Lord Laming and I have been talking for nearly 10 minutes about his review into why looked-after children are more likely to end up in custody before the word ‘resources’ comes up. And not focusing on resources, it appears, is the point.
“We are talking about our approach, society’s approach, to young people who have had a really poor start in life and into how we can help these young people regain what they may have missed out in their early years in order that they can become fulfilled and integrated into the community, like ‘ordinary’ young people,” says Laming.
Passionate, articulate and entirely focused on the outcomes of young people, it’s easy to understand why the crossbench peer was entrusted to lead a review into why 30% of boys and 61% of girls in custody have a background in the care system.
“Inspiration and imagination”
His 2003 Victoria Climbié inquiry report, and his 2009 review of child protection following the death of Baby P, led to a series of reforms that shaped social work and child safeguarding for the past decade. While he still has some thoughts about child protection, he is very much focused on his new review.
Laming says the review, announced last month and established by the Prison Reform Trust, will be a broad search for “inspiration and imagination” in how best to work with looked-after children, and how to address society’s approach to working with children in care who are often “criminalised more readily than children who are not in care”.
He describes circumstances where children in care may lash out, get angry, or trash a bedroom. If a child was with their family such incidents would be handled within the family, but for children in care it often results in the police being called, a day in court and the beginning of a journey towards custody for the young person.
“There seems to be some evidence that children in care are likely to be brought to the attention of the police and then to the courts more readily than children in what we would call ‘ordinary’ families,” Laming explains, “And if that’s the case we ought to look at that and we ought to see what might be done in order to reverse that.”
Laming has high hopes for the review, which will consult care leavers and children in care as well as experts and professionals.
He hopes that it will identify the current pattern of what happens for children in care, share successful practice, examine the rates of children who come into care at a local level and make some “really practical recommendations” that can go toward improving the life chances of children in care.
But the debate needs to be about attitudes and outcomes, before it comes around to resources, Laming believes. Only by improving practice and finding positive outcomes will resources follow, he says, and that goes across the whole of children’s services.
“It may be that resources are needed but I would like there to be a degree of rigour and discipline. More resources to be spent how, and toward what achievements? I think that if we can demonstrate that by taking various measures, [and] we can demonstrate that it will improve the life chances of the most vulnerable young people in our society, then I think that’s a pretty strong base on which to argue for more resources.”
The most important part of the review for him is the good practice and the recommendations, and he wants to get it turned around fast, preferably early next year, on the grounds that every day and week is important time that passes in a young person’s life.
“Each one of them is unique within themselves and each one has one shot at their lives – and let’s make it the best shot they can have,” he says.