There is no easy way of putting it: when children and young people cannot live with their own families the alternative we offer them is at best satisfactory and at worst seriously damaging. The government’s green paper for looked-after children, now expected in late autumn, must be radical.
Some of the most inspiring, skilled and compassionate workers in social care are caring for looked-after children. When children make long-term relationships with these individuals, that’s when the care system is at its best. Yet the bureaucracy of the system as a whole often crushes the efforts of the best people who work in it.
At the same time, many of the most dangerous people in the care system have been charismatic and unaccountable individuals, exploiting children’s need for attention and love. There is a paradox at the heart of the system: it seems that the bureaucracy needed to protect children is what denies them the key relationships that are the heart of childhood.
And the empty heart of decisions made in the care system, all too often, is the inadequacy of resources in local government.
It’s not all about money, however. Many parents lack the resources to meet all their children’s desires, or even all their needs.
But they still put their children’s needs first. The task facing the green paper team should be defined as nothing less than designing a system that can put children’s needs before those of organisations. The difficulty is not in identifying what that system’s outcomes would look like for children and young people, it lies in working out how public services can deliver them.
As the UK’s largest single provider of services for looked-after children, NCH understands all too well why ensuring children and young people in care get what we would wish for our own children is not as easy as it sounds. The relationship between parents and their children shifts and develops, with conflict and continual changes in the balance between power and responsibility on both sides. It only survives with trust and interdependence – and love. The awful truth is that that can only be replicated for a few children who can’t live with their families. Moreover, many children in care should maintain the relationship with their parents, rather than have it replaced.
At NCH, we have learned some important lessons.
First, we must change the way the bureaucracy interacts with young people, ensuring that they are cared for by an individual they relate to and can depend on, and who listens to them. Caring directly for children is the main role and purpose. Everything else must be secondary and must be tested on whether it undermines that central relationship, and whether it should be mediated by it.
Second, we must work much harder at preventing children and young people coming into care. Here, the green paper must link with other work across government that has already identified supporting vulnerable families as a cornerstone of the welfare state of the future, including that on social exclusion and the Respect agenda. Only a small proportion of adolescents who come into care are there for their own protection. If we could support families in crisis, we could do more for young people than any restructuring of the care system could achieve. Evidence from NCH’s crisis intervention projects, which shore up families’ strengths and coping strategies, has proved they can help – and that they achieve cost savings which could fund better care for those who must live away from home.
Previous initiatives, like academic targets, have not succeeded because they have been aimed at symptoms rather than the cause. Poor health, poor education, poor housing, and just plain poor. Those are the symptoms of a system that simply doesn’t put children first. Without radical surgery, the prognosis is poor too. C
Polly Neate is executive director of public affairs and communications at charity NCH. She writes here in a personal capacity