This is an edited version of a presentation given by Article 39’s Director, Carolyne Willow, at CoramBAAF’s ‘Future of care’ event on 28 April 2022.
The children’s social care review, whose final report and recommendations are due to be published shortly, has stated that “[t]he state is not the pushy parent children in care need”. I support this sentiment though if I was looking for a catch-all term I’d emphasise devotion and dedication instead, since too often it’s the lack of emotional connection and empathy with children that causes human systems to neglect and abandon them. Or to be cruel to them. Moreover, you have to love and understand children before you’re prepared to fight for them. For this, the state could learn a million lessons from the parents who battle education, health and social care systems to ensure their children enjoy their fundamental rights.
At the recent CoramBAAF event on the future of care, I set out five things I believe could help transform how we look after children in England when they cannot live with their families. These are headline, starter ideas and there’s lots more that can and should be done. The first proposal is a composite of several ideas so I’m cheating anyway!
First, I would have a statutory ‘children’s champion’ in every local authority who leads all of the services and functions related to ‘shared parenting’, the term I’d substitute for corporate parenting, which is impersonal and has had its day.
‘Shared’ refers to local authorities and families working together; and local authorities working with other organisations. I would unite all of the shared parenting functions within each local authority, so everyone concerned genuinely works as a single entity – modelled on the best of the arms-length local authority quality assurance and inspection units of the past. The purpose would be to ignite and then nurture a parenting culture which reflects the norms and expectations of wider society as well as the requirements the UK signed up to when our government ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991.
We have to start focusing on children’s happiness, to have dedicated teams with a common purpose of ensuring children feel loved, secure and that they matter; that they know they mean the world to those who are looking after them and are responsible for them.
While we can debate whether there are too many (or too few) children in care nationally, the reality is that most local authorities are directly responsible for no more than several hundred children at a time – smaller in size than an average secondary school. Every local authority’s children’s champion should know each of these children well – what they are like as a person, who they love and are loved by, their talents, their interests, why they entered care and why they are still in care, and what the future looks likely to hold for them. Striving to ensure each child is safe, happy and thriving should be the children’s champion’s number one concern.
I don’t know a single parent who, after their children have gone to bed at night, reflects on whether their child is ‘meeting their outcomes’. Let’s have a care system which is obsessed with asking whether children are happy, whether they are settled, have they fallen out with their friends, do they have friends, are they excited about a big birthday coming up, are they finding their place in the world. A care system that wants to know what’s making children angry and frightened, and sits with them until they feel safe and in control.
As well as tending to children’s ordinary needs, shared parenting must recognise the loss, the hurt and distress and struggles which children in care are frequently coping with, are trying to cope with, each and every day. Helping children to recover from past harms must be central to our care system. Those who look after children seven days a week, 365 days a year, must be valued and supported, including through high-quality training and education, and they must be far better remunerated.
Shared parenting must be there for every child (and family) that needs it, and for as long as they need it. Right now our law and central government policy provides that children in care aged 16 and 17 can manage without care where they live; we have the Home Office putting children who come to the UK without any parent or guardian into hotels because our care system claims it is full; we have children coming out of prison without homes to go to, and children being kept in prison because they have no homes to go to. We have teenagers in desperate need still being sent by councils to homelessness departments, as a means of shirking their caring responsibilities and managing unrealistic budgets. And then there are the official eject buttons at 18, 21 and 25 – obsolete rationing devices making children feel anxious, alone and unwanted and which cause enduring harm.
I would put rebuilding, repairing and nurturing (existing and new) family relationships at the heart of the shared parenting service. Many will recall when the Children Act 1989 concept of ‘contact’ replaced ‘access’. It’s now time to focus on relationships and children’s feelings and connections. No child or adult should leave the care system without people on whom they can reasonably depend for the rest of their lives.
Second, I would reformulate the Department for Work and Pensions so it becomes something like the Department for Child and Family Support, Work and Pensions. Granted, this would lose its slip-off-the-tongue acronym, but I believe this kind of change is necessary to put children and families properly into our government structures. I would introduce new (much higher) levels of child benefit – a universal, non-stigmatising form of social security – for parents and family members whose children are in care, to ease pressure on them and to help the child’s return home whenever possible. This could also work for kinship carers and there may be an argument for foster carers to receive their standard allowances this way too. Over many years, young people have reported discomfort at foster carers being ‘paid’ to look after them. Moving this to our universal child benefit system may help to dissipate that. Child benefit could obviously continue well beyond 18.
Third, I would have a statutory code of practice – these already exist for the police, for mental health and for special educational needs – which sets out all of the key rights of care experienced children and adults, and their families, and the obligations of those who work in shared parenting. The code would not replace primary and secondary legislation; its purpose would be to clearly communicate what is expected and required.
Fourth, and linked to the statutory code of practice, I would have nationally agreed minimum levels of financial support for care experienced children and adults, which individual local authorities would have discretion to surpass – but below these levels no shared parenting service should fall. This would cover expenditure such as setting up home allowances, driving lessons, further and higher education. Organisations run by and for care experienced people should be consulted on these levels; indeed, they ought to be given the official role of advising government just as the Low Pay Commission recommends minimum wage rates.
Finally, I would remove planning restrictions on the opening of children’s homes and reimagine group-based living for children and young people, which integrates and builds upon the best of fostering and residential care. I would remove profit from children’s care because children’s best interests must be the organising goal. Fundamentally, I believe local authorities walking away from directly looking after children has desensitised them and led to them tolerating the intolerable for too many years – 42% of children in care now live outside their home local authorities.
Looking after children well, especially teenagers in distress, can be tremendously difficult and there’s no doubt local authorities abandoned residential care in the 1990s and onwards due largely to them having to face up to the scandals of systemic abuse. (The purchaser-provider split is part of the story too, of course). But we are in different times, there has been a long period to reflect and recover from the shock, pain and guilt of letting children down so badly. It’s time local authorities got back to caring, properly caring, for children on a day-to-day basis. When children in our local communities need us to step in to look after and protect them, we should be there with open arms and ready to build on everything and everyone that matters to them. That should mean a child only needs to leave their local community in exceptional circumstances. Our care system has, over recent years, become inured to the abnormality of children having to leave behind their family and friends, their neighbourhood, school and local connections. What a travesty it would be for the care review to exacerbate this by centralising services and functions. Let’s stay as close to the child and their local community as possible.
Human beings show the best of our humanity when we are connected and feel close to others. There are countless examples of individual carers and professionals who fight for children like there is no tomorrow. Every story of a child thriving in care, of which there are many, is a story of a child who was loved and mattered. The problem is that organisations take on their own momentum and too readily lose sight of why they exist.
This is why we need the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty built on dignity, respect and equality for every child. It is the strongest antidote to the inertia and fatalism that can fester within organisations and slow things down for children, or worse – not asking for something because it’s deemed to be unrealistic; not contradicting received wisdom because it’ll make you unpopular; not challenging unkindnesses or injustices because it’s easier to look away. The treaty sets out the entitlements of every child, no matter where they were born, and gives vital additional protections to those who are separated from their parents. It demands that children are respected as human beings with feelings, thoughts and perspectives which must be taken seriously wherever they are – at home, in school, when decisions about their life are being made and within public policy.
I’ll never forget the passion and eloquence of Kathleen Marshall, Scotland’s first Children’s Commissioner, when she came to speak in the House of Commons to help children’s rights advocates make the case for a similar post in England. She said that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child protects politicians and other decision-makers from veering away from what’s best for children and keeps us collectively good. If the care review really wants a care system fit for children then it’s to children’s rights it must look.