News Date: Monday 11th June 2007
Community Care Conference - Kinship Care
Caring for children within families who cannot live with their parents June 7th 2007
Can I thank Community Care for inviting me to give the keynote address at this important conference on a subject which is much neglected because people assume that it is happening rather more extensively than it is? Can I also pay tribute to the efforts that Community Care have made in continuing to highlight the scandal that is the treatment and outcomes for children in care in this country?
Ever since taking on the Shadow Childrens' Minister brief four years ago I have endeavoured to raise the political profile of the plight of looked after children. We produced a separate manifesto on childrens' issues at the last election, 'Action for Vulnerable Children' with specific proposals for improving stability and continuity for children in care, including wider use of extended family members. Both before and after the Care Matters Green Paper we held summits on the subject at Westminster. And as Community Care magazine has previously reported on I set up a Commission on the role and status of social workers dealing with children, under the patronage of Herbert Laming and Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, which has been sitting since the beginning of the year and is due to report next month. More on that later.
How is it we are still getting the care of is looked after children so wrong?
"In England there are approximately 61,000 children in care at any one time. They run very high risks of being unemployed, having mental health problems and becoming teenage parents. We are not succeeding. 1 in 10 children in care get 5 good GCSE's compared to 6 out of 10 of other children. Only 6% make it to higher education compared to 30% of all children. At any one time children in care make up about 0.5% of all children. But one quarter of the adult prison population has been in the childrens' care system at some point. And around a third of looked after children end up as NEETs (not in employment, education or training).
The fact that we have yet to succeed with this group is not for want of spending. The state spends ?1.9bn acting in loco parentis for children in care. It costs about ?110,000 a year to keep a child in residential care. And there is very little relationship between spending and outcomes."
Not my words, but the Prime Minister's, and I could have chosen a whole raft of other statistics where the state makes for a very bad parent.
- Looked after children are more than 4 times more likely to be bullied in school than other children
- At least 1 in 7 girls leaving care is pregnant or already a mother
- 54% of care leavers have no qualifications whatsoever
- Of those children in care for a year or more, 27% have a statement of SEN compared to 3% of all children
- Almost a quarter of looked after children have a major depressive illness compared to 4% of children in general, starting with the under fives
- Children in care are 10 times more likely to be permanently excluded from school
- Between 25 - 30% of rough sleepers have been in care at some point in their childhood
- And perhaps most alarmingly of all the statistic that looked after children are 66 times more likely to have their own children taken into care
The treatment and outcomes for looked after children are a scandal. It is a scandal which rarely hits the headlines. It is a scandal which has seen little improvement over too many years and it has become a generational vicious circle condemning whole cohorts of children to social exclusion and under-achievement, and their all too premature children after them. As Martin Narey, Chief Executive of Barnardos put it 'the cycle of disadvantage that haunts these children as they grow up shows no sign of being broken as they enter adulthood.'
None of the above is new. None of the above is rocket science, but it is all shocking It is mostly covered in Care Matters and there is a lot riding on producing results from that piece of work - urgently and comprehensively. Whilst kinship care is only referred to fleetingly in Care Matters the Government does give a clear and welcome steer when it refers to the requirement on local authorities:
'..to lodge with the court at the outset of care proceedings an outline plan for permanence for the child, which they are already required to draw up later in the course of care proceedings. This will provide greater clarity, and at an earlier stage, to all concerned. If a child is not to be supported by family or friends, the plan must make clear why this is not appropriate.'
I believe we also have a sympathetic champion in the form of the current Secretary of State for Education, and author of the report, Alan Johnson, himself brought up by his sister after being abandoned by their father and the death of their mother.
It is extraordinary, given the scale of failure that has been allowed to happen, that we are not making far better use of extended family members when children are unable to stay with their birth parents for whatever reason. By every measure, kinship carers have proven to offer a far greater chance of a stable alternative placement, even when the full support from the local authority is left wanting.
Surely the need is all the greater given the estimated shortage of up to 10,000 foster carers. The shortage is all the more acute for children with particularly complex needs and older more challenging children. For them stability and some sense of continuity is particularly key. Last year around one in six looked after children in foster care had to change accommodation three times or more and 20% of local authorities moved the children in their care three times or more.
When you appreciate that, again it is not difficult to see why looked after children fare so badly at school if they are moved from pillar to post so often. Too often a local authority will move a child from a foster placement at one end of a county to the other based on availability and convenience of a foster place rather than an overriding priority to keep that child in the catchment area of his or her school to retain some degree of continuity. The emotional upheaval of moving from one strange family to another is disruptive enough to concentrating on studies let alone having to get used to a whole new school on a regular basis.
