‘The wrong people are running the care system – and getting it badly wrong’

    Three young care leavers with a positive experience of care discuss their shock at what children in the system endure today – and how things should change

    Young people talking on stairs
    Photo posed by models: Yakobchuk Olena/Adobe Stock

    By David Jones*

    Three young adults who I worked with in a children’s home for four years, and who left our care five years ago, agreed to meet me to discuss their experience of the care system and how it compares with what they read and hear about it now. Liz*, 20, is a trainee solicitor, Monica*, also 20, is an apprentice hairdresser, while Richie*, 19, is on a car mechanic course. Each of them enjoyed a generally settled time in care.

    Official data suggests a worsening picture for children in care since they left.

    The number of those living in unregulated care rose by 45% from 2018-22, according to Department for Education figures, while there was a fall, from 59% in 2018 to 56% in 2022, in children and young people accommodated within their council boundary, a proportion which falls to a third for those in children’s homes.

    In moving away from their home area, these kids lose their support networks, are at greater risk of going missing and become ready-made targets for exploitation by criminal gangs.

    Anger and shock

    These issues were fortunately not the experience of Liz, Monica and Richie. But their anger and shock at them becoming so common, is palpable.

    “Gangs are a massive problem now with kids in care, who aren’t getting the protection they need,” says Richie. “I would have hated to have been in that position when I was just 14.”

    Monica agrees: “You hear all the time about kids in PRUs [pupil referral units] being approached, but how do you stop this? Do we expect teachers to step in or should we expect more from the police? These gangs seems to do whatever they want.”

    “Plus there are less youth groups now and generally less safe places for kids to hang out,” she adds.

    “We keep hearing about austerity and it does my nut in that everything’s being cut,” says Liz.

    “And don’t forget how massive social media is now,” says Richie. “All that peer pressure and joining a gang to make easy money and feel part of something. It was never that bad when we were in care.”

    “Kids having to leave their home area against their will is bad enough, but I recently learned of a teenage boy who was moved and didn’t want to return to the area,” says Monica. “He explained to his social worker and the IRO [independent reviewing officer] that he had good reasons, but wouldn’t go into details. Eventually he was allowed to stay where he was, but not before other professionals had stepped in to support him.”

    How on earth is this good practice? We were always told that the interests of the child came first.”

    Unregulated homes ‘a Wild West’

    They were all exercised by the use of unregulated homes, which Monica likened to the Wild West.

    “Dangerous, nobody knows what’s going on, no rules. It’s utter madness to expect 16-year-olds or those older, to function and thrive in those environments.”

    Liz is quick to agree, citing a news story she read about a young person who was actually living in a caravan. “I mean, come on! Is that where the care system really is at now? Monica’s right, it is like the Wild West.”

    “Totally off grid,” adds Richie.

    As someone who lived in the same residential care home as her younger brother, Liz admits that she would have “lost the plot” if they had been split up. “I would have created havoc if this had even been suggested. I looked out for him and was there for him all the time.”

    “It really makes you question whether the powers that be are actually aware of, or even care about, what’s going on,” Monica says. “And it doesn’t inspire much confidence.”

    Since the three left care, the children’s home sector has also become increasingly privately owned, from 73% of homes in 2018 to over 80% last year.

    With these homes being driven by the desire to make a profit, they are relieved to have been in care when they were.

    ‘Do providers and government really care?’

    “We all know that local councils are skint and business people, capitalists, call them what you want, see money to be made from the kids’ social care system,” insists Liz. “It’s like Monica said earlier, it makes you question the thinking and motives of these people, beyond making profits. Do they, and the government, really care about kids’ welfare?”

    “It seems to me,” ventures Richie, “that the wrong people, whether they are in government or business, have too big a say in the care system, and they’re getting it badly wrong.”

    So what would they change?

    “Splitting up siblings in care is immoral and should be stopped,” insists Liz. “And the one thing I really hated about being in care was the lack of freedom compared to other kids. If I want to stay at a friend’s house, it should be my choice and not depend on what staff think.”

    And while the three felt looked after and respected while in care, they identify a need for greater warmth towards children from staff, some of whom were “a bit like robots and hard to warm to,” Richie recalls.

    “I agree that more emotional intimacy is vital between staff and kids,” adds Monica. “Otherwise it’s a constant reminder that you’re a kid in care.”

    *The author is a freelance journalist and former residential child care worker. His name, and those of the young people, have been changed.

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