This month, David Graham gave evidence to the public accounts committee as part of their children in care inquiry. The inquiry followed a critical National Audit Office report, published last year. Here he sets out what he believes needs to change.
“The National Audit Office report ‘Children in care’ puts into black and white what many care leavers have been telling us for years – that much of the child care system is failing.
“Despite decades of debate on how to improve the lives of young people in care, including many policy initiatives on such issues as child protection and the quality of care, the gap in prospects and wellbeing between young people in care and their non-care peers remains unacceptably wide.
“At the Care Leavers Association, we regularly bring together care leavers of all ages. Consistently they raise the same issues: a lack of stability, a lack of love and personal care, an underdeveloped identity and a lack of support networks.
“These personal experiences are mirrored by continued deficits, measured by outcomes on educational attainment, employment and health.
Not enough positive stories
“So, let’s get two things clear.
“Firstly, increases in general wealth, knowledge and technology have made the UK a better place to live, and this has been reflected in the care system. There are more committed people coming forward to be foster parents and we have some increasingly modern and sophisticated residential child care services.
“Secondly, not every part of the system is failing, not every young person has a bad experience. For some, the care experience is positive and nurturing.
“However, there still aren’t enough positive stories. Given what most of these children have been through before they enter care, every child who goes into care should have a stable and loving placement and the opportunity to grow into successful adults.
“So, what’s the answer to the continuing problems with the existing system? Do we rip it up and start again? Well, yes and no.
“We have to stop tinkering around the edges changing bits here and there. We must get better at seeing children in the round, in the context of their entire journey through childhood into adulthood.
“We have to tackle some important questions: What is the care system for? Who is primarily responsible for young people in care? What long-term outcomes do we want?
“Answering such questions will mean radical re-thinking and a redesign of the way we do things now. We should begin with what we know works well. At the very least we need to stand back and take a detailed look at the care system by means of an independent commission or inquiry. Central to this must be the voices and experiences of children in care and adult care leavers. They can tell us what we need to know, if we listen.
“How might things look in this brave new world? We must be less focused on thinking of the system and more focused on the individual, on being person-centred and needs-led.
“Emotional health and wellbeing will be central concerns. Our understanding of attachment problems and the impact of childhood trauma is now good enough for us to do much better at engaging and supporting young people.
“While we will rightly focus on dealing with the frequently traumatic effects of separation from families, we will also recognise that sometimes the care experience itself can be damaging. So, we will agree, measure and monitor clear outcomes and standards for the impact and quality of care and we take action when these standards are breached.
“We will also increase the resources and training available to foster parents. At the same time we must ensure that we have good quality residential care with a highly trained and motivated workforce.
“At present, the quality of care in both sectors remains unacceptably varied.
Care should be “as flexible as a family”
“This should not just be the responsibility of the Department for Education. In seeking to improve all aspects of a young person’s life and future we need better coordination between all of the relevant government departments and agencies.
“We have long argued that care and leaving care services should be available to all people who have been in care up to a minimum age of 25 – reflecting what happens in families outside the care system – and should be as flexible as a family. Thus allowing a young person to dip in and out of support when they need it most.
“We cannot leave improving the lives of young people in care to chance, as is too often the case, or let the market or other providers dictate what is available. Many voices in the sector have long been campaigning for positive change.
“This report could provide the catalyst for such change, but it needs politicians to show leadership, to be brave and think long-term. The stakes could not be higher – these are still the children of our entire society, their future is our future.