Regenerating and Reinvigorating Our Care System - Resolving to Ensure the Right Place at the Right Time for Every Child

17/05/2016 11:54

David Cameron's weekend announcements heralding major reforms for children in care in the Queen's Speech stands to be an important act of national leadership. The moment and what happens next could be known as 'Cameron', and join other surnames synonymous with progressive child care measures such as Seebohm, Warner, Utting, Laming. These reports and the practice they enacted overcame piecemeal policy initiatives made over previous decades. They were predicated on a rigorous assessment and diagnosis of the nature, scale and root causes of the problems they sought to solve.

The care system needs thoroughly regenerating and reinvigorating - its values, ethics, practice and systems. The Prime Minister will have the support of social care professionals as he is bold in blending resolve with imagination, vision with courage, pragmatism with ambition.

An important starting point is the positive valuing of the care system. Study after study tells us young people are overall better for having been in care than if they had not. The evidence base is clear, the care system works.

There are complexities that often are excluded or reduced but here is firm foundation for the Prime Minister that enables him to drive us onwards with the investment required to the undoubted development needed.

We now know more than we ever did and can see more children in need. We realise that in previous decades we have touched the surface and assisted the neediest. The truth is that, no matter all that we have done, the level of abuse, neglect, and trauma have not diminished over the decades.

Today, securely and well-funded early intervention might assist many young people.
There are others, however, for whom the circumstances, complexity and intensity of their need will always demand action to take them into care. For some young people there will be an enduring need for long term placements and residential options.

In an expert group not so long ago the question was raised if we could do without a care system and after the respectful reflective silence emerged a small voice, 'Perhaps one day, in an idyllic future, when we've resolved all social difficulties, but not now. Now we need to make it the best we possibly can.' With that resolution in our heads, hearts and hands we went about our business of the day, week, month and year ahead doing just that.

With this resolve accepting that there will always be some children needing care isn't an acceptance of a bad situation, or 'tolerance of failure'. Accepting it is the prerequisite to investing the kind of energy, expertise, finances and passion it will take to transform care. After 40 years of working with and for children with exceptional needs I am still full of hope for each and every child needing help, and convinced there are measures by which the system can be improved.

Looking over the history of child care legislation there comes a time when there is the need for root and branch regeneration, where a totally new vision propels change. The Prime Minister's passionate call this week may well be a signpost on the road to that new era we need. These legislative changes come every generation and we are now overdue that step forwards.

The proposals we know about thus far seem to have potential to put relationships at the centre of the care system. The promised mentoring role for care leavers is potentially helpful, but still different from a carer relationship. What young people say they really want to preserve and continue into adulthood is the precious personal relationship they establish with their primary carers. Can a child's former foster carer or keyworker be their chosen mentor to 25? It would be great to think that they could.

A good start, but needing to be wider and deeper. The Prime Minister clearly values family life at the heart of children's lives. It would be helpful to know more of what he sees within families that is essential for all children, including those who can't continue to live with their own.

Enduring Love is one essential. Love matters for all young people.

Two thing s follow for children in care; it can't solely be adoption that is seen as offering it; and, love is not enough for all young people. Some need it from knowledgeable and skilled people working for that young person to experience a renewed experience of 'family.' The rising 3+ and 5+ placements made in a year for some children in care tell us that replication of family life for some young people is not what is needed at some time in some children's lives. Every child needs a family, but some young people in care need preparatory work for family life as previous experiences have not given them all that is needed. Some young people need the experience of 're-parenting' that is provided by the opportunity of fostering or the created family that is residential group living, a children's home. Families are demanding and dynamic environments. Right now there are children who are receiving the residential support they need before they go forward into adoption. Focussing on speedier adoption at the expense of investing in the vital role of other provision can be a false saving.

This is an example of the needed bold sophistication, the resolve with imagination, vision with courage, pragmatism with ambition.

To be thoroughly child-centred, along with adoption we need the Prime Minister to champion and invest in great practice within residential and foster care too. Every child needs the right place for them at the right time.

We need to look closely at the effects of the complexity and priorities of the children's care commissioning 'marketplaces' for residential and foster care. Over the decades we have lost so many of these 'right places.' Diverse specialisms and model, like family group homes where a group lived together as a 'family' with a caring couple, rather than continue to be encouraged have gone from the ecology of care.

We need to look again at the effects of budgets on child care decisions. The radical change needed cannot be achieved by local authorities as their expenditure is subject to too many other pressures and too easily diverted. The money for care placements needs to be in a central CareBank with each young person having an account to spend on whatever care is right for them. If we have this then undoubtedly we will see different decisions being made.

The greatest risk to this moment of reform would be to act in haste or panic, or to skimp on the investment needed in the people who are the head, hearts and hands of the care system. The work of social work and child care is the creation and construction of society. Social work and child care requires deep study, the opportunity to reflect and experiment. There are too many other distractions to time to do it whilst in training It requires more than an apprenticeship can provide.

Social work and child care need thoroughly trained and supported personnel to do a highly professional and vital job on society's behalf. But we need to ask social workers to do something else too, to have their responsibility and authority recognised to speak out in solidarity with the vulnerable and oppressed. This has all but been lost in social work today. Social work has the responsibility not only to act daily to repair the damage of human and social failure, but to act as a mirror on the society we create whilst focused on working hard to build economic prosperity.

Social workers need time to reflect on what is the right relationship for a young person or family, or the right response to make to us as a society. This reflective time isn't seen as productive in today's children's services, we get swallowed up by the busyness and business of the work. The urgency is often to be doing something, and in the face of increasing referrals and service demand, just doing that something is a stretch. If the greatest gift we can ever give our children is our time and attention, then perhaps the same principle should be applied to all those who are caring for them on our behalf.

So maybe that is what the Prime Minister is doing, setting some of his thoughts before us in preparation for us doing something. His thoughts are welcome and we need to reflect on them, take them forwards, and add other essential elements.

We need to regenerate our thinking and then reinvigorate our services.

If previous generations have done it, we can do it too.