Without rapid systemic change, the future for children in care looks bleak
“All children should grow up in a supportive and stable environment. The government works to protect children and support the professionals who care for them and their families.”
(Government website: www.gov.uk)
Today, children are being ignored, abandoned and abused both in the care system and when they leave it. Children in care are some of the most vulnerable people in the country, yet they are given no more priority (and, in many cases, less) than those from stable and wealthy backgrounds. They are denied access to the basic rights of most children: the rights to security, protection, opportunity and equality. They are also denied access to the “supportive and stable environment” spoken of so fondly by local and national governments. What’s more, when they leave the care system, they are even more vulnerable.
We now have more than 73,000 children in care in England and Wales, but we are losing some every day. In some cases this is a physical loss, through the relatively high mortality rate for this population, but they are also disappearing socially and emotionally. We lose them as potential contributors to society.
More than 60 per cent of all children in care are there because they were abused or neglected, and 25 per cent (18,000 children) are in children’s homes. Children in care are less likely to attend or succeed at school and are more likely to end up in prison. The statistics are all available on the Government’s website and they make grim reading. What about those who leave the care system, though?
Life after care
Children leave the system when they reach the age of 18, or voluntarily if they are on a Section 20 order and in voluntary care – either on their own account or by agreement with their parents or authorities. However, an increasing number of children are being returned to their parents, are being put into independent living or are having their support terminated due to financial decisions which are not based on their need – sometimes against their wishes.
Why can’t or won’t we protect, educate and cherish children in care as our own? Why can’t we provide them with the means to live the independent life that is available to the majority of 18-year-olds? They have already experienced degrees of rejection and loss of control that are hard for others to imagine, before the system neglects their needs to the point of losing them altogether.
These young people do not have a voice and their parents are often ignored or dismissed, especially if they have learning difficulties or addictive behaviours of their own. Their social workers and care workers are also rarely consulted or heeded. Many children in care do not have the language, social skills or opportunities to present their case, even if they were to be listened to. The rights of these children are routinely flouted by a whole range of agencies. Even safeguarding issues are ignored if duty officers and social workers make poor decisions based on lack of knowledge – decisions that are rarely rescinded.
The following are a few examples of young people I have worked with who have left care in the past two years:
- a child who was allowed to return to his abusive and neglectful parents because he had made significant progress while in care
- a child who absconded from a home, arrived at his abusive parents’ house and was left there because no social workers were on duty
- a young person who was released from a secure unit at 16, entered care and was then put into independent living before disappearing (and has still not been found)
- a girl who was exploited as a drug mule, was placed in independent living at 17 and was sexually and financially exploited by a gang known to prey on girls in care
- a young person with Asperger’s syndrome (with a statement of SEN), with little ability to risk-assess her own behaviour, who was placed in independent living and became an alcoholic and highly sexually active.
Who is responsible?
The failure to provide appropriate support for children in care can be laid at the feet of many different organisations and agencies. Central government is not prioritising resources for those most at risk, or supporting those who want to bring about change. Local authorities are often guilty of dysfunctional buck-passing and poor multi-agency planning. This can lead to huge waiting lists for mental health services, poor educational support and, in extreme cases, child deaths in care. Private providers can charge high fees, while delivering low levels of service. Our communities can also be guilty of tolerating complacency in the systems that are meant to serve them, and of perpetuating bias and discrimination.
When challenged about their policies and practices, government agencies tend to fall back on the national obsession with reducing the deficit – budgets being the principle driver behind policy decisions. So, children in care are better not educated, especially after 16, but should be kept in residential care units where costs can be kept down.
The systems in place for children in care are not applying the principals they claim to be based upon. Agencies act in isolation, without engaging with local people and communities. All too often, children are blamed for being who they are, and are refused opportunities to develop
For those who leave the care system, the situation is even more desperate. They no longer have a group of professionals who can support and guide them. They are left to their own devices and, with little education and fewer opportunities to work, can easily fall victim to criminal elements, exploitation and poverty.
What can be done?
Children in care respond best to localised, dynamic groups of adults who are focussed on their needs. Complex problems need complex solutions, which means individualised assessments and recommendations that can be delivered immediately and locally. Here are a few things that could help improve the situation:
- give care staff responsibility for the outcomes of children in care
- fund the child not the place (with flexibility to move if necessary)
- ensure that support systems for 18- to 25-year-olds are much more robust
- involve young people in all aspects of their transition from child to adult, and don’t just pay lip-service to their views at review meetings.
We cannot rely on the system that has failed for so long; we must make changes. If we do not, many young people and adults will remain lost, poorly provided for and without the basic care we all need. The next 12 months is likely to see an increase in the number of children leaving the care system. If change is not forthcoming, we will perpetuate the cycle of loss that currently damages both the young people involved and society as a whole.
Charlie Mead was Headteacher at a school for excluded teenagers. He is now a consultant child and educational psychologist and Managing Director of Choices Psychological Services: