA, she suggested three stages for the development of parent advocacy within children services.1) Gathering feedback from parents. Although this might seem like an easy task, Annie highlighted that:

“Speaking to families means having the guts to actually listen. Because sometimes it’s painful to hear that the system does harm. It does. And the people that work within the system, by default, do harm although they don’t mean to and they don’t want to.  And the quicker that people are able to accept that, the easier it is for people to hear, hear feedback from families that they work alongside.”

2) Looking at how to get families involved with service design and delivery and thinking with families about some of these questions:

“But how can we use the services and the intelligence and the experiences of parents and family members who’ve been through the process to help inform how we roll out our service delivery? For example, thinking about the pre proceeding setup. How does that land with parents? How do you feel when you receive a pre proceedings letter? How can we change that? What can we do differently?

3) Developing training for families, to become parent advocates. Annie stressed the importance of creating a safe space for parents:

“You do need training, you do need to make sure that families are in the right place, that they’re not continuing their fight with the local authority. And you also need to make sure that people are robust enough to be able to manage… Because you never forget that knock on the door. It never goes away – that pain, that feeling, that trauma, and it is a trauma, it never goes away. So, it’s making sure that people are robust enough to deal with that. And if they’re not, what else can we do to support them to be more robust, putting supervision in place, and making sure that the idea of parent advocacy is embedded right through the service, that’s incredibly important.”

Another important point made by Annie focused on the development of positive relationship with professionals and systems.

“They need to be on board, there needs to be buy in from corporate, that there needs to be buy in from service managers. And then there needs to be some trust from frontline practitioners as well. They need to know that we are not there to derail proceedings, we are not there to make life more difficult. We’re not there to team up and bully. We’re there to help. We’re there to help families.”

In the second presentation, PFAN’s very own Tammy Mayes and Simon Haworth, presented PFAN goals of : 1) Promoting and developing parent advocacy in child protection across the UK, regionally and locally; 2) Providing a means for individuals and organisations involved in supporting parents with child protection experience to share information and provide mutual support; and  3) Campaigning and providing a voice to strengthen the role of parents in child protection systems and promote parent advocacy.

Importantly, Simon and Tammy articulated that although parent advocacy can mean many things to different people, what we, in PFAN, mean when we say ‘parent advocacy’ is: 

Parent advocacy is a form of peer advocacy where parents who themselves have had experience of the child welfare system help other parents involved to navigate it. In addition, they also help to develop strategies to change the system. The aim of this form of advocacy is to empower parents and help them assert their rights and their children’s rights. (Tobis et al, 2020)

As you can see, the emphasis of this definition is on the importance of lived experience in parent advocacy. Simon and Tammy finished their presentation with a reference the Independent Review of Children Social Care’s recommendation to invest £60 million in developing parent representation in the next 10 years. Their key message was that this recommendation can easily be used to promote professional or legal advocacy and that the challenge is to lead the way in defining parent advocacy and operationalizing this recommendation towards profound parent advocacy. Next, Yuval Saar-Heiman (disclaimer – that is me😉) presented the work he did along with Taliah Drayak (a pivotal parent advocate that couldn’t join the day) on mapping parent advocacy services in the UK. Yuval described the findings of the mapping of projects that are: 1) Centred on child protection and 2) parent-(co)led, i.e.  parents with lived experience must play a central role. Based on the conceptualisation of Tobis et al. (2020) outlined above, the mapping produced a typology of the different forms of Parent advocacy implemented in the UK:

As you will read in what follows, the presenters in the conference represented the different forms of advocacy. Yuval emphasized that a unique feature identified in the mapping is that although the different forms of advocacy varied in their goals, their action plans, their perceptions of the system, they all demonstrated an ethical commitment to change the way the current system works with children, parents, and family. Thus, borrowing from Tobis (personal correspondence), Yuval stressed the need to create a Big Tent of Parent Advocacy, a tent that can accommodate various approaches to changing the system – from abolitionist approaches to approaches that come from and are funded by the child protection system. Yuval ended the presentation with brief outline of his research findings on the challenges and tensions of involved in the development of parent advocacy.

Second session: Advocacy in Local Authorities

The focus of the second session was on the development of parent advocacy within local authorities i.e., projects that are initiated by champions within the authority and develop into being parent co-led.

