Raising questions about when children are taken into care
“Are we failing Scotland’s looked-after children?” That was the challenging question Stewart Maxwell MSP left hanging during the parliamentary debate on the Education and Culture Committee’s inquiry into the educational attainment of looked-after children.
If we are being honest to ourselves, and to children, then the only answer we can give is, yes. Despite best efforts, in the thirteen years since devolution, governments of all hues have struggled to successfully address this issue. The committee’s inquiry earlier this year found that while 56 per cent of school leavers gained five or more qualifications, only 4.7 per cent of children ‘looked after away from home’ and 0.5 per cent of children ‘looked after at home’ achieved the same result.
Perhaps the committee shouldn’t have been so “naive” but it found these statistics “deeply shocking,” says Maxwell. The results – ten times worse if you are ‘looked after away from home’ and 100 times worse if you are ‘looked after at home’ – are not just marginal, he adds: “It is such a vast difference that we felt we had to look into the impact that it is having on the life chances of those children.”
For its first piece of work following the summer recess the committee has decided to return to the issue with a follow-on inquiry examining decisions made about when or if a child should be removed from the family home. There are many important subjects that the committee could have chosen to focus on, but when discussing their work programme for the coming year, Maxwell explains it felt as if the findings of the previous inquiry were hanging over them and members realised this was an issue that they simply weren’t finished with.
At first glance, the new inquiry seems to stray a little beyond their remit. However, Maxwell argues that they chose to focus on the decision-making process as during the previous inquiry this struck them as the pivotal point in determining future outcomes.
“That is the turning point in a child’s life. It spins on that particular decision about whether they stay at home, whether they move into foster care or a home, whether they are moved and returned – these decisions at that point of life, how quickly it happens, how early it happens, those are the things that seemed to us in our initial inquiry that had the biggest impact on educational outcomes.”
The Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland (CELCIS), which was established last year, contributed to the first inquiry and its director, Jennifer Davidson, says she welcomes the committee’s on-going commitment to improving outcomes for lookedafter children. The Scottish Government’s Looked After Children Strategic Implementation Group (LACSIG) and CELCIS are currently supporting a three-year programme of work with local authorities and national agencies to improve care planning and permanence arrangements, and Davidson says the inquiry’s focus on the effectiveness of decision-making for looked-after children and young people is of “great importance.”
She continues: “We have encouraged the inquiry to widen its scope to consider what constitutes good quality services and support to children on the ‘edge of care’ and families ‘in need’, in order to ensure that preventative and early intervention polices and strategies are considered.”
She says she hopes the committee will acknowledge that decision-making processes to remove a child from parental care are “complex and multi-faceted”, adding that, “sound professional judgement is the cornerstone of good decision-making and children, young people and parents must be part of decisionmaking processes.”
Martin Crewe, director of Barnardo’s Scotland, also welcomes the committee’s decision to return to the issue and says the simple premise that we are not yet getting this right is the best starting point.
“We are really pleased that they have focused in on this issue. I think if you are looking at what makes a difference, a real difference, for children we know this is major. So our hope is that the committee will take quite a bold stance on this and say we are focusing on what is best for children and young people and what we need is some fairly firm action on this.”
In its call for evidence, the committee set out four main areas that it hopes to address during the inquiry: the consistency of decision-making processes across the country; the extent to which decisions on whether to remove a child are influenced by resource constraints; whether the speed of the decision-making is appropriate; and whether there are any particular parental risk factors, for example, drug or alcohol misuse, that would create a presumption that a child should be removed.
In its response, Crewe says that Barnardo’s Scotland will be calling for a national assessment framework that can be used consistently across the country.
“It would be good to try and simply pool knowledge to say what is the best process here because local authorities and processes tend to be different across different parts of the country and I think there is a case for saying, could we come up with a national assessment model and guidelines based on all of that experience and best practice, and draw it together.”
The needs of the child are “paramount”, he states, and so we need to act within their timescale.
“One of the things that really struck me when I was doing the early years work was if we are saying, particularly 0-2 years, is a crucial time in child development, then that is 100 weeks.
“The problem is if we are tackling parental problems we have to work within the child’s timescale because every week counts, that is the reality. And what we’ve allowed to happen is that a number of the processes and challenges, which are in there for various good reasons, actually lead to a lot of delay.”
