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A time to care: How the tragic story of Blake Ross highlights a system that is failing

Blake Ross was just 13 when he went missing. Picture: Police Scotland

A time to care: How the tragic story of Blake Ross highlights a system that is failing

There’s one story of the last week that has haunted me. It’s actually one that has haunted me for years. And it should haunt us all.

It’s the story of a young boy found dying on a bus Edinburgh in 2017. And the nightmarish detail of what we now know happened to him. 

Blake Ross was just 13 and in the care of the council when he left the residential unit he was living in on Saturday 11 February 2017.

He left without asking permission, without saying where he was going and vitally, without his medication for diabetes.

He was 13 but functioned like a much younger child. A care worker described him as a “lovely, lovely lad. With a low attention span.”

Later that afternoon, the police were alerted that Blake was missing and they made appeals through the media.

That night, a complete stranger, Derek McNeill, a convicted paedophile, approached Blake as he walked alone through the city’s Wester Hailes and took him back to his filthy flat, where he kept him for two days.

We don’t fully know what horrendous things might have happened to Blake during those 48 hours or what he may have witnessed, but without his life-saving insulin, we do know his health began to deteriorate badly, and on Monday 13 February, McNeill callously put him on a bus, paid his fare, and left him.

As the lad became more ill, a bus driver raised the alarm. But despite desperate attempts to save his life, Blake died in Edinburgh’s Sick Kids’ Hospital later that day.

We only know these details now because McNeill, who had a string of previous convictions, including an attempted rape and an indecent assault on an 11-year-old boy in 2011, was found guilty by a jury at the High Court last week of “wilfully neglecting, exposing, and abandoning [Blake] in a way likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health”.

McNeill was convicted under the Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act but not ultimately held responsible for Blake’s death. 

Blake’s guardian at the point of his death was, to all intents and purposes, the state – the wealthiest and best equipped parent in Scotland. Yet his is a case that shows how rotten the care system truly is. 

But it is Blake Ross’s death that should sit uneasy with us all, because Blake was far more likely to die than most other children. Not because he was diabetic, or a runaway, or a young lad who fell prey to a convicted sex offender, but because he was a boy living in what we so casually call ‘care’. 

And that a known sex offender became central to what happened to him should not shield us from the stark fact that a broken system of ‘care’ failed Blake.

Blake’s guardian at the point of his death was, to all intents and purposes, the state – the wealthiest and best equipped parent in Scotland. Yet his is a case that shows how rotten the care system truly is. 

Blake lived in what is called a close support unit, which will have had a weekly staff rota of many adults – all paid professionals tasked with caring for children like Blake, better, one assumes, than their families ever could. 

But despite his clear vulnerability, when it was realised Blake was missing and the police started to look for him, his risk was classed as ‘medium’. It was only later upgraded to ‘high’.

This, despite his age, his immaturity, his obvious health issues and the fact that the state was in loco parentis

Two investigations were later carried out into how both the police and social work had responded to Blake being missing.

Police Scotland concluded that it was satisfied by its efforts, although further guidance was later issued on identifying and responding to medical risk in future missing person reports.

And an independently led significant case review, launched by City of Edinburgh Council, concluded that Blake’s death could not have been predicted or prevented. 

I have said it before and will say it again, being taken into care has one meaningful purpose and that is to make a child’s life better, not worse. And on that measure, we have consistently failed.

Every day, people with care experience die prematurely. The First Minister told us that when she announced the Independent Care Review back in 2016.

She said then that care-experienced people were 20 times more likely than the rest of the population to die before they reached the age of 25.

But the tragedy is that when she said that, she didn’t really know, because there is no official tally of their deaths. 

Blake Ross is just one death we know of. Even now, it is only anecdotal evidence that informs us that among the shameless number of drug deaths, the homeless on our streets, the inmates in our prisons, the suicides, and on any other negative social matrix, care experience is writ large. 

After his death, a crowdfunder was set up online to give Blake the “send-off he deserved”. I cannot shake off the feeling that he had never lived the life he deserved.

The same week that Blake died, Fiona Duncan, took the chair of the Independent Care Review, set up after the FM pledged to her party conference in October 2016, and in front of an audience of care-experienced young people holding up paper hearts, that she would undertake a “root and branch” review of Scotland’s children in care system.

Rip it up, she said, and start again.

The review has since listened to 5,500+ care-experienced children, young people and their families, along with members of the paid and unpaid workforce.

It has set out its vision for change and made a ‘Promise’ that it will have been fully implemented by 2030. And when I tweeted my frustration last week about a failure to care for Blake Ross,

‘The Promise’ Twitter account agreed with me and said, “change cannot wait”. 

So why, I ask, are we still waiting? In the four years since Blake Ross walked out of his council-run home and into the home of a convicted sex offender who then left him to die, why has so little systemic change happened?

Where is the revolution that the FM promised? And why are we content to meander along a ten-year timeframe in response to what the Care Review itself describes as “immediate and urgent work” when change is needed now? 

In the name of Blake Ross and all those like him, let’s get on with it.

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