What’s the point of ‘care’?

The other night I saw a Panorama documentary which covered the issue of children going missing from the care system in the UK. I had been expecting this to be about children who were in care after being trafficked, and disappearing into the hands of the gangs who trafficked them (mostly Vietnamese), but no — this was about teenagers, mostly, who go missing from children’s homes and very little effort is being made to find them. It made me wonder what the point is of keeping them in the care homes in the first place. (The documentary can be watched online here for the next year or so; there is an article here which discusses the issue.)

They discussed four teenagers, among them one of the victims of the Oxford child grooming scandal, and interviewed the parents of a boy who had been put into care voluntarily because of his unmanageable behaviour, including running away and setting fire to his bedroom, had been moved continually and the grandparents of a girl who had died, aged 17, of a drug overdose while missing from a care home. They also interviewed the people who ran a small children’s home which had been struggling to maintain standards while being forced to cut costs, but had decided to close because they were not willing to trim any further. There are a lot of children’s homes in run-down areas where large houses are cheap, like Margate in Kent, which are a long way from where a lot of the children come from and some of those places are also popular with released sex offenders. It noted that the biggest single provider of children’s homes in the UK is owned by a company headquartered in Delaware, a US state which functions as a tax haven, not requiring any transparency in corporate accounts.

I previously saw a Panorama programme in which a young boy named Conner was shown becoming very frustrated because social services were not facilitating his contact with his mother, whose wedding he had to miss because they did not have the staff to take him to it, and ultimately attacked his social worker’s car when the panel did not deliver the result he wanted, i.e. unlimited contact with her. (She had run away with him several years previously, but had since settled down with someone else and had another child, who was not in care; his older sister, who was 17, also had unlimited contact.) They reported that his behaviour had been the cause of several moves from one foster family or care home to another, and that if he was to leave the home he was at while that programme was made, he would be moved to Grimsby, a considerable distance from where his family lives (somewhere near Coventry).

Picture of Kesgrave Hall, a Georgian mansion in England. The building is surrounded by a field on the right and a set of grassy slopes and an outbuilding on the left. There is a driveway in the foreground and cars parked in the car park behind the building, in the left of the picture I spent my early teenage years in a special school with a number of disturbed boys a lot like Conner, some of whom were also being denied parental contact, and the Nottinghamshire boy featured is exactly the sort of boy who would have been placed there. (For the record, I agree with the council’s decision not to allow him to be identified in the programme; as frustrating as this must have been for the parents, it does nobody any good to have one’s name permanently associated with arson committed at age 12 or 13, and even long after the programme is taken off the web, his name might have been mentioned on websites like this which any future potential employer could find with a simple Google search. I’ve not identified any old boy from my school by name, with the exception of one serial sex offender.) I can only imagine what effect the behaviour of Conner and others like them, perhaps this Nottinghamshire lad, have on others in the care system with him. It is hugely ironic that if teenagers in care run away and do not arrive at a place of safety but rather at, say, a crack house, not much effort will be made to find them, but if they run away and go home, they will be brought back post haste, and if they run away with their parents, the latter can expect a stiff jail term and even less contact. While keeping children in a place of safety if they cannot be looked after at home makes obvious sense, keeping unwilling teenagers makes much less. They will run away and end up on the streets or get into trouble (as running away to a better place of safety is impossible), or get involved in drugs and, worse, bring it back and influence the others, or bully other children or assault staff. The foster home or children’s home ceases to be a place of safety.

As it is clearly impossible to stop them running away unless they are in one of the tiny and dwindling numbers of secure homes, they should change the rules for teenagers, or at least those aged 14 or more, in care: they should stop keeping them against their will in non-emergency situations if there is any other home to go to, and their demands regarding contact should be honoured, except in the most extreme situations (e.g. the person they insist on contact with is a violent or sexual criminal). Youths that age are above the age of criminal responsibility and have some ability to make decisions, and they also have the ability to make a misery of the lives of those they blame for frustrating them, and those around them (often younger and smaller). The care system should not be clinging onto these youths; it’s cruel, both to them and to others forced to live with them.

However, the programme also showed how the system is crying out for better funding and for an end to cost-cutting and the profit motive in childcare. There need to be more secure homes for those in danger of involvement in crime or who are in danger of sexual abuse by people living near the homes (as in the grooming cases), more specialised school places for those with behaviour that cannot be managed at home, and more homes (secure and otherwise) in the locality where the children come from. Currently, there are only 17 secure children’s homes in the entire country (there are none in Oxfordshire, for example). As I’ve said here before, not all children in care need to be in secure accommodation and it shouldn’t be assumed that there is an automatic danger to just being outside home, but there needs to be more of it as if someone has a history of running away and if they do, will suffer serious harm (like rape), there is a duty to provide secure accommodation. Much as it’s tempting to think that the closure of places like my school represented a new era of enlightenment, it really only represented cost-effective cutting. All in all, there needs to be more funding and less cost-cutting. You cut, the children bleed.

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