Children in care - how many reviews are needed before we get it right?

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 2 December 2016 in Inside Politics

Holyrood looks at the latest review of the care for vulnerable children in the context of Scotland having the highest number of children coming into care in the UK

In a dystopian future, an all-pervasive omniscient machine monitors our every thought and deed and feeds on children.

The children lie trapped and silent until they are grappled by a faceless entity and liquidated to keep the system running, until a brave few wake up and fight back.

This horrific scene from The Matrix isn’t too dissimilar from the apocalyptic picture critics have painted of Scotland’s child protection system.


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The Scottish Government, they argue, has created “an army of state snoopers” with its named person legislation, turning health visitors and teachers  into curtain twitchers and child catchers.

The children are plucked and fed into the care system, releasing a steady stream of public money into private care providers and subsidy hungry charities, they say.

Meanwhile, only six per cent of children in care go to university, nearly half will suffer mental health issues, half of the adult prison population are people who lived in care when they were growing up, and a young person who has been in care is twenty times more likely to be dead by the time they are 25 than a young person who hasn’t. 

Maggie Mellon, former vice-chair of the British Association of Social Workers, said: “Care services are lucrative, they’re floated on the stock market, you’ve got private foster care agencies, residential care homes.

“Whether it is for-profit, not-for-profit or charities, there is a huge amount of money involved and they’re making the revenue out of it.

“They gobble up revenue and the outcomes are terrible. This is public money.”

Susan Deacon, a former Labour minister who has also advised the present Scottish Government on childcare, said: “We set up a system that might have kept children safe until they left care, but it certainly didn’t equip them practically, educationally or emotionally.

“We might have spent a lot of money looking after them in nice premises, perhaps with people they got on with, but the system was not focused on giving the child a stable loving relationship.”

Duncan Dunlop, CEO of child advocacy organisation Who Cares? Scotland, said: “If you look at some of the care organisations around the world – Quarriers, Aberlour, Barnardos – their roots are actually way back in the Industrial Revolution around the 1850s.

“With urbanisation, people realised that there were a lot of waifs and strays that needed looked after and the structures of our care system were created.

“Then it was about how do we actually save these children, but also make them economically efficient beings for the Empire. It wasn’t until 1970 that we stopped sending ships of these children to Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

“Around the Second World War, you had the beginnings of the welfare state and the Beveridge Report which made clear that we had to give back to the working classes who fought two wars.
“It didn’t just stop at the NHS, it was about providing services but unfortunately, I don’t think it was the best outcome for care.

“A child’s fundamental need is not a service - not just food, water and shelter - the child needs a relationship and love.

“A service is not necessarily designed to give you love.”

He added: “The care system has basically maintained itself and the status quo for years.

“I’m not talking about in a planned conspiratorial manner, but the current care system, whether it is the social work or a care provider, has incrementally tried to improve little bits of legislation and guidance.

“They’ve not tried to look at a different reality or a different way of doing it.”

If this is the matrix of child protection we have created, where then are the brave band of heroes who are going to smash the system and replace it with something more human?
Nicola Sturgeon has stepped up to the plate, and she believes she has found an innovative solution.

“We have to get it right for every child,” she said in an emotional speech to the SNP conference in October, as a group of care-experienced young people looked on from the front row.

“These young people have challenged me to accept Who Cares? Scotland’s pledge to listen to 1,000 care-experienced young people over the next two years, and then to use what they tell me to help make their lives better. 

“I’ve accepted that challenge.”

Sturgeon announced an independent review of the care system, to look at the underpinning legislation, practices, culture and ethos of care which will be driven by those who have direct experience of it.

“This is not something that any other country has ever done before,” she said. 

“We will do it here in Scotland first. The young people who speak to me make a simple but powerful point. They say the system feels like it is designed only to stop things happening. 

“Of course, it must have safeguards and protections, but children don’t need a system that just stops things happening to them – they need one that makes things happen for them.

