The BBC’s Taking Care season aimed to offer insights into the
lives of children in care. Themed programmes veered from the
relatively cosy to a re-run of the bleak docudrama Care
which was shown first in 2000, the year when the Waterhouse report,
Lost in Care, exposed the sector’s ugliest face.
Commenting on the BBC’s initiative in Radio Times,
reviewer Alison Graham said: “And there is the inevitable,
heart-sinking celebrity involvement to give a difficult subject a
slick of acceptability… Kerry McFadden, Neil Morrissey and James
Gooding in a documentary about growing up in care. If audiences
really can’t accept, unadorned, the validity of ‘ordinary’ people’s
experiences, then what’s the point?” Channel 4’s Without a
Trace, screened on 16 February, an American drama series
featuring the FBI missing persons unit – focused on an “ordinary”
black teenager missing from his foster home. Although he was given
the obligatory label and social worker, both were subservient to a
fast-paced and involving story that placed him in the real world
rather than a “care” ghetto.
Department of Health figures show that less than 1 per cent of
young people are looked after but that apparently tiny minority
group has parents, siblings, extended family, friends, schoolmates,
teachers; in other words, they are part of the community and their
lives touch many others.
Churlish though the view may be, while the BBC’s care season might
have raised awareness briefly it was, by its nature, more likely to
have marginalised further the young people and their familial and
social networks. Perhaps more pertinently, given the symbiotic
relationship between television and the public’s diminishing
attention span, the season was all but forgotten before it was
over. The Waterhouse report provoked a media furore as intense as
it was fleeting; it is only now remembered by those involved and
those who claim the evidence of abuse was a conspiracy of wicked
The issue of care does not readily lodge itself in mainstream
consciousness. For example, the Prince’s Trust recently reported
that the public seriously underestimates the difficulties and
prejudice faced by young people in care and that barely one-third
of the population was aware that they do less well academically.
Only 4 per cent of non-care school leavers are without GCSEs or
NVQs as against 56 per cent of those from care.
Socially, psychologically and academically, care is usually
profoundly disabling – as Waterhouse and others have repeatedly
shown. Darren Laverty, a witness to the Waterhouse inquiry, was in
care from the age of 10 and left school barely literate, having
learned little except “how to be a lout”, something that he
regularly put to effect in the following 10 years or so.
Ill-equipped for anything but the most menial jobs, he drank too
much, smoked cannabis, went to prison twice – for criminal damage,
handling stolen goods and possession of cannabis – and, by his late
twenties, was well into the hopeless, downward spiral likely to end
in alcoholism, career crime and, probably, suicide.
Giving evidence to the public inquiry, however, proved a turning
point, but not because it opened the local authority vaults to what
Clare Curtis-Thomas MP has condemned as the “megabucks” in
compensation handed to alleged abuse victims. Laverty decided to
“get an education” and succeeded in gaining a good degree in
criminology. Armed with that, he assumed that he was properly
employable and applied for a residential social work post in the
private sector, disclosing at the outset every nasty, historical
detail: nonetheless, he was offered employment, pending checks by
the Criminal Records Bureau. Those checks did not reveal anything
more than he had already disclosed. However, on 19 January, the
offer was suddenly withdrawn, in a letter citing “the recent Soham
court case” as justification. Yet by no stretch of the imagination
can Laverty’s history and offences be compared with Huntley’s. The
sudden reversal in Laverty’s prospects underlines the prejudice
still firmly attaching itself to care.
Sir Ronald Waterhouse, who is nobody’s fool, supported Laverty’s
job application with a reference, to which former residential care
officer Michael Barnes, now chairperson of the North Wales branch
of Fact (Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers), took great exception
in a letter to the Liverpool Daily Post (18 February).
Similarly, he probably viewed Laverty’s self-made documentary
contribution to the BBC season (Beyond Reform? BBC2 Wales,
17 February), where Laverty described his dismay and frustration
with an equally jaundiced eye. The saying “give a dog a bad name”
could not be more relevant.
Alison Taylor is a novelist and former senior child care