Wednesday 20 May 2015

Is the care system just another troubled family?

We at ECLCM worry that this government simply does not appreciate its obligation to children and young people in the care system. It routinely fails to support care leavers, but this may be because it simply fails to appreciate their situation, and its obligation towards them. We have seen evidence that the government does feel concern about vulnerable families, but somehow this concern does not seem to extend to the children leaving its care.

A good example might be the ‘Troubled Families Initiative’ introduced by the coalition government in 2011. We won’t offer a view on whether this was a good or indeed a bad initiative.  What matters is that Mr Cameron, his colleagues and advisors considered that it was a way forward and adopted it as policy. Neither will we take issue with their definition of a ‘troubled family’ – it appears to be the government’s default position. A ‘troubled family’ is described in the programme as:

 “…..characterised by there being no adult in the family working, children not being in school and family members being involved in crime and anti-social behaviour.
These families almost always have other often long-standing problems which can lead to their children repeating the cycle of disadvantage. One estimate shows that in over a third of troubled families, there are child protection problems. Another estimate suggests that over half of all children who are permanently excluded from school in England come from these families, as do one-in-five young offenders.
Other problems such as domestic violence, relationship breakdown, mental and physical health problems and isolation make it incredibly hard for families to start unravelling their problems.
The cost of these families to the public purse is very significant – approximately £9 billion a year, the vast majority spent on reacting to their problems. And most importantly, most of the money being spent is not providing lasting results and changing lives.”

That seems to make sense – until we reflect that the biggest ‘family’ in Britain is that comprising ‘looked after children’, children in the care system.

There are literally thousands of children in the care system. They live in children’s homes, or foster homes or may be placed within their own ‘family network’ under legislation such as Special Guardianship Orders. Their birth parents have been judged to be unable or unfit to care for them, so that parental duty has been taken over by the state. They have become the children of ‘corporate parents’. Their parents are local authorities, and more specifically central government who are responsible for the legislation that governs their care and who, through the auspices of Ofsted, monitor the quality of their parenting. The government allocate the funds to local authorities that pretty much dictates how much they can spend, and therefore the quality of care that can be offered to these ‘corporate children’.

If we return to the ‘Troubled Families Initiative’ and look again at some of the adjectives and other descriptors the government have applied in their definition, we can use those to compare these ‘corporate parents’ with those birth parents deemed to be incapable of or unwilling to deliver ‘good enough parenting’. The results are eye opening. Let’s have a closer look!

School attendance was one measure of children in a troubled family. We notice immediately that a disproportionate number of children in the ‘care family’ fail to attend school as regularly as would be desirable. These children also tend to achieve lower grades and outcomes. This is not because they are unintelligent or fail to apply themselves. Indeed, in part it’s because before coming into care they are likely to have already had difficulty in getting to school regularly and when they come into care they tend to move a lot.

They may not want to move around and of course their ‘corporate parents’ are not actually going to move with them - it just happens this way sometimes because their ‘corporate parents’ may have placed them somewhere not able to meet their needs, often based on how much it costs rather than whether it was the best place for them to live.

We don’t suggest that the children in care don’t see their parents as role models going to work – most don’t actually know who their corporate parents are. How many politicians make themselves known to children in care and genuinely work to convince them that they are doing their best for them?  ECLCM would suggest too few. For example, in the last few weeks we tried to engage with politicians from all parties to talk about children in care. We and other caring organisations approached politicians and broadcasters requesting that politicians be asked directly where they stood on children in care – if they got into power, how would they help children in the care system? There was no response.  We can only assume from that there weren’t enough votes to be gained and little public interest in these children to whom we are all corporate parents.

Do children in the care family have family members who are involved in anti-social behaviour? Absolutely they do!  Even though only a tiny proportion (2%) of children come into care as a result of anti-social behaviour, after a few years in ‘care’ they are found to represent a massively high proportion of perpetrators.  Perhaps we need to do as successive government have done - blame the (corporate) parents.

Using the government’s definition of a ‘troubled family’ once more - does the ‘care family’ have long term problems? Absolutely it does! There has been little improvement in outcomes for children in care over the last forty years and that seems pretty ‘long term’ to us.