“A system that supports them to become the people they can be. One that gives them a sense of family. Of belonging. Of love. 

“My view is simple: every young person deserves to be loved.”

But Deacon is sceptical about the need for another review.

As the first minister for health and community care in Holyrood’s inaugural Labour government, she oversaw a number of reforms and later, having left elected politics, she went on to write a report on childcare called ‘Joining the Dots’ for SNP education secretary Mike Russell in 2011.

Five years ago, she called on the Scottish Government to bring people involved in childcare together to make improvements, but she believes the Scottish Government is still simply re-articulating policy.

“If you look over the last 17 years since, you will find enough policies and reviews to paper the walls of the Scottish Parliament several times over,” she said.

“The question is: are you actually bringing about improvement and change?

“Sadly, I think this emphasis on constantly articulating and rearticulating policy, commissioning yet more research and having yet another consultation or a parliamentary committee of inquiry or whatever, that takes us further back from actually taking improvement forward.

“Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

“The amount of energy that is being tied up in the activity that policymakers and professionals are very happy to engage in doesn’t impact on people’s lives and in the services that they receive in the way that I think it should.”

Mellon, a former director of children and family services at Children 1st, said: “You now have two reviews.

“One is the child protection review that was announced by Angela Constance several months ago, and the other one was Nicola Sturgeon announcing the review of the care system.

“The number of children coming into care in Scotland is the highest across the whole of the UK, which already is amongst the highest in Europe.

“However, the child protection figures haven’t moved at all, in terms of children who are registered ‘at risk’.

“It is to do with poverty, and it is also to do with not having services that support families so the children come into care.

“When Nicola Sturgeon said she is going to review the care system, I thought, you can’t actually look at that without looking at why children come into care.

“That is a huge question. Why do children come into care? What are the circumstances that have brought children into care?

“People might say it’s alcohol and drug abuse, and that’s often a presenting issue, but what is that related to?”

She added: “We now have got a huge amount of children under five going through the children’s hearing system.

“My own view is that the system is not fit for purpose. 

“We’ve got laypeople who are making incredibly serious decisions about whether children go under supervision, [have] contact with their birth families, adoption, really serious decisions being made without any evidence base.

“It’s part of a western-world approach which is increasingly investigative and imposes the state between children and their parents.

“The Scottish Government’s ‘Getting It Right For Every Child’ (GIRFEC) policy was directly imported from England, where they call it ‘Every Child Matters’, and that was directly brought from America where it is called ‘No Child Left Behind’.

“It is a failing model of child protection.

“It’s like continually pulling bodies out of a river without looking upstream to where the people are falling in, if you like.”

The Scottish Government, and other western societies, are now creating “a net-widening situation which scoops more and more people into the net”, she said.

“Everybody is now scared of child protection. 

“It’s not just social workers that you won’t want at your door, it will soon be health visitors, teachers, everybody, all terrified of missing the child that is going to ruin their career by being killed.

“We’re creating a high-risk society, but in fact it’s a huge sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“A risk-averse attitude is just the wrong way to go about it, but government has become risk averse, the staff are risk averse.

“The evidence is named person is just increasing the number of families that come under suspicion and investigation.

“Yet, the numbers of children who are actually abused by their families are not rising.”

Andy Bilson, a social researcher and former director of the Centre for Europe’s Children, believes named person will increase suspicion but not increase protection or the number of children identified at risk.

Bilson said: “There has been a huge increase in investigations around the world, and an even bigger increase in investigations that find nothing.

“In England, Australia and Canada, you are seeing a huge increase relating to a wider interpretation of who is at risk.

“We are expanding the whole notion of what risk is.

“We are not finding any more children who are harmed in terms of physical harm or sexual abuse.

“In England, we have had a 93 per cent increase in investigations, but only a five per cent increase in the number of children who were found to have been sexually abused or physically abused.

“Most of that increase was in false or unwarranted investigations, and in investigations that find that children have been exposed to domestic violence and neglect.

