Lifelong Links: building lasting relationships for children in care

The 2013 Care Inquiry conducted by eight voluntary organisations operating in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, concluded that the greatest failing of the care system is that it too often breaks, rather than builds, relationships for children in or on the edge of care. Lifelong Links is a new approach to ensure that children and young people in care have positive, lasting support networks around them during their time in care, and into adulthood. 

The model

The Lifelong Links model includes tools and techniques for specially trained family group conference co-ordinators to search for and find family members (known or unknown to the child) and other adults (such as former foster carers or teachers) who care about the child. This network is then brought together in a family group conference to make a lifelong support plan with and for the child. The local authority should integrate this Lifelong Links plan into the young person’s care plan, and social workers should work with the young person and their support network during their childhood and transition to adulthood.

The charity, Family Rights Group, developed Lifelong Links in collaboration with local authorities, young people in care and care leavers, parents and foster carers. The approach was trialled for three years from 2017 in 12 English local authorities (funded by the Department for Education), and this number has now increased to 18. In Scotland, five local authorities are involved in the Lifelong Links trial, which is being funded by KPMG Foundation, the Robertson Trust, RS MacDonald Charitable Trust and the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. CELCIS is evaluating the Scottish trial with the findings due to be published in spring 2023.

Presenting findings from evaluation

The Department for Education published the independent evaluation of the English trial of Lifelong Links by the Rees Centre, Oxford University. An online event promoted the findings. Those who have experienced Lifelong Links spoke about the impact it has had on them personally and on practice within a local authority.Rt Hon Alan Johnson hosted the event. Speakers included Dr Lisa Holmes, the lead evaluator, and Brad and Sandy, two young people who have benefited from Lifelong Links.

Brad spoke about being one of the first young people to participate in Lifelong Links and how his experiences and views helped shape its development. The value of having a network of supportive family and friends has been brought into sharp focus during the pandemic and Brad said, ‘I’ve got a massive family now. I even lived with my auntie during lockdown so I wasn’t on my own’. Small things like helping his grandfather on the allotment and being able to pop in for a cup of tea with family members who he had no relationship with just three years ago before Lifelong Links, had ‘opened up a whole new side of my life that I didn’t have before’.

Sandy had a similarly positive opinion about the impact of Lifelong Links describing it as ‘truly life changing’. Meeting with family members including aunts, meant finding out ‘wee bites of goodness’ about his mum who had died when he was nine years old and reuniting with siblings that he had been separated from when taken into care.

Dr Lisa Holmes discussed some main evaluation findings including:

  • on average, children and young people increased their networks of family and friends from seven to 26 people
  • 78% of children and young people felt an improved sense of identity
  • 74% of children and young people who participated in Lifelong Links were living with their foster carers or in a residential home a year later compared to only 41% of children and young people in a comparator group

If you are interested in developing a service

If you work for a Scottish local authority and would be interested in developing a Lifelong Links service, or if you would like to find out more, go to the Family Rights Group website or contact Stuart Graham, Lifelong Links project director for Scotland: