We spoke to Cathy Ashley, Chief Executive of Family Rights Group, about the Lifelong Links approach to building positive and lasting connections for young people in care.
Purpose of Lifelong Links
When a child is removed from their home and placed in foster care, they are separated not only from their immediate families but often from their communities, schools, neighbours, and friends— an experience that can be profoundly isolating. Lifelong Links is a programme to connect children and young people in care with the people who have been important to them throughout their lives or who they would like to get to know—including family members, teachers, former foster carers, and other adults who are significant to the young person. Through the programme, a trained, independent Lifelong Links coordinator meets with a child, searches their family tree and finds out from the child who they would like to get back in touch with and who they would like to meet. Using a variety of techniques, the coordinator then searches for these people, meets with them, and invites them to come together to a Lifelong Links family group conference aimed at supporting the child or young person. Throughout the process, the coordinator is checking in with the child or young person and their social worker. Together, the child and their identified support network form a “lifelong support plan” to ensure the child continues to see and have relationships with the important people in their life. The local authority then integrates the support plan into the child’s official care or pathway plan.
Development of Lifelong Links
Children in care often experience feelings of isolation and detachment. Research shows that for young people, stability and support from their family and community are the most important factors to make a successful transition to adulthood. However, research has found that the care system often breaks, rather than builds, relationships for children in care. In response to these concerns, Lifelong Links was developed by Family Rights Group (FRG) to increase the number of safe and supportive relationships in children’s lives. The development of the model drew on international research—including the “family-finding” model in the US and the family group conference model which originated in New Zealand, and incorporated key input from children in care and care leavers, families, foster carers, social workers, and local authorities.
Family Rights Group received funding from the DfE’s Children’s Social Care Innovation Programme to begin a three-year trial of Lifelong Links in England, which began in April 2017. The trial, which concluded in 2020, included 875 children in England across 12 local authorities. There is currently a trial of Lifelong Links underway in five local authorities in Scotland. As of March 2022, over 2,000 children and young people have participated in Lifelong Links. Lifelong Links received additional funding in 2022, enabling the approach to expand across North West and South East England, as well as to three additional local authorities in Scotland.
Referrals and Eligibility
Lifelong Links continues to operate in 29 local authorities across England, Scotland and Wales (as of March 2022). Family Rights Group supports local authorities to implement Lifelong Links with children and young people in care, providing them with specialist training, tools and resources as well as consultancy support. The Lifelong Links service is integrated into the local authority’s family group conference service. A child can be referred to the Lifelong Links programme through their social worker, and eligibility criteria varies based on the local authority that the child is in. Lifelong Link coordinators are independent and do not have any casework or decision-making responsibility for the child in care. FRG has also disseminated specific guidance for Lifelong Links coordinators working with children over the age of 16, working with care leavers, working with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, working with non-verbal children, and other groups of children with specialised needs.
Evidence on Lifelong Links
Lifelong Links’ approach to building connections and improving the well-being of children in care and care leavers has been evidenced by an evaluation of the trial in England, conducted by the Rees Centre at the University of Oxford. The evaluation found that Lifelong Links increased the number of family and friend connections for young people in care (from an average of 7 to 26 connections), improved their sense of identity, and increased the likelihood that a young person would remain in the same foster care or children’s home a year later, compared to young people who did not receive Lifelong Links. The evaluation also identified some positive, unintended consequences of Lifelong Links, such as support for children following an adoption breakdown and restorative work with previous foster carers, as well as a small number of children returning home or ceasing to be looked after following Lifelong Links. Qualitative evidence found that Lifelong Links also improved young people’s sense of agency by supporting them in building their own life narratives and building safe relationships with the people important to them.
Lifelong Links has received positive feedback from children in care, who have experienced increased feelings of connectedness and community following their participation in Lifelong Links. Feedback include these testimonials:
- “I wanted to see my brothers, wanted to know what they looked like, wanted to have a relationship with them, and I actually have that now. Things just feel a bit more normal. I feel a lot more connected because I have family now, like most people do, and it’s just, it’s been mind-blowing, really.” –Young person in care
- “I always remember that day [of the Lifelong Links conference]. Granddad had to go out because he was crying... I was coming to the end of foster care and when I left foster care I would have been by myself and I wouldn’t have had any family… I learnt to trust my family again…It’s a life changing experience.” –Care leaver
For more information about Lifelong Links or to inquire about introducing Lifelong Links to your local authority, please contact Lucy Hutchinson at firstname.lastname@example.org
This case-study was compiled by Carolyn Lipp in 2022