In many cases there is still “a bias of optimism” towards the family, he says.
“I think we should put in more support to families with very young children, but equally we should be quite decisive when we need to be. Because the reality is if, for whatever reason, parents can’t put the child first, whether it is substance misuse or domestic abuse or whatever, that is a major block to parenting. Every parent knows that we have to make sacrifices. I think you give people a chance, but if they don’t take that then I think we have to take decisive action.”
Crewe is glad the committee is addressing the challenging question of whether there should be a presumption to remove a child from a home where risk factors are present, however, he adds that he is “slightly concerned” that it might be “too simplistic” a solution.
“The reality is there is an awful lot of drug users and alcohol abusers in Scotland who manage to bring up their kids fairly satisfactorily. It isn’t a clear cut – you have a drug problem therefore you are a bad parent. It is often the lifestyle and the behaviours around the problem that are the determining factor.”
There is no silver-bullet solution, he says.
“Can you say there is one test that says whether a parent is good enough or not? You can’t. I think the best we can do is have consistent guidelines as to what is important in the process and that we keep rigorously focused on the child. Then we make the courageous decisions when we need to.”
The presumption question is the most difficult the committee faces, agrees Maxwell, admitting that he himself doesn’t know the answer. However, he explains that it was one the committee felt it couldn’t shy away from.
“No two cases are the same. There are those who are regular drug users who do not live chaotic lifestyles. There are those who are addicted to these substances who lead dreadful lifestyles. So I don’t think you can have an absolute automatic rule on these things. But at the same time, I think the vast majority of the public find it difficult to understand why a child would be left in a drug-abusing home.
“I think there is a question there about whether or not people who are in those circumstances have the ability, given their personal life circumstances, to properly care for a child and I think that is a very, very difficult question to answer because of the variation. But I think it is one we should face up to and see whether or not, at the very least, if it is not an automatic decision there should be a weighting towards the decision and perhaps that should be something that should help towards making an earlier decision.”
As part of the previous inquiry the committee took the unusual step of holding its parliamentary debate before its final report was published, something that Maxwell says proved to be a “very useful and successful experiment.”
“I’ve been here a few years now and I felt the way we usually do the reports, as you’ll know, is you call for evidence, people come into committee, you write the report, you publish the report, do a debate which contains the same people who were on the committee and a few others who just talk about the report and then the government minister responds.
“I felt that was a bit of a dead-end process to a great extent. I felt, surely, the debate could be part of the process and contribute something.”
The committee received some “welcome, helpful and insightful” contributions during the debate, says Maxwell, and it is a process he is keen to repeat. However, he says the committee is also determined to hear the views and experiences of children and young people during this inquiry.
“It is one of the things universally the committee felt that our last inquiry spent a lot of time in the committee room in the Parliament talking to professionals and that was very helpful, but we spent nowhere near enough time taking evidence from those directly affected.”
The committee wants this inquiry to be different, he says. It is his expectation that the committee will break-up into smaller groups and take evidence locally to make it as easy as possible for young people to come forward and give evidence in circumstances they find more comfortable.
Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, Tam Baillie, has long advocated that children should be involved and listened to, and he spoke to Holyrood during the summer of how he hopes to use his position to be a ‘conduit’ to help children and young people engage more meaningfully with parliamentarians.
Today, he says he welcomes this inquiry as at its heart lies the issue of basic rights.
“Taking a children’s rights approach to intervention in the early years would support child protection authorities in making decisions early enough to make a difference, a factor that is particularly important in the context of substance-misusing parents,” he says.
Conversely, delays in decision-making can result in children oscillating between care and home, disrupting their lives and impacting on their attachment process, he argues.
“In my view, there is sometimes an overly optimistic view taken of the capacity of vulnerable families to change, the longstanding prevailing practice places an emphasis on keeping families together and supporting them to do so. While I support the concept, there is evidence to illustrate that interventions with such families can fail.
“I believe a more consistent focus on the rights of the child would bring urgency to the process of making decisions in their best interest, rather than the sometimes misplaced optimism of potential change in the family,” he says, adding that it is a central tenet of the UNCRC that the child’s best interests are placed at the centre of the decision-making process.