Are children born to adults who were in care likely to enter care themselves? Absolutely they are - the chances of this happening are considerably higher than the entry of a child into care whose parents were raised within their own birth family.

A picture is emerging.  The child of ‘corporate parents’ is likely to have had had a difficult childhood, with relatively poor role models as parents. It is likely to have suffered from (inevitable?) attachment difficulties, given it may have had 5, or 10, or 20 or even more different sets of carers during its care career. How on earth is such a child supposed to be a great parent?
The surprise is that many care leavers make such remarkably good parents given their experiences in the care system.

Does the ‘care family’ experience child protection or safeguarding problems?  They certainly do – we need only ask those children, now adults involved in the campaign for justice following historical child abuse. It would be folly to imagine that in 30 years, 2015 will be described as a year in which no ‘historical’ organised abuse took place. We need only ask those girls and boys in care who are targeted by rings of sex offenders organising child sexual exploitation across the UK. We fear that the true extent of this is yet to be reported.

We’ve already noted the issues related to educational achievement and offending behaviour among children in the care family, so nothing needs to be added.  The facts should speak for themselves.
What about the long term care given by these corporate parents to these care children as they mature towards adulthood? Examination of ‘life after care’ in this country over decades is depressing reading. 

Some people don’t like to be reminded of the statistics, but even so, here are some of the more well known facts:
·          - 22% of care leavers were living in accommodation not deemed to be suitable;
·          - a third of care leavers are not in education, employment or training - compared with 13% of all young people;
·          - a quarter of young women leaving care are pregnant or already mothers and nearly half become mothers by the age of 24;
·          - 23% of the adult prison population has been in care and almost 40% of prisoners under 21 were in care as children (only 2% of the general population spend time in prison);
·          - almost half of young men (49%) under the age of 21 with a care experience have come into contact with the criminal justice system and about 27% of young men in custody have spent time in care;
·        -  over half of young women (55%) in the 15 – 18 age groups have spent some time in local authority care. This is further supported by the Ministry of Justice prison population statistics which show that over 25% of prisoners had been taken into care as a child;
·          - around a quarter of those living on the street have a background in care;
·        -   care leavers are four or five times more likely to commit suicide in adulthood; and
·          - between 45-49% of looked after children aged 5-17 years show signs of psychosocial adversity and psychiatric disorders, which is higher than the most disadvantaged children living in private households. Physical and mental problems increase at the time of leaving care.

      How much more evidence is needed?

One factor in the coalition government refusal to implement ‘Staying Put’ for all care leavers was cost. 
Let’s concentrate on cost for a few moments. Not cost in terms of lives, wasted potential or humanity, just cost to the Exchequer. It costs a great deal to take children into care and to look after them whilst they are there.  ECLCM believe that, given the data reproduced above, it costs a great deal more in the lifetime of children from the care system (those who do not commit suicide) after they have left care.

Too many are ill equipped to contribute to society; too many enter prison or claim benefit and too many have dependents who will themselves enter care. The ‘care family’ is failing and perhaps its greatest failure of all comes at the end of childhood in their teenage years when the ‘corporate parent’ decides they no longer need to be receiving care. For children in residential care, and indeed for many in foster care, the reality these young care leavers face is the ‘care cliff’. This point is often not long after their sixteenth or seventeenth birthday when they are all too often cast adrift, abandoned by their ‘care family’ to make their own way in the world. This time of life is when ‘good families’ are planning for their children to go off to university, start their first job or take a gap year – all supported by their parents commonly until they reach their mid to late twenties and often beyond. These lucky children will be supported and welcomed back ‘home’ long after that not shown the door and expected to survive despite all the disadvantages that being in the ‘care family’ has bestowed upon them.

Is the ‘care family’ a ‘troubled family’ as the government defined it? It certainly seems to meet all of the criteria as children progress through their childhood. Where it is most apparent just how troubled the troubled care family is when its children are sixteen, or seventeen. That’s when the ‘corporate parent’ says to them “You are not our children anymore”.

Every Child Leaving Care Matters and they deserve better than we their corporate parents deliver. That is why we ask you to sign our petition and support the campaign for Staying Put to be available to all young people leaving care at least until they are 21.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Staying Put – An ethical question?

