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This Piecemeal Review Of The Care System Is Not The Answer Children Need

17/07/2017 12:00 BST | Updated 17/07/2017 12:00 BST

Over the past six years, we have seen a piecemeal approach to reviewing different parts of the care system. It began with a focus on adoption, and the appointment of a Ministerial Adviser on Adoption. That was followed by the Narey independent review of residential care. Now we have the Fostering Stocktake - a review into foster care.

This isn't the fault of those leading the reviews, but wouldn't it have made more sense for these reviews to have happened together?

We know that most children in care don't go on to be adopted - many enter care and are considered too old for adoption, are part of sibling groups that are too large to be adopted, or they will just never be matched with prospective adoptive parents who can meet their needs. We also know that only 9 per cent of looked after children live in residential care. This means that most children in care live with foster families.

Failing to look at the care system as a whole perpetuates something that we have long-identified as a barrier to stable, child-centred placements for all children and young people. Acknowledged or not, there is a perceived hierarchy of care which exists among professionals, politicians and the media. It goes like this: adoption is best; foster care is second-best; residential care is a distant third. This perception is sorely mistaken. No care placement is more valid or socially acceptable - if it is the right place for a child.

Separate reviews force the focus onto the siloed parts of the system in which a child is living, instead of focusing on the child's experience and journey through care. It takes no account of the fact that a child often moves between these different types of care. The experiences a child has when making those transitions are just as important as their experience while they are in the different types of care, and yet these experiences will end up ignored.

Carrying out separate reviews doesn't allow for bigger, more fundamental issues to be looked at and addressed. If they are addressed, it is likely to only happen in isolation and only about the type of care under review. For example, we know that there's a problem with how placements are commissioned for children - decisions are made for budgetary reasons. This means children have to go through local authority foster placements (cheapest), then independent fostering provider placements (more expensive), before going into a residential placement (most expensive). That is regardless of whether their needs would be best met by the intensive support on offer from staff in a therapeutic residential setting. It also fails to take heed of the damage that can be done to a child's ability to form trusting relationships, when they have had to leave a series of family homes after multiple placements have broken down.

Separate reviews don't allow us to look at how other agencies work with children in care - and how that can be improved. The police, the NHS, schools, they're all vital agencies that work with children in care, no matter where they are living - but with this narrow focus on one type of placement, these aspects of supporting children in care get missed.

But above all, it doesn't allow for us to understand what care is for. Care must be about more than keeping a child safe until they are adults. Unless we address this question, we risk a care system, and therefore care placements, that merely focus on keeping a child alive, or trying to make sure they do not end up in the local authority's statistics as NEET, or without 5 A*-Cs. In 2016, Nicola Sturgeon pledged a review of the care system in Scotland. A 'root and branch' review that will consider the underpinning legislation, practices, culture and ethos of the system - and that is what is missing from the siloed reviews we've had to date.

I'm not advocating ripping up the care system and starting again - but we do need an opportunity to ask those fundamental questions about the care system in England. We need to know why we bring children into care and what we want for them while they are there.

The care system has evolved with the times and reacted to external circumstances. Currently there is no clearly defined purpose for care beyond keeping a child safe when they are in danger. By failing to look at care at a structural level, we risk simply tinkering around the edges.

We are in danger of failing to make the fundamental changes to our care system that will improve outcomes and experiences of all children in care, no matter who they are, or where they live. And in 2017, that is not good enough.