Cristina Odone heads the Family Policy Unit at the Centre for Social Justice.
The children’s care system delivers poor outcomes. Taxpayers and our most vulnerable children pay for this. More than 80,000 children are in the state’s care. That’s more than all the children living in Blackpool and Swansea combined. The statistics about their future are dire: their lives will be shorter, unhealthier, and likely to include homelessness and problems with police. All costs more than £9bn a year.
Last year the Government appointed Josh MacAlister to lead an independent national review of children’s care services in England and Wales. MacAlister founded Front Line, a charity that seeks to develop best practice in social work. For his review, published yesterday, he invited 2330 written submissions, visited 10 Local Authorities and spoke with over 1400 social workers.
MacAlister should be applauded for taking aim at a system that fails the needy while earning millions for the greedy. He recognises the importance of relationships – which, neuroscience has shown, shape a child’s brain development. He has boldly moved to break up the cartel that allows the private providers of children’s residential care homes to exploit the huge demand and inadequate supply in this “market”. However, for a proper “reset” he must tear up the social worker’s protocols that currently ignore the one element that distinguishes children in care from their peers: family.
Andrea Leadsom MP, author of the Early Years Review, will welcome this latest Review’s recognition of the importance of a child’s first 1001 days. Maternal mental health issues, malnutrition, no proper attachment between baby and their parent(s)– unchecked, these issues can escalate to crisis level. A prevention strategy relies solely on a social worker.
Following tragic cases such as Baby Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson, social services are understandably nervous of leaving children in harmful family situations. But removing children from parents and their family network has serious consequences. Balancing safety and love is the unenviable task that care professionals must discharge – and some lack the skills and confidence required.
MacAlister’s review understands the need to upskill the children’s care work force: professional development is urgently needed across a sector with low enough morale that four in ten threaten to leave the profession. Too many caseloads and too much paperwork partially account for their failure to make the right call when faced with a bruised child or a self-harming teen. But there is another reason, which calls for a change of mindset, not just upskilling.
As they carry out their assessment their line of questioning does not routinely cover family dynamics, parental conflict, or family structure: is this a blended family with stepparents and half brothers and sisters? Or is it a single working mother who to put food on the table leaves her children unattended daily? Are there grandparents or a supportive neighbour around capable of giving vulnerable parents a break? We examined the Serious Case Reviews published in 2021 (covering 2015 -21) and found that social services did not ask about parents’ own childhood – even though a childhood experience of domestic violence will mould later relationships.
For his part, MacAlister does recognise the importance of families. His big idea is to establish a new service, “Family Help”. Teams made up of family support workers, domestic abuse workers, and mental health practitioners would complement social workers to provide support and cut down on referring families onto other services. Provided that their protocol requires proper examination of every child’s relational context, the Family Help Team could ease the pressure on social workers while expanding the lens through which they view cases.
The teams would be based in schools and family hubs. The CSJ introduced the concept of family hubs in 2014 for precisely this purpose: a place with one front door for all, that could support families before they hit crisis point. Here in one setting quarrelling parents can be referred to the Reducing Parental Conflict programme; a toddler can be diagnosed with language difficulties; and a teenager whose drug taking has become serious can be referred to specialist service. Everything focuses on strengthening the family so that they may overcome difficulties together.
“Family”, as MacAlister points out, is not just the ones who live under one roof. He urges services to start drawing on the wider relational network – aunties, uncles, granny, and even teachers and neighbours. This caring web can support parents and prevent the original family from breaking up or take in the child and offer them a stability the state fails to provide. Considering how much they save the taxpayer – £3900 a week – we should be heaping rewards upon these individuals. Instead, despite the typical kinship carer living in disadvantaged circumstances, and poor health, they receive derisory state support. The review recommends that this be changed.
A second-best option to relying on kinship support is fostering. They may not be relatives, but foster families can provide good models for later relationships. They are scandalously under-used however: in the year ending March 2021 Ofsted notes that 160,635 families offered to foster children, but only 2165 were approved.
This must change. Because the third best option – care homes – should only cater for those with the most complex vulnerabilities. For the rest, care homes offer living conditions so bereft of both care and homely-ness, that a police officer we interviewed reported that residents in young offender institutions tell her “they are no different from my last care home”.
These hostile environments charge higher fees than Eton and are overwhelmingly in the hands of private companies. The demand is so huge, the supply so limited, that it is difficult to see how their monopoly can be checked. MacAlister argues that LAs should “regain control” over the care homes. The problem is that the reason that private companies were able to elbow out councils in the first place is that care homes were poorly run when under local government control too.
Alternatives are being piloted – see for instance Emmanuel Akpan Inwang’s Lighthouse ; and the “Broadening Educational Pathway” scheme, run by Royal National Children’s Springboard Foundation, which co-opts independent schools to offer boarding to carefully selected candidates. Both are less expensive than the present arrangement, lead to positive outcomes, and merit careful study.
Some of MacAlister’s recommendations will land – family support based in family hubs, early intervention, recruitment of more foster carers, upskilling social workers. Some won’t. Which is a good thing when he calls for care experience to be added to the (already long) list of “protected characteristics” –pinning on the care leaver the “special, not equal” label will “other” them rather than support them. The system is failing, not the children caught up in it. This kind of victimisation will only marginalise young people whom we should embrace as crucial members of our society.
As for his ask for more than £2.6bn over four years – this is an expensive budget in ordinary times, and these are not ordinary times. The Treasury will balk, no doubt. The Review however will have accomplished something laudable – turning an orphan issue into a Westminster talking point. Bravo.