A Social Exclusion Unit survey reported that 29% of young people had three or more educational placements during secondary school and 25% of them had six or more care placements during the same period. If the welfare of the child is to be paramount under the 1989 Act then we favour subjecting local authorities to a 'maximum move strategy' where they will be required to justify excessive changes in placements over short periods, and there should be a presumption of stability unless the child's welfare is threatened. For all the Government's warm words this is still not happening in practice. This will not be easy given current resources but it would send out a clear signal that this is to be a priority.
A decent education is key to breaking out of the cycle of failure which looked after children are often condemned too. Yet they are too often just seen as a problem bound to be disruptive and under achieve. Many staff have low expectations and aspirations for looked after children. They do not often follow the full curriculum and 50% aren't even entered for exams. This can lead to a domino effect and make them likely to rebel and not bother to work - exacerbating a downward spiral of under achievement. And how much easier all this would be to achieve if the child is in the care of an extended family member, less likely to move, more likely to demand a decent education. There are also obviously advantages for children fro particular cultural backgrounds who may be more problematic if moved outside that environment.
In addition, 10% of all local authority adoptions breakdown. Yet where extended families are given the right support from social services or voluntary organisations then they have a far higher chance of making a success of a foster placement or ultimately adoption of family members. Support services need to include advice and counselling and follow up services to back up the family and ensure emotional cohesion. Some families will also need to be re-housed in order for them to have the space to take on these children. Above all an holistic approach to support and care is needed. When you think of the rewards both for the individual children, the families and indeed society as a whole it is surely a false economy not to pursue this route more vigorously and enthusiastically.
This failure is particularly absurd and expensive when we consider the number of looked after children being placed in independent childrens' homes far away their original homes. On a local front in my own constituency in Worthing we now have 10 private children's homes. It is a phenomenon not limited to Worthing but is certainly becoming a feature in seaside towns. My colleague Roger Gale, MP for Thanet North recently highlighted the concentration of childrens' homes in and around Margate, housing children mostly placed by London authorities and where a link was being made with a recent crime wave.
In Worthing a couple of years ago amidst the first wave of private childrens' homes clustered around the town centre, our Chief Inspector came to me to complain that 28% of his crime figures were down to a handful of residents of these homes who were apparently not getting the level of supervision required. At another home outside Worthing in an old farmhouse in the middle of the Downs a contingent of farmers came to see me to complain about children running wild, smashing up the house, vandalising farm equipment and apparently being supervised by former Sainsbury security guards. These were teenagers with serious problems and when I went to visit they came from as far a field as Somerset, London and other metropolitan boroughs completely alien to rural West Sussex.
Clearly the Utting recommendations about placing looked after children as close to home as possible, and preferably in a 20 mile radius, are still going unheeded although we did persuade the then Minister, Lord Warner to issue new directions to local authorities and we are starting to see signs of progress. It cannot make sense to dump difficult children far away from home; far away from any extended family or friendship groups who may be able to provide some continuity after a turbulent family breakdown. Worse still the host local authority is often unaware how many looked after children are placed in their area despite the reporting requirements.
This is not fair on the local police who have to pick up the problem. It is not fair on the local childrens' services that often have to step in to help even though the child is not their responsibility. It is not fair on the local community who have to live with the effects of clustering and have to pay the bill when it goes wrong. And most of all it is not fair on the children who are being let down even more than they have been already. So one of our strongest recommendations has been that we revamp and get serious about recommendations for proximity placements, or placements in familiar surroundings or with familial members.
It is certainly not conducive to the responsible social worker being able to keep a close eye on that child's welfare and development and we should stop waving goodbye to teenagers with complex problems on a train to some far flung and inappropriate placement at the other end of the country; and give powers to local authorities to resist clustering of lucrative private childrens' homes which often escape the need for planning permission by homing six residents or fewer. In addition the Government have failed to meet their targets for the training of care workers in children's homes with the aim of 80% of such staff achieving NVQ Level 3 still way off.
The local authorities that achieve the best outcomes for their looked after children are the ones that have an ethos of 'pushy parenting'. Where the responsible social worker marches down to the school to kick up a fuss when the child is underachieving or being bullied. Who fights for a place at a good school and goes along to parent's evenings or sports days as any birth parent would do. Better still of course where there is some continuity of the responsible social worker taking on that role. Again a role that can be so much more easily be exercised by a member of the extended family.
