by Alison Trainor, co-chair of the Independent Children’s Home Association
The current debate on the Children and Young Persons Bill in parliament provides an opportunity for a stock-take on provision for children in care.
There is a consensus that many children in care still under-achieve educationally. It’s imperative that policy-makers fully understand the huge obstacles to learning faced by many looked-after children in residential care. Often, by the time they are placed in a residential setting, they have been largely absent from education for long periods and have built up a considerable resistance to attending class or learning.
There’s also widespread recognition that such failure means that children in care account for a vastly disproportionate percentage of people in and out of prison, abusing alcohol and drugs and with unskilled jobs. There is also a realisation that lifting their opportunities is a significant charge on the public purse.
Residential care could be more effective
Given this, there has been a great emphasis on fostering for children who cannot, for a host of reasons, remain with their parents or extended family. The vast majority of the approximately 60,000 children in care are fostered. I applaud the work of foster carers and their unfaltering commitment to children in care. However, fostering is sometimes wrongly seen as the first port of call for some very vulnerable children because it is cheaper than residential care, although an initial investment in residential care could well prove to be more effective and cheaper in the long run.
I have seen the same names being re-referred to fostering agencies as placements continually break down. Not only is this practice damaging to children and young people but also places an unnecessary burden on foster carers and any other children living with them. I fear that we will see a reduction in the number of foster carers – particularly very capable ones who are pushed to take more “difficult” children.
It can be hard to return to give unconditional care and respect to a very abusive and destructive young person. However, it is only by applying a consistent message and firm boundaries from a stable and united team that we finally manage to settle a young person. A child or young person who presents this level of challenging behaviour cannot be managed in a family placement with one dedicated couple caring for them day in and day out. This is when residential care can really help (being, typically, at least 6 people working in pairs on a 24-hour shift basis over the week) but is often dismissed in favour of the cheaper alternative, foster care.
Here’s an example. Jeff is 14 and was admitted to a specialist resource a year ago after serious charges of sexual assault. Jeff had suffered multiple placement breakdowns in fostering and had such serious gaps in his education that he could not read or write or tell the time. Jeff also has learning difficulties and was in denial about the incident that resulted in court proceedings. Over the next 12 months, Jeff settled in his placement, attended full time education with 1:1 tuition and engaged in direct sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy with a qualified clinician. Jeff can tell the time, has built up his recognition of words to more than 200 and is engaging in work experience. Jeff has taken responsibility for his actions and avoided an indeterminate prison sentence in favour of a supervision order with relapse prevention work. Foster care failed this young man, but residential care has shown strong chances of giving him his life back.
Multiple placement breakdowns
Judging the best place for an extremely vulnerable – and perhaps abusive – child is extraordinarily difficult at all times. However, we fear that the persistent recourse to the fostering option in highly complex cases can result in multiple placement breakdowns. This situation is exacerbated by the way in which the figures are kept. Once a child reaches three placements, under the PAF A1 indicator, they remain there, statistically. I have worked with many children with up to 25 or more placements moves at the age of 14 or 15.
The PAF measurement should be made more sophisticated by recording and publishing the number of children with five and then 10 moves. Extra indicators would put pressure on placing authorities to get the next placement right rather than just containing the problem by moving it around.
There is good evidence to suggest that most children in care will benefit from remaining in familiar environments, mostly within their local authorities. In a minority of cases, that is the worst possible thing to do as it allows children to remain near to the source of their problems – their abusers, pimps and exploiters.
Realities of provision
We have lobbied peers and the minister to understand the realities of out of authority provision. There was no need to amend the Bill since it recognises that the presumption to place children within a 20-mile radius of their homes is based on these placements being appropriate.
But raising the debate is essential to ensure that the guidelines are implemented with the interests of the child at the forefront. Our members, sadly, have often seen for themselves that this doesn’t happen and that cost concerns can override children’s plans and their interests.
Given the presumption of local placement, the bill imposes a duty on local authorities to provide “sufficient and diverse provision.” There are two problems with this. The first is that many local authorities have not conducted a local audit and do not know their present and projected needs. The second is that the predominant part of the residential care sector, that run by independent providers, is in flux, losing experienced practitioners and needs a stable and strategic relationship with providers. We all form important parts of the care spectrum and for the sake of continuity of care for all children and young people we should work in partnership –collaboration rather than competition.
The Children and Young Persons Bill has far-reaching implications for providers as purchasers strive to deliver local services. The sector is hampered by a lack of statistical information. We need a national audit of placement availability as well as placement need and current activity.
All parts of the ladder of care need nurturing if we are to finally overcome the obstacles faced by many children in care to making the most of their lives, which began in often extremely difficult circumstances not of their own making.
Independent Children’s Home Association