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Leading article: A substandard care system only reinforces disadvantage

Already vulnerable children are failed by the lottery of support services

April 20, 2009 / The Independent

There may be some areas in which social services in Britain excel. But helping children who need, for whatever reason, to be cared for outside their family is assuredly not one of them. Such a poor reputation do child care services have that social workers may leave children to suffer wretched lives at the hands of inadequate parents rather than entrust them to a system that might serve them even worse.

So says not a lobby group or campaign organisation, but the all-party committee of MPs whose job it is to monitor children's services. In one of the starkest findings of their inquiry into the care system, they say that "luck" can be the key factor in determining how these children fare. And luck can take many forms: luck in whether, and by whom, children are fostered; luck in how long they stay and how often they are moved; luck in the schooling they receive, and luck even at the very last stage, when – at 18 – they are sent into the big wide world with no support worth speaking of.

The report of the Commons select committee on Children, Schools and Families suggests that what passes for a system is almost as random as having no safety net for such children at all. Is it any wonder, then, that what in the jargon are termed the "outcomes" are so abysmal.

Almost half of juveniles in prison and one in four of the adult prison population have been in care. Less than 10 per cent of children in care attain five A to C grades at GCSE, compared with 50 per cent across the rest of the population. Less than half are in any form of education, training or employment at the age of 19, compared with more than 80 per cent of the age group as a whole.

The MPs make some useful proposals, including the idea that far greater emphasis should be placed on continuity of care and education and that more use should be made of boarding schools. Extraordinary though it seems, children who have already suffered the trauma of being moved from the family home can then find themselves being shuttled repeatedly, and at short notice, from home to home and school to school. The MPs also recommend that each child should have a personal adviser until the age of 25; certainly, it seems to be asking for trouble to leave a young person with little more than a council bed-sit and rudimentary financial support once they reach the age of 18.

The care system as it currently exists leaves a clear chain of disadvantage – from poor home to poor schooling to poor job prospects – which contributes to a prison population that is proportionately much higher than in most other European countries. Its deficiencies also help to explain why social workers, including those in the recent Baby P case, are so reluctant to remove a child from its family. What is often seen by outsiders as a reflection of ideological rigidity may also be explained by a quite rational fear that the likelihood of substandard care could make the child's prospects even worse.

There are many kind, supportive, even heroic foster families, whose complaints about how often children are moved regularly go unheeded. They need to be listened to, as do the children who have done well against all odds. Care must cease to be a lottery in which "luck" favours the few. It needs to be an efficient and compassionate service provided to a consistent standard, wherever and whenever it is needed.

2009 Apr 20