After a long 7-year ‘leave of absence’ as Children’s Commissioner for Wales, I have recently returned to Cardiff University and the CASCADE Children’s Social Care Research and Development Centre to resume academic life.

A few short months after returning, I’ve been reflecting on some of what I have found here in CASCADE on my return. I founded CASCADE in 2014 as a small centre that aimed to improve our knowledge on how best to support children and their families with social care needs, and to ensure that those with experience of receiving and delivering those services had a central role in advising and driving the work.

Seven years later I have returned like that Auntie you haven’t seen since you were a toddler who keeps saying ‘Wow, how much you have grown!’ And, indeed, under the stellar leadership of Professor Donald Forrester, supported by many others, CASCADE has grown to become the largest children’s social care research centre in the UK, and possibly in Europe.

But size is not usually the best way to judge quality and since my return I’ve been looking closely at our approach to public involvement, as this is the area I will be leading on.

I’m pleased to say that the small but passionate public involvement team (one and a half staff members) is doing really impressive work, some of which I believe to be ground-breaking.

While taking great care of the wellbeing of those who engage with us, as well as the ethics of this type of work, the team are working hard to ensure that our work is steered, and critiqued, by people who know what they are talking about, often from difficult experiences. Here are the different ways we do this

  • We have a public involvement board, through which people with experience of social care involvement as parents or in their childhoods help to steer our strategic level of thinking and planning. We’ll be working to embed this more fully into our governance structure over the next year.
  • We continue our longstanding partnership with Voices from Care to run CASCADE Voices, which brings research-trained young people with care experience together to advise on our research studies. They provide supportive and honest (!) advice on research questions, methods and how to understand to publicise our results.
  • Some of our individual studies also have their own advisory panels made up of people with relevant experience. One example of this is our Family Voice project, which also employs two peer researchers.
  • We also have a parents’ group who do a similar job to CASCADE Voices from a parents’ perspective, although some of our group also grew up in care themselves. All of our parents have been involved with social services at the sharp end, through child protection or care proceedings. They are an amazing bunch of women who are really driven to improve experiences of social services support and interventions. I am full of admiration for their drive, their thoughtful advice and their wicked sense of humour. In fact, you can read a blog by one of our fabulous members here and see a video made by the parents here.

Few ‘public engagement’ programmes in research engage with parents with these types of experiences at a research development level, and the group and our team plan to write about these, to share our learning journey. Watch this space!