Today I’m bringing you a post about what I think is the most important issue in our society today – children in care, or “Looked After Children”.
The post is the edited text from a presentation by child psychologist, Charlie Mead at the Towards a Positive Future SEN conference a week ago. He spoke powerfully about the plight of these ‘Looked After Children’ or, as it would appear, not very well looked after children. Charlie works in many children’s homes in the Midlands and South West of England and if you want to know about how he sees the state of provision of children in care – our most vulnerable members of society – please read on, share it, reblog it, quote it on your own blogs, anything you can do to help highlight it.
Children are being ignored, abandoned and abused within the care system. The tension between available finances and how they are spent is at the cost of children’s development. Children in care are some of the most vulnerable people in this country yet they are given no more priority (in many cases less) than privileged young people from stable and wealthy backgrounds. They are in denied access to the basic rights of most children. The right to security, protection, opportunity and equality.
Vulnerable – but not eligible
The quote above is from a commissioning officer from a local authority – unable to place a child because they did not meet the criteria of need required to release funds. I will return to definitions later because they are the way that society manages its priorities -
We now have over 73,000 children in care in England and Wales – but we are losing some every day. Sometimes physically – they disappear; but also socially and emotionally. We lose them as potential contributors to society – as ‘net gain adults’ in HMRC speak
The number is an increase of 12 per cent since 2008 and rising since the case of Peter Connolly.
- 56% of all children in care are there because they were abused or neglected
- 26% are in children’s homes.
- That means more than 17,000 are looked after in children’s homes or accommodated in institutions (LA or Private), while the rest are in foster care.
- More than half of all children in care (53%) leave school with no formal qualifications
- 13% get 5 A*- C grade GCSEs, compared with 47% of all children.
- 6% enter higher education.
- 20% of women who leave care between the ages of 16 and 19 become mothers within a year, compared with just 5% of the total population.
Parents who have been through the care system are twice as likely to lose the right to care for their own children.
I’ve seen cases of 14 year old girls serially sexually abused; criminalised boys; neglected young people; children who were heroin addicts from birth. But they DO have a voice and they let it be heard – believe me. They know what they want. And it isn’t institutionalised living. They want opportunities to develop relationships to build their own lives.
So, I am asking why we can’t and won’t protect, educate and cherish children in care as our own? They have already experienced degrees of rejection and loss of control hard for others to imagine, before the system neglects their needs to the point of losing them altogether.
In the area I work these are the most vulnerable groups of children – many do not have a voice of their own and their parents are ignored or dismissed, especially if they have learning difficulties or addictive behaviours of their own. Their social workers are ignored, their care workers are ignored…
They don’t have the “opportunity-language” even if they were to be listened to…..they do not have the leverage. They have become part of the system as soon as the system decides they should be!
All children need: safety; security; health; continuity; routines; knowledge; opportunities; equality.
- 73 %of school age looked after children have some form of special educational needs – especially social, emotional and behaviour difficulties
- In the 2009/10 school year, 130 children who had been looked after continuously were permanently excluded from school.
- 7.9 % of looked after children who were aged 10 or over had been convicted or subject to a final warning or reprimand during the year
- 4.3 % were identified as having a substance misuse problem during the year 2010.
Why are these simple basic rights not only denied children in care but are routinely flouted by a whole range of agencies? Even safeguarding issues are ignored if Duty Officers and social workers make wrong decisions based on lack of knowledge – and then D.O decisions are rarely rescinded
- The child who is allowed to return to their abusive and neglectful parents because they have made significant progress in care and the money is tight.
- The child who absconds, arrives home and is left there because there are no Social Workers on duty.
What is it that makes adults lack any sense of what they are doing and abdicate responsibility for the care of children.?
Much of the answer lies in the stories of the children themselves.
As a psychologist, I am driven by empirical evidence that is usually supported by strong theoretical hypotheses. In this case it is my theories that have been formulated and are driven by observable and measurable data taken from the circumstances around children in care. So, what evidence is there?
