by Carolyne Willow
An online campaign for an independent review of England’s public care system is attracting hundreds of signatures.
The joint letter to the secretary of state for education, from those with relevant personal or professional experience, is the brainchild of child counsellor John Radoux.
Like many of the signatories, John’s expertise is wide-ranging: he spent his childhood in care and then worked in children’s homes for 16 years.
Some of the most harmful aspects of today’s public care system are highlighted in the letter. They include: children being increasingly sent many miles from their families, friends, schools and neighbourhoods; instability and high numbers of moves; growing reliance on unregulated homes; the disproportionate numbers of child and adult prisoners who were formerly in care; and private equity companies profiting from children’s need for state care and protection.
The Conservatives’ election manifesto promised a review – so we should be pushing at an open door.
‘Nothing could be found’
Days after the letter was launched via Twitter, the Times newspaper reported on the terrible plight of a girl – highlighted last autumn by Community Care – who entered care aged 14 and had 10 different ‘homes’ in a year.
All bar two of them were in unregulated accommodation, and three were in caravan parks and a fourth in a lodge retreat.
The judge set out the difficulties in detail “to highlight the resource issues that local authorities face looking after young vulnerable people at risk of harm”.
He praised the “professionalism and dedication” of the girl’s social worker and her team manager who “had been working tirelessly [and] had constantly been putting out literally hundreds of enquiries to possible providers around the country to try and find something suitable”.
The local authority was prepared to fund suitable care but, in the judge’s words, “nothing could be found”. The UK has the fifth largest economy in the world, and a care system unable to care for children.
National unregulated placements rise
Government statistics published in December show that, for the first time, there are more children in care living in unregulated accommodation (2,790 at 31 March 2019) than in registered children’s homes within their own council area (2,340).
Besides being outside the purview of Ofsted, the defining feature of unregulated accommodation is that the adults employed there cannot legally care for children. They are only allowed to support them.
In other words, children who have suffered often very serious harm (the majority of children entering care have endured abuse or neglect) must adapt to a whole new life – with strangers and separated from their family, friends and probably school – in an environment where not a single member of staff is permitted to care for them.
There is no statutory minimum age for unregulated accommodation. A BBC investigation found at least one 11-year-old placed by their local authority in this type of setting.
Three-quarters of children in the care system are the subject of care orders – where a family court has determined the child has suffered (or is likely to suffer) significant harm and grants the local authority parental responsibility.
A care order is the highest form of state protection given to children. Thirty years after it was passed, the Children Act 1989 is still hailed as world-class; however, our services fail to fit the legislation.
No national strategy
Four in every 10 children living in children’s homes and unregulated accommodation are over 20 miles from home.
A recent report from the Children’s Commissioner for England observed that “children were already worrying about Christmas when we visited in early October, as they had no guarantees when they would see their loved ones”.
One girl had not seen her mum for three months because there was an eight-hour journey separating them. The majority of families of children in care are living in poverty and often rely on public transport.
The Association of Directors of Children’s Services responded to the children’s commissioner’s report on Christmas Eve, noting that “there is no national strategy to recruit more foster carers, to increase capacity in children’s residential homes or to address geographic mismatch of placements”. Local authorities say they are struggling to develop new homes for children, since half their central government funding has been taken away since 2010.
In November, the government announced that the chair of the Residential Care Leadership Board’s tenure had been extended for four months, working on average one day a week. Alan Wood was appointed in November 2017 – yet he continues to chair a board devoid of any members.
Former children’s minister Nadhim Zahawi said last year the delay was due to the need to sort out working arrangements with a newly created National Stability Forum (which ominously has decided post-18 leaving care services are out of its scope).
Given that Coram children’s charity later secured a £1 million government contract to act as secretariat to the two structures (and one on adoption), someone somewhere must know how these overlapping groups fit together – and how they are benefiting children.
Janis Joplin famously sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” – and you could say similarly about reviews. They are what campaigners often call for in the face of government intransigence, inaction or indifference.
There’s no doubt that every signatory to Radoux’s letter will have ideas for transforming the care system. There is a very rich body of research to call upon (Coram Voice’s Blueprint for a child-centred approach to children and young people in care and the Care Inquiry from several years ago stand out).
But what’s not been done before is a comprehensive process of gathering evidence from care experienced people of all ages, by an independent review team which has the expertise, resources and terms of reference separating it from government.
It cannot, however, be the excuse for not meeting legal obligations now – ministers must agree and fund an interim package of remedial measures to ensure local authorities have the resources to look after children in and leaving care today.
The necessity of consulting care experienced people of all ages is something that Ian Dickson argues for passionately. Having grown up in care and then had a career in children’s residential care (latterly as an Ofsted inspector), Ian chaired the brilliant Care Experienced Conference in Liverpool last year, attended by more than 140 people aged between 14 and 82 years.
A root-and-branch review must privilege the perspectives and feelings of those who truly know the highs and lows of the care system.
It must harness the social science knowledge base – our society’s best understanding of preventing harm in childhood and helping children to recover from abuse, trauma and disadvantage in all its forms – and engage social work educators and researchers.
Crucially, it must build on the UK’s obligations in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which provide dignity, respect and equality to each and every child. Anything less would be a tragedy, and there’s far too much avoidable heartbreak in the care system already.
Carolyne Willow is the director of Article 39, the charity that fights for children’s rights in institutional settings.