Interestingly, in the last year's report by the Childrens' Rights Director about the views of social workers by children in care, they came out with a fairly high approval rating of 80% for overworked and over stressed social workers. However, that concealed a raft of predictable complaints about social workers failing to keep appointments, moving children on when they were just getting settled into a placement and constantly moving on themselves. How much better it would be if that 'pushy parent' who was keeping an eye on that child's progress was an actual member of that child's family. Maybe a grandparent - who after all will have had experience of raising children in that local community previously. Where a child unable to stay with birth parents could at least retain some continuity of friends, environment and schooling.
This of course will not be appropriate for all children who have been through a particularly traumatic family breakdown, and there will be those who need to make a complete break to a new setting for their own safety and well-being. But I fail to believe that it would not be appropriate for very many more children than those who now have had a second chance with another family member.
Grandparents as a Solution
With nearly 14 million grandparents in the UK it is difficult to see why local authorities do not make better use of them.
Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a universally and perennially popular children's book. One of the strongest characters is Charlie's Grandpa Joe. Amongst the poverty of the Bucket's one room house and their meagre watered down cabbage soup, Grandpa Joe is Charlie's best friend, the one who feeds his imagination by telling him stories every night, the one who encourages him to keep his hope alive and finally the one who Charlie chooses, even above his parents, to accompany him on the tour of Willie Wonka's factory.
Unfortunately in too many cases Grandpa Joes (OR Grandma Johannas for that matter) are ignored from the equation - this is despite the fact that by law they are obliged to do so. There is an existing statutory duty under Section 23 of the Children Act, which we introduced back in 1989, which places an obligation on local authorities to consider friends and family first when a child is going to be placed under a care order or a court order. Although the situation has improved marginally over the past few years there are still far too many local authorities who are disregarding this practice. Shockingly only 4 % of kinship care placements are made at the instigation of social workers.
In an enormous number of cases where birth families stay together grandparents are of course already carrying the burden of childcare. In a world where both mother and father are more likely than not to work, the extended family are for many a vital source of childcare. Indeed, a study by the National Centre of Social Research confirms that in the past year more than half of families had used grandparents for childcare. Official figures show that a quarter of those with children under the age of 15 use their parents to provide informal childcare every week. On average they provide about 15.9 hours of help. As Diana Whitworth - Director of Grandparents Plus says - grandparents are 'good for children - there is a continuity of care in the sense that they are part of a family unit.'
The benefit to society of this continuity between generations cannot be underestimated. The economic impact is also impressive -a study by HSBC found that grandparents save working couples ?50 billion a year by providing free childcare. As the report says, with record numbers of mothers returning to work - we have seen the rise of 'super-granny' and 'super grandpa' - we need to ensure that the State recognises their value. In those situations where families breakdown it is often the grandparents or other extended family members who provide an oasis of continuity and calm to children in an often turbulent time. After a divorce or separation, relationships between opposing grandparents and parents can be fractious and strained and yet grandparents have little recourse to the law when they find themselves carved out of a child's life through no fault of their own. This is a weakness in the law which we think needs to be addressed through revisions to the 1989 Children Act and we tried to do just that during the Children Bill 2004 and Children & adoption bill last year, only to be frustrated by the Government. We also need to revisit Section 10 of the Children Act to look at providing parity between family and non-family carers, for example by reducing the residence criterion for the former.
Grandparents routinely give family members expert support, acting as chauffeurs, babysitters and bankers when families are together in happier times. Surely this qualifies them to be given first refusal on stepping in when things go so wrong that children are being faced with care proceedings. And they should be entitled to the full support packages which local authorities should offer to unconnected foster or adoption placements, without prejudice. If the alternative to a decent foster placement costing around ?350 per week is residential care in a private children's home costing now more than ?2100 on average it is a false economy not to be doing more to promote, train and retain foster carers, especially where they are family members. That is why I supported the principle of minimum foster allowance thresholds across the country.
We have been working with the Grandparents' Association who make the point that in many other countries, in Europe and elsewhere, grandparents have a responsibility to their grandchildren in law and a right to contact. For example, in Canada, grandparents can seek access to their grandchildren in court and can ask to see them as often as they did before the conflict arose - this is specifically so that children can reap the benefits of developing emotional ties with their grandparents.