The first presenters in this session where Kar-Man Au, Faye Hamilton and Clarissa Stevens. All three are active members of the Camden Family Advisory Board, one of the local authorities that has spearheaded parent advocacy work. Kar-Man, Faye and Clarissa chose to present the work they are doing by having a conversation in which each one of them presented aspects of their work through their own personal experiences and reflections. Kar-Man, described how her role as a parent advocate evolved:

It all started with Tim Fisher and a ball of wool, in January 2014, Tim created the FAB group by inviting parents who have experience with social services to a coffee morning. There were about 4 people at the beginning, and I am one of them. I joined the group out of my curiosity, I didn’t know what it was about. I went there to talk about the issue I had with social services and share my experience, and also to learn from others’ experiences which stirred up my heart to want to do something to change the service, that is more humane. I do not want anyone going through the pain I had been through.

After Kar-Man presented the first steps of the FAB group, Clarissa went on to present the work they did in “Camden Conversations” a family-led inquiry to social services in Camden:

 So as a group, we came together, and we started thinking about how we’re going to do this, what was it going to look like, and I think what all of us felt was families, interviewing families, and families interviewing professionals will be the best way to go.

She talked about how parents interviewing professionals challenged the power dynamics and described how parent advocacy was mentioned by ALL the people interviewed – parents and professionals. Following this recommendation, Camden initiated the ‘parents support partners’ initiative which is a peer parent advocacy service in Camden. The parents underwent a training and are already receiving referrals! Clarissa stressed that most of the work she is doing as an advocate is voluntary when parents reach out to her independently. Although Clarissa does it, it is important to stress that doing such work without emotional and financial support is almost impossible.

Faye continued and shared her story of involvement with child protection services and then presented the work they do as part of the FAB group: Presenting parents’ views in conferences, training social workers, arranging pop up shops in the community, and developing the Parent Partners project. Faye described how being an advocate influenced her and the way she dealt with a referral that was made about her daughter recently:

It’s really enriched my life and made me feel empowered enough to be able to speak up and speak out…. Then, I didn’t know my rights, as an advocate, I can stand up in a court of law and say, right, this is what happened. This is what should have happened. This didn’t happen. That didn’t happen. This didn’t happen.  When I first had my daughter, I didn’t have a clue. And I just thought that there was an authority and that they know better than I do. But I’m in a place where I understand all the abbreviations, I understand my right, I understand the whole process. So, they closed the case within two weeks, because I knew where I was coming from, and I could speak up for myself.

All three of them gave a huge shout out to Tim Fisher and his major role in the development of the Camden FAB group and its special relational vibe.

The second group to present was the Parent Advocacy Network (PAN) from West Glamorgan in Wales. 12 (!) members of the PAN steering group attended the conference. Their group presentation was diverse and reflected the richness of their work.  Hosted by Gaia Davies, the presentation began with an overview of the journey PAN has travelled from its inception two years ago.  Sana Malik a, birth parent and co-founder of PAN and Belinda Hanna, a health visitor, described how the group evolved from an idea into a solid group of parents and professionals that have presented in many forums, engaged with the Welsh government to influence policy and overall become a hub for parent advocacy and reform of the child protections system in Wales. They also presented some of the challenges the group met along the way. Especially the complexity of challenging the power dynamics between parents and professionals:

Sometimes it’s really easy as pie. But most of the time is it is hard to navigate, because parents will do things differently. And professionals will both have different perspectives of how things should be. And ultimately for us as power relationships are always going to be there, because essentially this is new, it’s always been two separate sides. And what we’re trying to do is to put those together.

Next up, Steven Welke, a father and Anna Collins, a social work ally, focused on PAN’s latest project – the “Parent Cafe”. The Parent Cafe model (developed and run by Be Strong Families, an American organization) is a parent engagement strategy that uses small group conversations to facilitate self-reflection, peer-to-peer learning, support, and education on protective factors to enhance child welfare. Steve described the work on the parent café and how satisfying it is for him to see the positive impact they can make. 

