Opinion: John Bird: how to break the link between care and criminality?

A survey carried out on a sample of Big Issue vendors found that 80 per cent had been in care. A visit to a prison will throw up a not dissimilar proportion of care leavers who did not make it into ordinary life. Care often seems a pathway to having a problem and, being a problem, for the rest of one’s life.

The damaging social conditions that lead children to be taken into care live on in the lives of those children. Whatever great magic wand the care profession is commissioned to wave over their charges it seldom works. The wand seems to have lost its properties. And social care is lambasted as a failing provider.

The first thing that must be done is dispute this grim picture by examples of best practice where care leavers have responded to the chances of creating independent lives. Where institutionally provided support has broken through the barrier and given children the right measures of nurturing and guidance that take them out of the cycle of dependency.

We need these examples because we need to emulate them. We need to dispute the negative image of social care. We need to demonstrate that the young life that has been rescued from a failing family can grow and mature.

Then we need to take a long, hard look at what is going wrong. We need to admit the mistakes that are being made. We need to do a better job of auditing our outcomes. And we need to adopt the best practices so that our children can receive the best of all possible services.

Finally, we have to be careful how we measure success and outcomes. We cannot measure the building or rebuilding of a young life simply by their success at exams. Exams are an important indication of personal achievement. But building the right mentality to take on the world outside care is of equal importance. And confidence is not all about winning awards.

I left care as a child to return to a family that had been reconstructed. It was probably the worse place for me. It was then that I started to shoplift, housebreak, truant and resort to arson. Decades of being lost followed. Care had been bad for me, but so had family life.

More than anything I needed help in finding out what were the problems that I carried from my failing family, into care, and back into that failing family. I needed more than just an institution to protect me from a violent childhood.

The care system needs investment in analysing the particular problems of the child. It needs to be able to offer a more bespoke service to those in need. Broad brush treatment of children will not give them the parenting requirements that they need in order to grow.

Each child must be seen as a grand project of reclamation and redirection. The investment must be made in the early days so that the benefits of care are a maximum and not a minimum.

We need to make care an opportunity and not a life sentence of dislocation.

Million pound children are not uncommon in the care system, nor later as adults in the prison system. Homelessness can cost equal amounts. Any form of intervention into people’s lives costs an alarming sum of money – just look at someone who is constantly ill and always having to rely on the health service. But, more than anything, we should make sure that the investment is complete.

If we can invest in our children in care now it will make great savings later. The more independent lives we begin to build in childhood the lighter the financial burden when the child has become adult.

There are too many damaged people with a care background for us as a society to feel comfortable with.

Let us bring the top brains to bear on the best practices now so that we can give our children a future. Not a life sentence of dependency.

John Bird is the founder of The Big Issue

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