So now the General Election is over, and we can reflect upon the impact the result will have upon care leavers.

From the ECLCM point of view, it looks like it will be business as usual at best. The last coalition government gave us ‘Staying Put’ exclusively for young people leaving foster care, thus excluding care leavers from residential care (and providing the raison d'ĂȘtre for the ECLCM campaign). It also perpetuated a system that makes life unbearably hard for many vulnerable care leavers trying to cope with minimal support in the community. It seems to us that a Tory government with the promise of severe welfare cuts is unlikely to make life any better for this massively disadvantaged group.
Many people fidget when we refer to the disadvantage statistics and how care leavers are massively over-represented in almost all of them.  They accuse us of being ‘negative’. That’s unfortunate, but sadly we are likely to see care leavers figuring even more prominently in these statistics in the next five years unless something changes quite quickly.

Yet things don’t change quickly for care leavers. When I left care in 1968, probably less than 1% of care leavers made it to university. Now it’s about 7%. In 47 years, only 6% more care leavers make it to university – a record for Society to be proud of? At that rate of progress, how long will it take before all care leavers receive the option to stay on in their placement until they are 21? 

I was one of the lucky 1% who eventually made it to university. I was one of the few care leavers of my generation who was able to qualify at university, in my case as a social worker, and was fortunate enough to return to university again many years later and graduate again with a first class honours degree. I wonder how many kids from care will be able to get on the government’s new  ‘Frontline’ social work courses  in the next few years, and how many will be able to afford to go anyway? These are serious questions as the new government takes shape.

I remember that on my social work course all those years ago we talked about ethics. Even now, I recall the debate about ‘Kantian’ and Utilitarian’ ethics.  If my memory serves, Kant said that there were two questions that we must ask ourselves whenever we decide to act. Firstly, could we rationally expect everybody else to act as we did?  If not, then he said that we shouldn’t act that way either.  Secondly, he said we must ask ourselves whether our actions respected the individuality of other people rather than simply using them for our own purposes.  If not, then it would be unethical for us to perform that action.

 “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end but always at the same time as an end.” – Immanuel Kant, ‘Groundwork of Metaphysic of Morals’

All people should always be treated individually as a person of value in their own right and not just used or ignored in order to achieve something else. The end can never justify the means.  Child care legislation over the last twenty or so years reflected this ethical perspective, aspiring to tackle discrimination and facilitate equal opportunities.

‘Utilitarian’ philosophers took a diametrically opposed ethical view. They said that every action should be judged by its consequences.  It was ethical, they said, to act in order to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. These philosophers recognised that the action in itself may be unfair or unjust, or some people may suffer, but if it resulted in the majority of people benefiting, then it was ultimately morally acceptable. 

How valid these debates still are! Those charities and organisations who support ‘Staying Put’ as it is currently embodied in statute clearly take the ‘utilitarian’ view. They tell us we must work with government ministers within the system and lobby for change in the longer term.  They argue that ‘Staying Put’ is progress because it could result in most care leavers benefiting more quickly by being allowed to ‘stay put’ in foster care until they are 21 - even though up to 9% of care leavers who don’t live in foster care won’t  be given the same options.  It is an honourable argument, particularly as they argue that they will continue to campaign to gain the same rights for all care leavers over time. We fear that ‘honour’ alone will bring little comfort to those excluded from this option.

Most of the ECLCM team are care leavers who have first-hand experience of what it means to be discharged from care as adolescents, unready, under supported and under resourced to cope in a hostile world. We identify very strongly with the feelings, fears and aspirations that young care leavers have. I guess that makes us ‘Kantians’. We don’t accept that the end justifies the means and that any young person failing, becoming ‘collateral damage’, is a price worth paying in order that the majority get improvements in their life opportunities. To make matters worse, we are hearing around the country that many young people in foster care who should qualify for ‘Staying Put’ are not receiving it. So much for ethics!

Our campaign is called ‘Every Child Leaving Care Matters’ – not just some children, and not some children based on a promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ that may never arrive. We want ALL young people leaving care wherever they are placed to be allowed an option to stay put in their placement until they are 21 if it meets their needs and wishes.  Is that too much to ask?