Charlotte herself has been paired with a five-year-old child through the service and expects to remain with them until they leave the care system at the age of 21. It is the young people themselves who choose whether to have an Independent Visitor and they could be a child or teenager when they are matched up.
“It is so like being a godparent,” said Charlotte. “I already have four godchildren aged 23, 17, 13 and 5, and I see this child really as being one more.”
Independent Visitors (IVs) normally meet with their child once a month. They have to commit for at least two years, but often it works out much longer. “Children change foster home and social workers move on,” said Charlotte. “So you are often the only person who has known the child for most of their life. You see them as a person, not a problem.”
A female IV could be paired up with either a boy or a girl, and a male IV likewise, although male visitors are usually paired with a boy. The role tends to attract more women than men, so male visitors are in short supply – a significant lack when so many boys need stable and positive male role models.
In Norfolk the scheme is managed by a national health and social care charity called Change Grow Live. In other counties it will be Barnardo’s or Action for Children which oversees the projects.
Training for Independent Visitors is focussed on safeguarding, the impact of trauma, attachment theory, special educational needs, delays and disorders resulting from a disturbed start to life, the losses experienced by children and young people in care, boundaries and health and safety.
Charlotte’s child is obsessed with architecture, so was delighted by a visit to St John’s Cathedral. “There was special excitement at the baptistry, and I was asked where the babies were.”
The challenges include the sense of responsibility which comes from knowing that you are looking after someone else’s child. As a result of trauma, some children find it stressful to build a relationship: when they feel themselves becoming close, they may suddenly pull back. It may take time to regenerate the child’s trust in adults.
IVs are not allowed to take children to their home or introduce them to family or friends. It is a case of picking up the child once a month from the foster home and taking them to a public place, which could be anything from a park to a theatre. There is a £15 budget for each outing.
Charlotte has risen to the challenge of keeping abreast with children’s culture. “I have learnt about Peppa Pig and TikTok; learning about it all keeps me young.”
The role can be very rewarding. “A high point for me,” said Charlotte, “was the first time I took the child in the car, and it fell asleep on the way back. I realised I had successfully tired it out and that it felt safe with me. Then there are little moments of conversation when you realise you are forming a strong bond.”
More independent visitors are needed in Norfolk, particularly in parishes of Norwich, Aylsham, Dereham, Watton and south Norfolk. If you would like to find about more about becoming an Independent Visitor, the website and email links and contact details are below.
Pictured above is Charlotte Valori.