Similarly, Duncan Dunlop, chief executive, Who Cares? Scotland, says we need to strip right back to the basics and critically appraise what we are doing and who we are doing it for.
“For me, the issue that we are really struggling to deal with in our care system is it is not engineered around the child or the young person. They are not included to a greater degree, or even informed properly of why they are in care in an appropriate manner, or really feel able to have any influence in their care planning.”
He continues: “Some of them will have numerous care placements – being in double figures is normal – and we have to bear in mind what it means when you move a care placement. It actually means you are potentially moving school. You are potentially losing your whole network of friends. And it is not just the family that was unable to care for you, it is the grandparents who might not be fit to have you living with them but you had a really close relationship with, which is potentially gone.”
At the moment he believes we are making a “paltry” attempt to address their needs and expresses his concern at what he feels is a lack of “consciousness” within Scottish society as to the depth of the problems looked-after children face.
Speaking to young people and care leavers about their experiences reveals both the tragic reality that is many of their lives, and the role we can unconsciously play in it, he says.
“There were people who told us things like, ‘From the age of four I remember never being invited to a birthday party.’ That is stuff that we do. That is stuff that we say about the ‘bad kid’ from the ‘bad family’. ‘You’re not having him in here. He is not crossing our threshold.’ ‘There is a smelly kid in school, I’m not sitting beside him.’
“That is stuff that all of us as citizens are doing day in day out to layer on the discrimination and marginalise further and further these poor precious characters in our society. And have we even woken up the consciousness to the situation yet? Uh-ah. Not even vaguely.”
Looked-after children are “without doubt the most discriminated group in our society,” he says, citing another example of a community objecting to a planning decision to relocate a children’s unit into their village as further evidence of society’s response to this group of children.
Illustrating his point, he recalls a child whose mother committed suicide when he was one month old.
“She had postnatal depression. His dad remarried and his stepmother, who he dearly loved, ended up committing suicide when he was eight. His dad couldn’t cope so he turned to drink, ended up involved with the police and went to prison. He then went to live with his grandmother who died when he was 12 and he then went into care in a residential unit. And that is the type of child who those people are saying ‘not in my back yard’ to.
“How the hell is that legitimate in our society to say ‘I don’t want that little rapscallion living here?’ What sort of shite is this in Scotland in the 21st century? Do we believe we can discriminate at that level? And the reason they can do it, why? Because these children have no voice,” he says as his passionate outburst, punctuated by staccato thumps on the table in front of him, reaches its crescendo.
Dunlop is clearly an enthusiastic advocate for looked-after children who sees the lack of public outrage on behalf of these children as baffling.
“We need to shine a big broad spotlight on it and we need to engage the public in saying we care about this issue and we want to see change. And the politicians need to say we need to be leaders in driving that change and I see this process as potentially being part of that.”
He gives credit to the committee for highlighting this issue but is also adamant that the inquiry can’t just end with “another nice report”.
Maxwell concurs, saying that the committee has no intention of simply going through the motions.
“That cannot be what we are about and if it is what we are about then we are not doing our job properly,” he states.
While he doesn’t want to overemphasise what one report can achieve, he is hopeful that it can shine a light on some sensitive and difficult questions that society faces.
Dunlop also expresses his wish that committee members will be in some way changed by what they learn during the inquiry and feel inspired to go on to champion looked-after children within the Parliament.
His hope seems to mirror Maxwell’s own.
“When I was a child, my mother worked in Glasgow with children who were in these circumstances. It was a subject that was discussed in our family home so I’ve had a longterm interest in this subject. I would hope that I gain a much deeper understanding of what is happening to these children, a much greater understanding of the pressures on the professionals who are working with these children, because I have to say that I am absolutely full of admiration for people who work in this area. I personally couldn’t do it, I don’t think. So I want to get a better understanding of the pressures they face and a very clear understanding of the administrative process that is undergone by local authorities and others in reaching a decision.
“At the end of that, I hope that I will be able to, as an individual, contribute here in the Parliament with a much deeper understanding of the process and hopefully push, as an individual Member of Parliament, the Government – whether it is the current government or a future government – to keep this as a central focus of the work that they do.”