The new care leavers’
legislation will achieve little unless there is a significant increase in
resources allocated to children in care, which will require a major shift in
society’s attitudes, writes Alison Taylor.
Patricia Amos made
history when she was imprisoned for not ensuring that her teenage daughters
attended school. Her sentence conveyed the message that parents would
henceforth be held criminally liable for their failures and inadequacies.
Comment then appeared in the press on the issue of whether directors of social services
and local authority chief executives might also find themselves behind bars for
bad parenting. The education of children in care has always been of the lowest
priority and very significant numbers of such children are deprived of proper
schooling – in many cases, throughout their care career.
The new care leavers’
legislation was provoked, in part, by the gross inadequacies and inequalities
in the system that have been identified by a number of official investigations.
Those who live and work in the system, however, have known for years that
children are being unnecessarily failed. A child’s life chances are seriously
compromised at the point of entry to care, and the longer in the system, the
greater the deprivation. Nonetheless, and although local authorities have long
had the power to maintain children through higher education, it has been
standard procedure to discharge from care as soon as they reach the age of 16.
The most mature and capable 16-year-old from the most supportive environment would
find coping with independence a daunting challenge. Those coming out of care
usually have few, if any, personal or familial resources on which to fall back.
It is no surprise, then, that their lives so often embark on the downward
spiral to utter disaster.
Many of the tragedies
that befall children in care and, by extension, blight future generations are
predictable and avoidable. The state has repeatedly shown itself to be an
inadequate, and, in some instances, abusive, parent that is constitutionally unwilling
to give due regard to the child’s interests. The duties and responsibilities
devolving from legislative change will inevitably be at the mercy of intense
competition for finite resources and ever-diminishing funds. A former director
of social services in north Wales told the Waterhouse tribunal that child care
services were systematically starved of cash because councillors representing
other client groups, particularly older people, persistently and successfully
lobbied for the lion’s share of money.
Children in care
attract little compassion and hence are usually pushed to the back of the queue
when resources are allocated. While being largely ignorant of their real needs,
society clings to its historical bias, viewing these children as the offspring
of the shiftless poor; as tomorrow’s criminals; as an unacceptable drain on the
economy; and as fundamentally unworthy. Inevitably, government policy reacts to
and reflects societal attitudes. In recent years, high-profile scandals
involving institutional abuses jolted both government and public, but made only
a temporary impact on attitudes. The tide turned almost immediately, and, if
anything, children in care are now being presented as even more villainous.
entanglements always exist between public attitudes and social policy, and the
fact that legislation is necessary to particularise and to enforce the basics
of decent parenting is symptomatic of the prevailing negativity. From another
perspective, the legislation is the equivalent of a finger in the dyke. Care
leavers will never be remotely on a par with their peers in society unless
radical improvements are made throughout the system – while they remain so
essentially disadvantaged, they will remain, for the most part, a liability. There
is, for example, no point in empowering local authorities to support children
through higher education when their basic education has been so neglected that
they are barely literate or numerate. Human beings respond to the treatment
they receive and self-image is, by and large, created through external
feedback. Children who experience prolonged, negative feedback from those
around them generally either go under or fight back, which explains why a
substantial proportion of care leavers self-harm, suffer mental illness,
develop addictions and go to prison. Their chances of forming long-term, stable
relationships and of successful child-rearing are similarly jeopardised because
they can only repeat what they have learned.
Social work is a difficult
and often thankless task, but, barring the few bad apples to be found in any
profession, practitioners strive to do the best for their clients. That best,
however, is always hostage to multifarious and conflicting demands and
constraints. In social care, as in public health services, increasingly
draconian but unacknowledged rationing has been standard practice for at least
two decades. Therefore, without significantly enhanced direct funding, the good
intentions behind the care leavers’ legislation will remain unfulfilled.
Alison Taylor is a novelist, a former senior child
care worker and the winner of the 1996 Community Care Readers’ Award.