The last part of the presentation was a panel of 7 parents and allies that shared experiences, thoughts and ideas about the work of PAN. Although everyone had valuable insights, the final question summarized much of what was said. The panel was asked to suggest a hashtags that describes what they have the learnt from being part of PAN:

Leanne: #I_am_a_strong_woman

Jemma: #we_human


Gareth: #we_all_have_somthing_in_common

Manjia: #inspired

Sian: #humbled_and_hopeful

The third presentation in the session was done by Cinthia Porras, Nicola Smith and Tayo Igbintade, parent advocates in the Southwark parent-to-parent peer advocacy service and Jacqui Cox the family inclusion worker in the council. Parent advocacy started in Southwark in 2020 following consultations with parents in the borough who said they wanted to have access to peer support when going through child protection procedures. The council put a call out across the borough to find parents who had experience of working with children’s services and began training the first group of 3 advocates in December 2021. Those 3 advocates have now been supporting parents for just over a year and a further group of 4 advocates finished their training earlier this year. The Southwark group chose to discuss their work as a panel facilitated by Jacqui. They started by sharing the ways they got involved with the child protection services to becoming parent advocates and then presented challenges and opportunities they have experienced as advocates.

Nicola talked about the wonderful feedback she got from parents and emphasized how important it is for families not to be alone in conferences and how power is still used against parents within child protection conferences.

Tayo explained why parent advocacy is helpful for parents by describing a conversation with a mother who was referred to her prior to a CP conference:

She was so distressed. And obviously, when you get upset you rant. Yes. Sometimes people get really, really upset really, when they’re trying to communicate, they don’t feel they’re being listened too, that they are being judged and told that they’re treated unfairly. And we just sat down, and I talked to show that I am on her side that I’ve gone through a similar situation. And I just tried to explain when the social worker was coming what her aims are. And she pretty much she didn’t understand where the social worker was coming from.  And I think just establishing like clear communication, showing that, yes, I’m understanding. And now this is what’s happening, and we can think about together.   All of that was valuable for her.

Cinthia, described how she spoke up in a child protection conference when the social worker’s report was full of mistakes:

You know, it is incorrect information, and she felt she just had to sit there and stay quite otherwise it might be used against. But I think working with me that I could say at the meeting no, that was incorrect information, was good for her. That was a challenge for me. But things do get done. And that led to a great thing, the chair and the social worker apologized to the parents for the incorrect information and for the way that they handled things. And it was important for her that I invited them to make that apology. I knew how frustrated she was, that’s why when they said do you want to say anything? I said, Yes, I do. I would like you to apologize to this mum because she’s been through so much, she’s anxious she’s just she’s gone for so much and she had written so many emails – I think it was like a three-page report of all the lies written about her in the past – and you repeat those mistakes?

All three stressed how advocacy made a significant change in their lives – helped them gain confidence and a beliefe they can make a significant difference. By learning to speak up for others they also learned to speak up for themselves.

Third session

The third session of the day focused on advocacy that is done from outside the child protection system, advocacy that evolved from the grass-roots and is based on individuals, predominantly parents, that become advocates and activists independently.

The first presenters, from Ipswich, were the BEAM ambassadors – Cherie Parnell who established the charity, Rachel Wigfall and Donna Torr, mothers with lived experience. Beam is a support group for birth mothers whose children have been adopted, are in care or live elsewhere. Cherie, Rachel and Donna preformed a short role play that described the shame, stigma and loneliness experienced by women whose children have been taken into care. After opening a dialogue with the audience, they described how BEAM helped them. Donna said:

I was really depressed after my child was taken, coming to BEAM helped me feel not alone and I get to help other women. We went on a holiday together and will have another one this year. Now I found a job and am working.

Rachel chose to read a very powerful poem she wrote:

Some of these women have had children removed from their homes. Leaving them helpless and feeling alone

Some of these women have had children removed from school something I didn’t coming at all

Some of these women have had children removed from birth leaving them clueless as to how to walk this earth

But then they found beam, a supportive place of hope, they began to see they have a life and they began to cope.

The grief will never leave us, but we built a new world around our hearts.

Full of creativity and well-being and poetry and art.

These women say thank you beam for giving us a chance, we now know we have a life and a new start.

The presentation ended with Rachel describing a project she initiated and runs –’Precious Moments’. The project, that evolved from Rachel’s bad experiences in supervised contact with her son, aims to provide guidance and help for parents that meet their children in contact centres.

Second, Francesca Crozier-Roche presented her work as an individual advocate. Fran holds online sessions for parents and works with the University of Birmingham. She shared that she wanted to challenge parts of the discourse of the day “because I believe that as members of society, as professionals, as practitioners, we should always be engaging in critical ways and challenge others. Even us in here today.”

After conceptualizing what she went through in her life as systematic abuse, she described how her anger and rage towards what the system has done to her and her family, are what got her involved as an activist. Then she focused on the limitations of working with professionals and called for a more radical approach to changing the system. She questioned the idea that the work presented in the conference is actually grass-roots:

The roots are not being worked on, because no one wants to have the conversations about all of the corruption and the failings. Like now, even this conversation of parent advocacy. Like, don’t get me wrong. I’m really passionate about working in partnership with people. I work with universities, with professionals but I’m always kind of always on the edge. And it’s because of the critical thing of actually, I don’t want to talk about all the sugar-coating stuff. I want to talk about the roots. I want to talk about the decades of systematic failures that have happened. I want a national apology for society. I want you to know, for me, it’s not enough for me to say sorry, it will never happen again. It has, it has happened again.

She also described why working with professionals can be a negative experience for advocates:

We speak about this collaboration. But when we’re in a setting, everyone tries to be professionals, and actually not taking into consideration at the same time there are parents with traumas in the room. Professionals come in go with an outcome mind, and they want it done. And they are not actually like seeing where the person is at, they don’t check in with the person where, like, how are they that day? Have they had something traumatic happen to them that morning? Or do they have the capacity to like work with that day because we’re just focusing on really hard subject? This is a mum that’s had a kid lost and she needs to work and talk about it. But actually like what is the root cause of that mother losing a child? That’s not addressed most of the time.

Fran ended her talk on a positive note when she described how she felt when she first read to the social work code of ethics

This is why I do end up working with social workers, because we have the same values. If you read that definition of social work, that is me, I want to empower you. I want you to do better. I don’t care who you are, what you do. I want you to go to the next level. But do I have faith we can start to have critical conversations about root problems. Absolutely. There are incredible people in this room and we do a lot already. But we need to start digging a bit deeper.

Last (but not least) was Laura Baxter, an online activist that runs several Facebook groups and the Twitter account ‘Reform Advocates’. Laura presented despite being ill on the day! She described her journey and the reasons that led her to become a parent advocate:

My experience made me so furious and so disheartened with the whole thing. And I thought, surely other people are having similar experiences. So I went and I started looking at Facebook found groups of people mainly parents in similar things somewhere else. And no one tells you what’s going to happen to you when you’ve lost a child and it’s as if you are now irrelevant. Services are like ‘why should I support you if your children are not with you’. So, I saw how this was breaking people destroying family. And I felt I can read this stuff and understand it. And I can work my way through the procedures. So, I opened up groups and started to post this information and we started networking people. And we have people that know about various different aspects of the system – public law or pre/post court procedures. That’s why when we come together as parents with experience and knowledge, and we have the ability to turn this into action we can be a real force boost.

Closing session 

The last session, facilitated by Anna Gupta and Clarissa Stevens, was more of an open conversation to reflect on the day and discuss ways for moving forward. The main issues that came up were:

  • The value of coming together – Creating forums (not only online but in person as well!) to come together to reflect, share, act and bond is key if we want to develop as a movement.
  • Where is the money!? All agreed that without substantial funding for parent advocacy it will be difficult to move forward. There was an interesting discussion about the Care Review recommendation about funding for parent representation. While some were very sceptical, others called for creating a coalition of groups with the support of PFAN so that the concept of parent advocacy won’t get co-opted and used in a professionalized manner. 
  • We need to work beyond children services – several parents raised the need to work with education and health systems because of their major role in referring to the child protection system.
  • Trying to make change is tricky – when looking at the structure and the wider problems, it seems that what we are doing is a drop in the ocean- not transformation. On the other hand, focusing only on the wider system, takes the focus from all the wonderful achievements and meaningful moments that come with working towards social justice as a collective.

A final personal note – organizing this conference was such a challenging and rewarding experience. It involved many ethical and practical dilemmas (e.g., how do we support parents with childcare?) that require another blog (this one is too long as it is!) but working with the presenters, seeing their commitment, their skilful preparations and kindness was an inspiring experience. I shared on the day how in one of the preparation meetings with the PFAN team I asked if they felt we need another meeting to prepare. Then Nicki, who saw my stress told me “if you want another meeting we are happy to meet, you are not alone in this and we’ve got your back”. In some ways that is what parent advocacy is for me – coming together, challenging power, and doing our best to promote change.