In announcing a review of the care system Nicola Sturgeon knows she has made a big commitment
If the state takes a child into care, it surely has a duty to provide greater protection and opportunity than that from which the child has been removed?
And yet, on any metrics, education, health, justice and even death, children who have been in what can only euphemistically be called ‘care’ will feature heavily at the wrong end of what could ever be judged successful outcomes.
The manifest failures of the care system to look after people are all too evident in our prisons, on our streets, in our psychiatric wards and even in our morgues.
The statistics are as horrifying as the real-life stories that lie behind them and that is why the First Minister was moved almost to tears when she said, in her speech to her party conference, “something has to change.”
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And as she announced a ‘root and branch’ review of the care system, the care-experienced young people sitting in the front two rows of the conference floor rose to their feet clapping, crying and waving paper hearts. This was something they had waited all their lives to hear.
But what took so long?
Most of them would have been little more than babes when, back in 2001, the then education minister, Jack McConnell, and the minister for social justice, Jackie Baillie, wrote a report called ‘For Scotland’s Children’, wherein they committed to creating a Scotland in which every child mattered, regardless of background.
For many, the seeds of disappointment, the physical signs of abuse and the hidden depths of emotional destruction had already been sown when, four years later, McConnell said, then as First Minister, that no child in Scotland should be born to fail.
And in in 2007, when his Labour-led coalition published yet another report, ‘Looked after Children and Young People: We Can and Must Do Better’, which sounded more like an inspirational message on a fridge magnet than a call to arms, many of these children were already failing exams, being excluded from school and dropping off the educational radar.
Two years later, and with a minority SNP government in power and the publication of all too depressingly familiar figures revealing that children in care were still lagging behind, McConnell, now in opposition, said: “It is absolutely tragic that so many of these youngsters leave school, some without any qualifications at all, most with very few qualifications and are therefore far more likely to become involved in crime, to become unemployed, be at the margins of society for the rest of their lives.”
By then, some of the care-experienced youngsters at the SNP conference were already living that half-life.
Six months later and the SNP Government published its own report, ‘These Are Our Bairns’, setting out the roles and responsibilities of those who look after children, the so-called corporate parents. It uniquely began with a quote from a young care leaver who said: “Looked-after children and young people need continuity and stability and essentially, they need listening to.
“In my opinion, we need to improve the communication between local authority workers, from social, residential and education workers, to foster carers and senior officers, to make sure their roles and responsibilities are having a positive impact.
“Putting the young people at the centre of all they do will, I believe, improve the future of many.”
These were very wise words from someone who had lived a life that others had shaped for him. And so, seven years on and with her voice close to breaking, and almost in tears, Nicola Sturgeon referred to the young people in the front rows at the SECC who had been through the care system and she promised to do what they had personally asked her to do.
She announced a review of the care system that would be driven by them and not by those who had always done unto them.
She has made a big commitment. And she knows it.
These young people have been let down all their lives and they won’t countenance it any more.
It is said that a society is judged by the way it deals with those that offend against it but really, given how many of our looked-after children end up behind bars, shouldn’t the overall health of a government actually be assessed by how it parents its children?
But given that being faced with the choice of removing a child from an abusive family or leaving them there is at the heart of the everyday decisions taken by the care system, and it rests on basically choosing the least worst outcome, is that really the best we can offer?
You can’t legislate for love but you can legislate for a system where the state takes its role as a corporate parent every bit as seriously as it expects of others. A looked-after child should be an exemplar of good parenting and producing a functioning adult at the end of that journey is the very least we should expect.
One of the young people at the SNP conference told me that when she left residential care and went into ‘supported’ accommodation, a social worker visited her three months into her tenancy and asked her why she hadn’t changed her sheets. She said she didn’t know you had to.
As a child, life at home with a mother with mental health problems and an abusive stepfather had been dirty, chaotic and lacking in nurture. No one had ever told her that sheets got changed. Why would they?
I asked her what the starting point should be for Nicola Sturgeon’s care review and she said it was about asking a very simple question and it is this, ‘What is care for?’