These are the circumstances of just nine of the children that I am currently working with – when we can find some of them. They reflect the overall pattern and range of difficulties they face – some made more so by the response of adults who should be providing them with opportunities – not further rejection.
- Child 1: Secure unit – Children’s Home – disappeared
- Child 2: Looked After Child – drug runner – sexually exploited
- Child 3: Subject of physical abuse from boyfriend
- Child 4: Missed schooling – now costs the authority £1,500 a week
- Child 5: Withdrawn, self-harmer – low self-esteem
- Child 6: Sexually abused, absconds – returned home
- Child 7: No awareness of risk – in independent living
- Child 8: Intelligent – but no school will take her
- Child 9: Neglected, also bright – no support available
Where does it all go wrong?
They have parents who are addicts or criminals, they are abused and have early exposure to that abuse and to criminality. For example two year old girls sold for drugs, five year olds who rob and steal. They live in an environment where failure, abuse and lack of normal behaviours are normal. They have a very low socio-economic status. The full range of normal opportunities can be denied children and they are constantly being rejected. And rejection results directly in lack of control…
- Failed parenting – even though children might not realise it at the time.
- Failure by the extended family: abuse, or relatives not believing children
- Failure of Social Workers: so many changes and missed appointments. Part-time staff with large case loads.
- Courts who have no understanding of what sending child in care to secure accommodation means.
- Schools that won’t let them in - ‘had one like you and it caused so much disruption’
- Friends – generally they don’t have many. Parents of peers are wary.
- Fellow children in care want to control them. If they don’t comply they are then bullied – possessions stolen etc. It’s about regaining control in an uncontrollable environment.
- Themselves: they’ve lost faith in their own abilities, except how to survive – so allow themselves to be exploited – sex, drugs, alcohol….and so on.
AND THEN REPEAT THE CYCLE.
We MUST break the pattern – but who will do this?
Not the targets of my evidence.
This is the system…
- Government – not prioritising its resources for those most at risk; not supporting those that want to effect change and challenge the status quo; using its agencies (Ofsted, inspectorates) to create fearful institutions; and all the while definitely not doing what it preaches!
- Local Authorities – Child and Family Services – a multi-agency approach that is dysfunctional and buck passing – child deaths in Birmingham; CAMHS waiting lists; Education – refusing to encourage collaboration outside its own self-interest. Placement Panels…..hiding the gatekeepers.
- Communities: for tolerating complacency and not getting involved to enable change – for perpetuating bias and discrimination (targeting children’s homes for drugs in the local press)
- Agencies – who exploit the state of confusion in all of the above to suit their financial needs
- Charities – for putting their image before either its core clients or the people who work with them at the lowest paid levels. For presenting one face and delivering another
- Private providers who charge high fees and deliver low levels of service
Complex needs demand a complex solution and each of these points could be an area of research on its own. But to give an example, asked whether it was an appropriate use of government and national funding to support children in care achieve in school the answer was put in financial terms by the Minister for Children.
All questions about costs for anything would be referred to as part of the national debate on the deficit – budgets being the principle behind all policy decisions. So, children in care are better not educated, especially after 16 – but kept in residential care units where costs can be kept down. It is symptomatic of a complete lack of understanding – even of simple financial expediency of children able to work paying taxes! This is short-termism – based on today’s budget NOT tomorrow’s costs.
These are the dynamics – or lack of them – that come out of the evidence gathered around children in care. Simply put, decisions appear to be made and situations developed based on Assumptions and Opinions, Financial demands and Exclusivity. Not on research, need and the idea of doing the best for all.
Generally the children in care themselves would prefer not to go to the types of school they find themselves in – mainly because they don’t see how those schools can help them. PRU’s, specials, units, PLS etc. They have been failed again and again. They don’t see the CARE they are supposed to get so why should they bother?
The Problem is they can’t get into proper schools. Nearly all CiC are within the average band of intelligence and achievement and would be able to access the full national curriculum. However, many have missed school and are behind with reading, spelling and maths. Even if they are willing to catch up, schools won’t take them for fear of it affecting their results. Even those who are ahead of their peers in Literacy and Numeracy are not allowed in because of the fear, prejudice and discrimination against children in care. Schools, in my experience, go out of their way to find reasons NOT to take children. So these children get access to ASDAN and work experience at best – at worst – nothing.
So it’s no wonder that private educational companies charge £1,500 a week for 1:1 programmes for young people unable to access any form of education. How can that be right in any sense – for either the child or the tax payer?
There is the full range of quality of provision for CiC – from excellent to appalling. In the worst, children are locked up for eight hours a day with poor nutritional food – and the provision is different because no one provider, authority or government has a shared view of what constitutes a child in care and his or her need.
Organisations are oppositional; Placement Panels are highly secretive and make fallible decisions. Commissioning officers then have to place children based on highest level of provision for the lowest cost – which is then not delivered by children’s homes. Children’s details are then circulated to a range of providers who make bids to deliver the resources able to be paid for. This will vary from residential care and may expand to include education, therapies, medical provision with varying levels of security and safeguarding needed. Costs vary from £1,500 a week to £7,000 a week. And if you can guarantee a minimum of 3 places from any one LA then bulk reductions in fees take place – but the provision is the same for all three children irrespective of their need.
In an interview with CEO of a major provider of care homes she made the following comments:
Local authorities want more for less; children in most need are having provision withdrawn as money is reduced – and this affects holidays, education, therapy, training for staff and even food; Education should be supporting children in care and social services, but they are opposing factions in a multi-agency joined up world that is fast becoming dysfunctional.
So, this is what I have seen over the past year. These are the difficulties children have faced in care. Some children not in care also face these difficulties – but not at the frequency or severity of CiC.
This is why the system is not working –
- Lack of principles
- Simplistic Solutions
- Wrong funding priorities
- Lack of engagement with children
- Lack of aspiration
- Lack of creative thinking
- Outdated measures and targets
So it is not a system then! The only part of the process that appears systematic is the inspection process that is beginning to flex its authority in the interests of children but is still pre-occupied with health and safety detail rather than addressing the issues here.
The system, in its complexity:
- Abdicates responsibility by passing the buck
- Blames the children for who they are
- Refuses them opportunities to develop
- Does not engage with local people and communities or allow CIC to take part in local activities
- Where staff even buy into the failures…“There’s no point in getting her up-she’s late for school already”
So, what would work and how can we replace the problems with solutions that may have a more positive impact on the outcomes for CIC.
Research suggests CiC respond best to localised, dynamic groups of adults that focus on their needs. Complex problems need complex solutions – which means individualised assessments and recommendations that can be delivered immediately and locally.
- We need to give care staff responsibility for the outcomes of CiC – how much they are involved in local community for example.
- We should fund the child not the place. With flexibility to move if necessary.
- And we should involve the children – and not just lip service.
If it’s working – keep children where they are. We have been putting this model into practice for the past three months and have already seen positive outcomes for children. Vulnerable children are by their nature the most vulnerable people in our society – but we continue to under resource and under prioritise their needs. Apart from the waste they have a right to a life. Positive change can be made when priorities are identified and addressed. Resources can be limited but positive management can influence outcomes for the better . This leads to hope, high expectations, self-esteem and value for money!
It also increases educational and work prospects, decreases crime and addiction, improves individual and group safety and security. Children develop the ability to build relationships and improved social behaviours. These positive changes also lead to improved health and increased life expectancy all of which helps break the cycle of failure and despair.
What is stopping this happening?
I would suggest it is mainly the lack of will and the dishonesty of governments and agencies to face up to the fact that they have continually failed. By giving the appropriate weight and resources to this issue they would flag their own failures even more. As if that were possible.
So, we must make a change – it could be any type of change but it cannot be the same system that has failed for so long. Because if we don’t, children will continue to be lost, uncared for and barely provided for.
It is absurd that we are still having to fight for the rights of anyone in this day and age – but if we can’t do that for children we can’t do it for anyone. And if we can do it for children – we can do it for everyone.
[Images are stock shots]