Ten years ago, I found two little boys cowering outside the doors of Kids Company. Both were splattered in blood. They explained that two men in their house vying for their mother's attention had tried to stab each other. Both boys had jumped in the middle to prevent a murder: their eyes were glazed with shock, and their already translucent skin had acquired a more alarming tone of grey. I begged them to let me go back to their home.
I found the most shocking living conditions. Their beds were rotten mattresses on the floor, with each child having half a bin liner full of clothes. There was no table or chair, nowhere to sit, and one of the boy's trainers was stuffed into the wall: it was his attempt to keep the rats out, because one had bitten the baby's ear. When I opened the cupboards in the kitchen there was no food, and it was worse than the dirtiest toilet in terms of poor hygiene. The children explained that when they ate, everyone rotated the only plate in the house, taking turns to use the single fork.
If the RSPCA found animals in this house, they would have removed them to protect them against cruelty. The mother in this house is a prolific substance abuser and all the children she has given birth to are profoundly disturbed.
You could criticise the mother as well as the social workers, but constantly vilifying vulnerable people and the professionals who deal with them has got us nowhere. The mother herself was, as is so often the case, another unprotected child. Since 2005 there have been 645 serious case reviews, where children have been seriously harmed or died whilst supposedly being protected. Page after page, there is evidence of systemic failure: doctors, teachers, social workers having before their eyes powerful evidence of maltreatment, but failing to react to it. Despite so many children being harmed on our watch, nothing changed. Reports gather dust in locked filing cabinets, reassuring the nation with the delusion that improvements will be brought about.
I have worked thirty years on the streets of London, and now with Kids Company in Liverpool and Bristol. In thirty years, the same systemic failures in protecting children and treating mental illness remain evident. The only change I see is that the violence children are exposed to behind closed doors is now compounded by lack of safety, threat to life on the streets and abuse through social media. In 2013 University College London carried out research at Kids Company. They found one in five of the children and young people they questioned described being shot at and/or stabbed, with 50% witnessing shootings and stabbings in the last year. One in four of their immediate family members and friends had also been shot at and/or stabbed.
Privately politicians acknowledge the difficulties, and some of them admit to being completely overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. Others don't see any merit in robustly addressing the concerns, because children don't vote and are not going to hold them accountable.
To evidence robustly the profound dysfunction within our child protection and child mental health services, Kids Company invited the Centre for Social Justice, which is an independent think-tank founded by Iain Duncan Smith, to carry out research. With the children's permission, we gave them access to our files and allowed them to speak to the young people. The chronic and shocking failures they evidenced propelled them to widen the enquiry nationally, as a result of which they have produced a detailed report capturing the evidence senior managers, social workers, mental health professionals and barristers provided, revealing "abhorrent", corrupt, dysfunctional and unsatisfactory practices which workers themselves found profoundly unacceptable.
It is important to emphasise that there are extraordinarily dedicated and outstanding practitioners who want the best for children. The system within which they work is profoundly flawed and consequently generates betrayal of both workers and vulnerable children. It is in this context that Kids Company is initiating a campaign to support the formation of an independent children's taskforce.
'See the Child, Change the System' will mobilise the public to bring together some of the leading thinkers in the country in order to create a better child mental health and social work system where children and workers can bring out the best in each other. This is not about yet another inquiry that bites dust in a cabinet: it's a social action initiative driven by resolute action to change the system and make it fit for purpose. We are familiar with cruelty through active acts of malice, but more insidious and corrosive is cruelty through apathy. It is unforgivable for one of the leading nations of the world not to have prioritised the protection and treatment of its most vulnerable children.
We all need to be involved, to be outraged, and to expect change. By signing our petition for change on behalf of a vulnerable child you can be a member of this transformation agenda. Just text 'I SEE' to 63000 (standard network rates apply) or visit seethechild.org In doing so you become a witness and an advocate on behalf of children who can't speak for themselves.
Together, we can hold our politicians accountable, and demand that they prioritise the needs of vulnerable children who deserve to have their courage matched by society's courage to dream the best reparation for them.
For more information, visit seethechild.org
You can also follow the campaign on Twitter at @seethechild.