Michael Gove's recent call for more children to be removed from their parents received a strong endorsement from Peter Watts of the NSPCC. Peter supports the Education Secretary's
statement that "children and young people do not encounter disadvantage because they have been in care". They are wrong. 'Rescuing' children might appear attractive in story books, but our care system is no fairy tale for most children.
Removing a child into care is not without risk. The care system is already struggling to cope with a record number of care order applications. Last month, the Children's Rights Director published a report showing that more than 40% of children in care had not visited their new home before moving in. Around a quarter were only told of their last placement move the day they moved in. Nearly three quarters were placed in a different home from their siblings. Just imagine being removed as a child from your parents, into a stranger's home, and then split up from your brother or sister.
Moreover, there are delays in care proceedings and an estimated 10,000 shortage of foster carers. Nor is Mr Gove offering authorities more money to put children in care. Each placement costs around £40,000 a year. Every extra one means local authorities cutting back on early intervention and family support.
As a charity, Family Rights Group advises thousands of parents and family members about the welfare and protection of their children. We are under no misapprehension that some children cannot remain with their parents. We are also clear that considerably more could be done to safeguard children within their families. It is this rather than rushing to take more children into care unnecessarily, that should be the priority.
Even with the right help, some parents can't provide and there's no denying that alcohol and drug addiction have devastated many lives. But there are multiple reasons, such as parental death, job loss triggering mental illness, serious physical illness, or learning difficulties that explain why families are in crisis. These parents shouldn't just be written off. Sometimes they are young and have themselves been through the care system, sometimes it's a parent struggling to protect their children from an abusive partner. Around 70% of child protection cases involve domestic abuse. It doesn't take a genius to work out that closing women's refuges and cutting domestic abuse programmes may not be the wisest step.
There is no single answer but some people can and should be helped to be good parents, which is where early intervention comes in. Some authorities, such as Westminster, are better than others at doing this effectively.
Intervening to solve problems is where my charity can also help. Parents subject to child protection enquiries are often angry, upset and are unable to hear what they're being told by social workers and an antagonistic relationship develops. Our independent advice and advocacy services lets parents feel their voice is being heard, and for the first time they really understand, the concerns of children's services. That makes it more likely too that they will try to address those concerns. But funding for our advice service is uncertain from 2013.
Peter in his blog rightly says that providing permanence for children unable to live with their parents can take many forms, from a permanent foster placement, to special guardianship and, of course, adoption. Michael Gove, by fixating on adoption and setting targets, is in danger of preventing local authorities from getting it right for every vulnerable child. And let's be honest about it, adoption is only ever going to be a suitable for a minority of children in care, mainly the very young.
Peter doesn't explicitly mention family and friends care, yet there are more than three times as many children, who cannot live with their parents, being raised by with relatives or friends as there are in the care system. These carers provide many children with the security, continuity and love they so desperately need. Yet we know that some local authorities are still not fully exploring and supporting options such as placing the children with a grandparent, older sibling or close friend.
I applaud the government for issuing guidance to local authorities requiring them to have a family and friends care policy in place by last September. Unfortunately, many local authorities still haven't done this.
Around a third of family and friends carers have to give up work to take on children, who have suffered as many adversities as those in care. Many are impoverished and get little if any support from their local authority. Government proposals to cut benefits, tax credits andr legal aid will make it even harder for many, and impossible for some, family members to come forward in the future. The sad result may be more children unnecessarily coming into care, which is in no-one's interest.
Find out more about Family Rights Group or to contact our free confidential advice service ring 0808 801 0366