A different world

As expected, the green paper on children’s services is largely
about promoting joint action between existing statutory bodies.
What’s new? In 1968, the Seebohm Committee recommended that, to
promote better co-ordination, local authority welfare services be
amalgamated into one social services department. Not long after,
child abuse investigations were criticising the poor communication
within social services department and with other agencies. The
managerial answer is always to create larger systems of
organisation – even though larger bureaucracies may hamper
communication. Now the green paper majors on statutory children’s
trusts, safeguarding boards, children’s centres promoted by a
national agency plus more computerisation and a high-ranking
children’s commissioner.

The trouble is that writers of government papers are usually
socially and geographically distanced from the world of vulnerable
children. The latter’s world may well be in run-down areas amid
poor families and under-resourced schools. Their immediate
children’s services are those nearest to them, perhaps provided by
churches, local voluntary bodies or by other families in the
street. This is the children’s world which the green paper largely

Of course statutory bodies should work together. But attention
needs to be focused on locally controlled community projects which
organise children’s activities, holidays and sport and whose staff
have known local families for years. Revealingly, a national survey
of parents in deprived areas showed that only 8 per cent had used a
social services department in the previous year. Relatives were the
most important source of help. Also important were local voluntary
and community bodies which provided practical services.
Unfortunately, lack of funds limited their opening hours and, in
some cases, caused their closure.1

Over the past 25 years, I have been associated with two community
projects on council estates. Staff and volunteers have tended to
live in the areas with their own children attending local schools.
From 1976 to 1987, I was with the Southdown project in Bath where I
got to know a lone father who, I felt, was a danger to his
children. He trusted me enough to take my advice to refer himself
to the social services department. His children were taken into
care and he was angry with me. But, living near, we had to continue
to relate and much later he considered that the decision was

In another instance, a lone mother asked me to rescue her children
from her violent boyfriend whom she was too scared to leave. I did
so and the social services department used us as foster carers for
the children who could continue at their familiar school.
Eventually, the bloke cleared off and the children went home. I
believe this was possible because we had a long-standing
relationship with that family.

What of young people? Twelve years after I left the Southdown
project, I revisited 51 adults who as children had used its
services. Some had been in trouble with the police in their late
teens but, by the time of the interview, none was in prison. Most
had jobs, although often low-paid ones. The majority were in stable
relationships. They had found the project helpful in two ways.

First, its activities kept them occupied. One man, whose father had
often been in prison, said: “At the age of 15, if I had said that
by the age of 34 I would still have not done a day in prison, they
would not have believed it. The club kept us out of trouble.”

Second, they could turn to staff for personal help with problems
such as truancy, delinquency and family arguments. They trusted the
staff because they had known them for years. Prevention in the

The services provided by projects rooted long term in their
communities are the ones closest to vulnerable children. Yet they
are ignored by government and those who write green papers.

The project with which I am now a committee member in Glasgow has
staff, sessional workers and volunteers who provide services for
children. Yet more than 90 per cent of its income has to be raised
from voluntary sources and it gets harder all the time. The social
work department is helpful and supplies the project with its only
statutory grant but the council is strapped for cash. The green
paper should have proposed a government strategy to finance local
children’s services. Its failure shows how it undervalues services
for children run by people at the bottom.

1 D Ghate and N Hazel,
Parenting in Poor Environments, Jessica Kingsley,

Bob Holman is the author of Kids at the Door Re-visited,
Russell House, 2000

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