Our Prime Minister has this past weekend come out with comments where he speaks of the need to bring wholesale reforms to child protection. His plans, which will be outlined in detail in the Queen’s speech on Wednesday, promise “zero tolerance” of state failure in children’s social care services.
Writing for the Sunday Times, Cameron explains: “Even in their worst nightmare, no parent could imagine that their child would grow up to sleep on the streets, languish in a prison cell or become a sex worker.
“But for children in care, this is still all too often the appalling future that lies in store. One in four prisoners have been in care, along with a shocking 70% of Britain’s sex workers. And a third even become homeless in the two years immediately after they leave care”.
He goes on to tell us that “behind every statistic is a human story — not just of wasted potential, but of pain and trauma” then sets out the general theme for his reforms:
- Encouraging the adoption process, even when it overrides family ties
- Less time in the classroom for social work students and more time in on-the-job training
- Respecting experience and common sense when it comes to decision making
- New demanding standards (accreditation) for child protection social workers
- A new regulator to oversee the system
In their rhetoric, our government and civil servants like to call social workers ‘unsung heroes’ and pay lip service to the demands of our jobs. But for all this feigned interest they are far less keen on consulting us ‘heroes’ on reforms to our own profession.
Likewise they fail to heed the advice of the many past reviews, task forces and pieces of research that have, time and time again, set out the same lessons learned – that too many cases, too little time and a lack of early intervention services create a toxic environment that stifles effective work.
What worries me the most about Cameron’s comments is that he speaks of social work, social care and child protection as if it has nothing to do with wider society; that those poor little children he is looking to save are simply victims of bad parenting and not victims of their environment.
His rhetoric follows that if we can speedily remove these children from their families, placing them into the care of nice middle-class parents who are desperate for children of their own, the problem is solved.
There is nothing to acknowledge the wider societal issues that result in the abuse and neglect that drives children into the care system in the first place.
No recognition of the cycles of deprivation that have been decades in the making, with whole communities cast aside following the death of heavy industry.
No commentary on how much harder it is to raise children when you’re living on the breadline or a nod to the fact that any parent, even the most skilled, would struggle when living in poverty.
Damage is done
He speaks of adoption as the saving grace for children but fails to accept that, by time that this action is considered, the damage is often done.
Foetal alcohol syndrome, trauma when children are in the womb, the known impact that early harm has on brain development, all of these causal factors are dismissed as issues that will impact on the life course of the adopted child.
Instead we see all poor outcomes for looked after children attributed to the care system and, by association, the professionals currently operating in this field.
But it is easier to blame current safeguarding processes than look to fix society. It fits a neater political narrative to focus on a failing profession instead of a nation that is increasingly unfair, discriminatory and divided between those with money and those without.
In Cameron’s eyes it seems simpler to offer a quick fix to damaged children than a long-term approach to deal with broken parents.
Such a cold view of the world, where blame is placed on the individual and not society, fits well with the wider Tory ideology of benefit sanctions, disability assessments, bedroom taxes and cuts to local services.
The undeserving poor have lost their council homes, lost their benefits and lost their community services, why not make it easier to lose their children too?
So when Cameron sets out his grand plans to save children this coming week and tells us all that a social care revolution is needed, look at his past record and ask yourself what he has done to benefit needy children before.
You’ll find that his legacy is made up of more children in poverty, families reliant upon food banks, the unchecked rise of payday loans, a scarcity of social housing and the death of early intervention services.
Yes Dave, children have been let down for too long…by you.
The author is a child protection social worker and tweets at @socialworktutor