THE Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield OBE, has just issued a series of reports showing how the residential social care system is ‘broken and is failing many of the most vulnerable children’.
The contents are frankly horrifying. If it was an account from pre-perestroika Eastern Europe we might not have been surprised. But it is not. It is in 21st century Great Britain that children are being ‘dumped’ in rat-infested care homes, that ‘thousands of young people are being failed by the state’, and that the children who are most at risk of falling through gaps in the system are vulnerable to becoming victims of criminal or sexual exploitation.
Additionally, the ‘growing use of private provision in the children’s care system reveals a fragmented, uncoordinated and irrational system, which allows companies with complex ownership structures to make significant profits’.
The question of which system of care provision to adopt is indeed an important one, but it can all too easily turn into a political debate about what to do with children, rather than what to do for them. Rather we should be asking an even more fundamental question: why are so many children in need of state care and how have we come to place such a low value on their wellbeing?
Recently, for the first time, the number of children in state care reached 100,000. This is an astonishing growth since 2006 when there were just over 60,000 in care. It is in part explained by the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking youngsters which increased by 11 per cent to 5,070 over the last year, about 6 per cent of all children looked after in England.
In addition councils have seen a 53 per cent increase in children on child protection plans in the past decade, and a 139 per cent increase in serious cases where the local authority believes a child may be suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm. The age of children in care has been steadily rising over the past five years. Over-tens account for 63 per cent of all in care, with teenagers being six times more likely than younger children to be in residential or secure children’s homes, which is significantly more expensive than foster care.
Some of these young people ‘in care’, we are told, have felt as if they were in prison. It should be a matter of shame to the government that their numbers are now higher than the prison population; a population that far too many of these will tragically go on to expand.
If this is ironic, so too is the concept of ‘looked after children’ when the most obvious reason for their poor prospects is that they are not being looked after by either the State or by their natural families. However much the number of these neglected children rises, the basic cause – the lack of a stable family life based on long-term commitment, aka marriage – continues to be steadfastly ignored.
For decades, marriage has been treated as an embarrassing relic of a less ‘civilised’ age and, without any social recognition or reward for it in the tax system, continues to plummet to record lows. Despite the consequences for children it appears to matter not one jot to Government – or indeed Anne Longfield – that marriage is now a privilege that only the better off can afford.
The Children’s Commissioner castigates the Government for ignoring the plight of these children and for not knowing what to do with them, saying that the Government’s failure to respond to previous critical reports suggests a ‘deep-rooted institutional ambivalence’ to the plight of children in care.
In response, a Department for Education spokesman trotted out the usual platitudes and promises: ‘The Education Secretary has been clear that no child should be denied the opportunity for a loving, stable family life, or be “bounced around” the care system in accommodation that does not meet their needs. We have also set out that children under the age of 16 should not be living in unregulated homes.’
The script is no doubt very similar to that used 15 years ago when people were alarmed at 60,000 children in care.
Cold comfort for abandoned children in wholly inadequate accommodation are government promises of a ‘bold, broad and independently-led Care Review’ to ‘support improvements in the children’s social care system’ or that ‘this will build on the millions we have invested in secure children’s homes and in projects designed to increase capacity and improve how places for these children are commissioned.’
The Government presumably are aware of the eye-watering financial cost of children being dumped into care (sorry, their ‘investment’ in children). It amounted to almost £8.8billion in 2017/18 – an increase of nearly £370million in a single year. When has throwing good money after bad ever solved a problem?
Isn’t it now sufficiently urgent for them to think outside the box and start to recognise their role in perpetuating this problem of neglected children and look to break this cycle by incentivising marriage and family stability for once? They might ask at the same time whether the closure of Barnardo’s and other children’s homes was such a good idea after all.