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More children should be taken into care - but they shouldn't stay there

I generally find that policy papers from think tanks have more credibility than reports from select committees of MPs. First of all a think tank report is usually written by an individual - which at least gives it a chance of being intellectually coherent. A report by a committee, especially a cross party committee, tends to be a mushy negotiated fudge. The lowest common denominator is plunged in search "consensus."

Then there is the related problem that select committees tend to echo rather than debunk conventional thinking - as the basis for their report is considering a mass of evidence from establishment lobby groups. Think tanks have the freedom to tell the truth. They have the independence to be radical.

An Education Select Committee report, which has called on faster action by local authorities to take children into care, is a good example of the problems inherent in such offerings while also containing an abundance of interesting material.

Its central charge is that local authorities tend to dither far too long rescuing children even when there is clear evidence of neglect or abuse. Often social workers blame the courts but the Magistrates Association sing a different tune in their submission which says:

Magistrates are faced on many occasions with cases of neglect where there has been an extensive chronology of a referral being made, some work being done then the case being closed and for this pattern to repeat itself several times over a period of years and eventually for
care proceedings to be sought. During this time children may be bullied at school, may have poor school attendance, may exhibit other behavioural problems where the parent/s fail to engage with services.

The Magistrate's Association adds:

We fully support the primacy of the family in bringing up its children with all the necessary support from the local authorities but where families fail their children then the primary concern is the welfare of the child as spelt out in the Children Act., not the welfare of the parents. We are not convinced that the evidence magistrates see before them daily in court demonstrates this principle consistently in practice.

The committee conclude:

We recommend that Cafcass continue to monitor the responsiveness of local authorities to neglect through the timeliness and quality of care applications. If there are signs that improvement is not being sustained, the Government must be prepared to act to ensure that local authorities respond promptly in cases of neglect.

Their conclusion is sound. However there are endless references to blaming spending cuts for the problems. (There is a brief weaselly caveat: "We have seen no hard evidence to back the assertion that thresholds are altered in the light of financial resources or targets...") Blaming spending cuts is nonsense. The problem is ideological - a concern among social workers not to be "judgmental", etc. I was aware of it well before any talk of spending cuts. In any case the dithering and delay does not save money.

While the committee is right to conclude that more children need to be taken into care more quickly they are gruding, quite disgracefuly grudging, about the prospects for adoption.

Martin Narey, the Government's adviser on adoption told them:

All the research on adoption is clear. Adoption is only ever for a minority of children in care, but for those for whom it is appropriate it can be transformational. It can be transformational in the most remarkable circumstances. The Committee will be aware of the experience of the Romanian children who were brought into this country after the fall of Ceauşescu: the most damaged children, children who had lived in depravity, children who ate gruel from bottles with enlarged teats; children who, when they were washed, were hosed down.

Some 168 of those children came into England, and Professor Michael Rutter has followed their fortunes until their teens. There were only two breakdowns. Every child recovered the developmental delay because love and stability and permanence can make an enormous difference. For those for whom it is appropriate-for many children it is not appropriate, particularly for some older children for whom I would say special guardianship is frequently a better option-adoption can simply transform a child’s life and give a deeply neglected child the sort of upbringing that we like to think we gave our kids.

Doesn't Mr Narey's evidence challenge the defeatist notion that adoption "is only ever for a minority of children"? Yet instead of pressing him on this point the committee is a force for inertia searching around for excuses to slow the modest progress being made to increase the adoption rate.

This passage gives a feel of the general tone:

Witnesses agreed that even if the Government achieves its aim of increasing the number of adopted children, this would only ever affect a small proportion of children in care. Professor June Thoburn told us that “the scope for increasing adoption as a route out of care is limited”, and she pointed out that the UK already places more children from care with new parents (not relatives) than is the case for any other country. In particular, adoption is unlikely to be an appropriate or viable option for older children, sibling groups or those who do not want to be adopted. The vast majority of such children will always be in foster placements and will not be adopted.

Thus our elected representatives doubtless feel satisfied that they have managed to reach consensus via deference to an expert. They should feel ashamed of producing a document which leaves such defeatist assertions unchallenged.  The upshot is that they seek to sustain a scandalous arrangement where their constituents who are Looked After Children are more likely to end up in prison than university.


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