“My argument would be that level of investigation, and in England my research shows that one in five children born in 2009/10 were referred to children’s services by the time they were aged five.

“Half of them were suspected of abuse. This is huge. It’s not just a few. 

“If you’re in the poorest 10 per cent of the country, it’s likely that 45 per cent of all children are referred before they’re five, and only half of all referrals happen before children are five.

“Named person will cause a massive amount of intrusion into families which won’t actually help them.

“I’ve just done a study in Australia looking back over the last 20 years, and in the last three years they introduced a new policy about promoting wellbeing.

“What you see happening there is the number of referrals rocket, the number of investigations rocket, but the number of children who were found to be harmed stayed absolutely the same.

“It leads you to be much more suspicious.

“Although it is a good thing to promote wellbeing, if you’re doing it as part of a child protection system that is going to move into investigations, you will just suck a lot more children into the system so you will end up with a lot more investigations.

“A large proportion of very poor people will end up too scared to take their child to the doctors or the authorities for fear of getting referred and investigated.

“We are really exaggerating the risk. The National Institute for Care and Excellence say any child with a bruise under six months old or who is not yet crawling should be regarded as the subject of suspected abuse.

“When you look at the research, it shows that in any one day, five per cent of all children have an innocent bruise, and over a period of eight weeks, 27 per cent of children will have an innocent bruise.

“If we implement that sort of policy we’re going to suspect all children.” 

But Dunlop, whose charity Who Cares? Scotland inspired the latest Scottish Government review, believes that Sturgeon is on to something and that she is both politically and emotionally invested in it.

“A pressure group has found their voice, and when a collective group finds their voice and realises that their rights are being impinged, they decide to do something about it,” he said.

“The only way things changed for black people, gay people, disabled people and women – even though they’re all not there yet, but they’re getting there – is because they own their identity.

“This opportunity has never happened anywhere on this planet, as far as we know, where a group of care-experienced people say: ‘This is how we want to make things better.’

“You have abuse survivors but this is a very different conversation.

“Care-experienced people will be at the centre of this review, at the centre of the conversation with Nicola Sturgeon, they will be driving it.

“We don’t see any need for cynicism at this juncture.

“Nicola Sturgeon made a really courageous and ambitious statement.

“She has owned these young people and their issues, and it’s very hard to walk away from them once she’s owned these issues.

“They responded to her saying, ‘You’re kinda our mum’. She now has about 15,500 kids, and she hears that.

“She wrote them a letter addressed to ‘My children’. She was so moved, and you can see it, the compassion in her as an individual. You can’t not be moved.

“It’s not just her. Kez Dugdale really engaged with the subject too. She gets it totally. She has heard it, felt it, and brought it to parliament last year.”

Dugdale has welcomed Nicola Sturgeon’s review and believes she had a hand in inspiring the conversation that Scotland is now having with its looked-after children.

“In my first conference speech as Scottish Labour leader, I voiced my concerns that our system is failing children in care in ways it fails nobody else,” she said.

“These are all our children. The state is the parent and we pay the bills.

“Too often society writes them off as bad kids, worthy of little sympathy, rather than fundamentally good kids who find themselves where they are because of a life that has been free from care and full of neglect.

“When I repeatedly talk about my desire to close the gap between the richest and the rest, and when I urge the SNP to seek to widen access to our finest institutions, I do so with these young people in mind.

“It’s encouraging that Nicola Sturgeon is listening to what Labour has been saying. We welcome any move towards a system that is more flexible, because for too long, policy has been written to fit on election leaflets rather than around the lives of working families.”

Dunlop believes Scotland is witnessing “an awakening of a whole movement” where care-experienced people speak up for themselves and start demanding their rights, rather than being told what is best for them by a detached system. 

“It’s fascinating to be part of,” he said.

“This is literally a globally phenomenal movement where you have a first minister of a country saying she is going to listen to their views.

“It is unbelievable what this might create.”

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