State failing to protect children in care, MPs say

By Amelia Gentleman

April 20, 2009 / The Guardian

The state is failing in its duty to act as a parent to children in care by not adequately protecting them from sexual exploitation, homelessness and falling into crime, a select committee report will warn today.

The report calls for a "radical overhaul" of the system which goes beyond the reforms already being undertaken by the government to ensure that the country's most vulnerable children get the services they require.

"The system is still failing too many children," said Labour MP Barry Sheerman, who chaired the committee.

"The outcomes for children in care are not what any parent would want in terms of levels of educational attainment, likelihood of getting into criminal behaviour, going to prison. We are judged by how we treat the most vulnerable. These children should have the highest priority in any decent civilisation."

The children, schools and families committee's report says that children in care aged 10 and over are more than twice as likely to be cautioned or convicted of an offence, and blames the government for the "disproportionate criminalisation of young people in care".

It also reveals "evidence of organised, targeted exploitation of girls in residential homes and hostels" and warns that the vulnerability of young people leaving care is "a matter of great concern". The report calls on the government to take urgent action to protect them.

The report also comes as the Guardian publishes an investigation into the weaknesses of the care system, which found that:

• More than 1,000 children have been placed with at least 10 different families, while 10 children moved through at least 50 homes as local authorities failed to find them a permanent placement.

• The quality of foster care across the country has raised serious concern.

• There is growing unease about the low level of training and qualifications required of workers in residential care homes.

• Despite legislation which aims to improve their prospects, more than half of all children in care leave school without a single GCSE. A disproportionate number also struggle with mental health problems, or end up as teenage parents, homeless or in prison.

The children, schools and families select committee concludes that the "care system's poor reputation may contribute to a reluctance to take children into care where necessary.

"Far from compensating for their often extremely difficult pre-care experiences, certain features of the care system itself ... make it harder for young people to succeed," the report says.

Sheerman said it was imperative that the government tackled "the perception that entering the care system is catastrophic for a child".

This concern is widely shared by charities working to promote children's rights. "There is this progression from foster care to residential care to prison - you can understand why people want to keep children out of there. But this means that they stay in dangerous families and end up getting killed," the director of children's services for the NSPCC, Wes Cuell, said.

The select committee welcomed the improvements brought in by the government's Care Matters programme, which came into force last November, but Sheerman said: "We have to go further and faster and we have to be more radical in our approach."

The experiences of many foster children are highlighted in the report, which includes "shocking stories" of exclusion from normal family life. Some were made to eat in a separate room on occasions such as Christmas and discouraged from watching television with the rest of the family.

Of the 59,500 children in care in England, 71% are looked after in foster care placements, and the system by which carers are recruited and paid varies from one local authority to another. The report recognised that while some foster care was very good, young people interviewed as part of its research "felt very strongly that a lot of foster carers do it for the money".

The committee recommended that fostering agencies focused more on ensuring all potential foster parents "possess the personal qualities needed to deliver genuinely warm and secure family life".


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