The role grandparents can play needs to be recognised by Government. A report published by Grandparents Plus last year found that grandparents who took over their own children's responsibilities and looked after their grandchildren did so 'at a high cost to themselves as they often end up in poverty, ill health and overcrowded housing.' Unless central Government changes its attitude towards the participation of grandparents in their children's lives then what hope is there that local authorities will make the necessary changes
The fact that the UK does not have good outcomes for looked after children does not mean it can't be done. Last year the Shadow Children and Family team went to visit Helsinki and Copenhagen where we saw a range of residential homes for children in care. It is dangerous to generalise but without exception we were impressed.
In Denmark we found high quality children's homes run by inspirational pedagogues who have real empathy with their charges - they are highly motivated, committed to their posts and developing strong attachments to their charges over a number of years, and thereby providing invaluable continuity. As Madeleine Bunting described in the Guardian after her visit to the Josephine Schneider home in Denmark earlier this year - 'the place has no rules...each child must be treated as a unique individual...the huge investment in highly qualified staff, and the priority of developing strong relationships are all key principles of the Danish tradition of pedagogy...pedagogy is best understood as a process of nurturing the development of other human beings... instead of social work qualifications being about the acquisition of knowledge on the law, social policy and theory, the focus is on developing practical relationships skills with clients and with fellow pedagogues.'
These homes run at half the price of the average independent children's home in the UK and with far superior outcomes. One home we visited expected to have half of its children going on to higher education and university against 6% here. Another very important difference compared to over here was that there was so much more flexibility in the system - with children coming in and out of residential homes, for short or long periods of stay or respite; perhaps spending weekends with their birth parents or extended families given the right support packages. Regular dinners were also set aside for birth parents and grandparents to visit and socialise with the children in residential homes. There was a deep appreciation of how crucial to a child's development it is to preservse links with their loving families. In the UK we seem to put up with a far less flexible all or nothing attitude to placement - children's conditions are rarely static and they need more flexibility. Although there are examples of good practice in the UK, the differences in outcomes vary far too widely between authorities. We have a lot to learn from the continent.
Social Workers' Commission
As I mentioned earlier as part of my Party's policy review I have been chairing a Commission on the role, status and image of social workers. We did this because we believe that social workers are a key element in providing vital support to vulnerable families and children preferably proactively to prevent a family breakdown, rather than too often reactively, to pick up the pieces and take a child into care. They should be viewed with no less an imperative than doctors, nurses, teachers and police yet they suffer from a terrible press and public perception and that is not in anyone's interests.
We have taken evidence from the various grandparents' action groups I have already mentioned. One of main themes that comes up again and again is that the local authority and social workers have outdated perceptions about the capabilities of grandparents and that they need to think more laterally about who makes up a child's 'nuclear family'.
The Social Workers' Commission is also looking at issues of confidentiality where the reporting by grandparents to social services about concerns they have in regard to the treatment of their grandchildren is concerned. We have been told that there is a climate of fear and apprehension amongst grandparents that they will no longer have contact with their grandchildren if social services are called in. The commission has also heard that some grandparents would be in a better position to look after their grandchildren if they received the same financial help that foster carers do. But what has come across most overwhelmingly is the passion that these grandparents have for their grandchildren and their fears that the breakdown of their children's relationship will mean they might be excluded from family gatherings and prevented from seeing their grandchildren.
200,000 grandparents and extended family members are already raising their grandchildren because their children cannot, due to alcohol/drug or mental health problems. We need to harness this enthusiasm and love that extended family members have for the younger generation in their families. At the moment local authorities are too often missing a trick by not tapping into it more readily. But it is the children who are missing out most of all.
Above all we need far greater evidence of joined up thinking, planning and communication between central and local government, education officers, social workers, health authorities and families. It is not rocket science but it appears to be a tall order in too many parts of the country and in too many areas of Government. Yet it is a disastrous false economy not to seek urgently to achieve it. When it goes wrong, it has been calculated that by the age of 19 an individual persistent offender will cost the taxpayer around ?164,000 every year, including costs to the victim, courts, prison and probation service, benefit payments and social services support to families, long term health costs etc. Keeping a child in a childrens' home can easily cost a local authority in excess of ?100,000. All this makes the ?20,000 cost of offering a boarding school place to children in care a financially enticing prospect, as has recently been mooted. And the modest cost of preventing family break up in the first place or providing the support for an extended family placement a positive bargain.
But above all children in care deserve a second chance at a stable and loving upbringing and keeping them on the straight and narrow. The financial and social consequences to society and to them personally are immense. Each of them has a right to an appropriate 'pushy parent'.