Public concern about some children's homes has made the headlines many times in recent months. The wider reality has been obscured by the headlines. Being crystal clear about how our looked-after children are cared for needs a calm and more considered dialogue that can enable all those concerned to find a lasting settlement in the interests of the children themselves.
As the main body for independent and voluntary providers, the Independent Children's Homes Association (ICHA) is as anxious as everyone else to increase standards and the quality of safeguarding in children's homes. ICHA membership means abiding by our code of practice.
The state long ago decided that it preferred the private sector to take the strain. The chances of reviving a municipal sector are remote. In any case, public and private provision should be partners, work together to eradicate bad practice and seek the best available treatment.
Neither public nor private residential provision will be inexpensive but failure to do the best to turn around the lives of our damaged children will cost much more in the long term. In an ideal world, all children would be cared for by their birth parents, their families and kin. But throughout history there has been a steady stream of children who need and thrive in alternative, supplemental or substitute settings. Most of them will be fostered or adopted others, others in children's homes. The numbers vary from country to country; Europe uses residential options much more than England.
The task of each placement choice is different according to intensity of need and it this that makes the cost of residential settings inevitably higher. Currently, many children who should be placed in a home only arrive there when it is too late. On average, they are between 15 and 16 and then only stay a few months. Given that they have been through a series of failed placements, finding it difficult to trust, to engage with education, or to escape destructive behaviours they often don't do as well as they could if they had arrived earlier.
Yet the providers of children's homes are blamed almost exclusively for the poor outcomes that are generated by previous failings. Our organisation and many professional bodies have been increasingly making the case for residential settings as the first rather than last resort for such children.
To this end we are launching a new campaign for residential child care, STEP UP for RCC. The campaign urges national and local government to ensure the right placement at the right time for each child on robust social work grounds and to end the placement of 'last resort' by exploring other and new ways of using residential options.
S is for strategy. The key reform needed is a new sufficiency and diversity duty for local authorities. This can deliver audits of need and local, regional and national placements. Open data allows providers and local authorities to jointly plan the location of placements, according to need, and to deliver the workforce development strategy that has been recommended in many reports.
T is for Task. The National Minimum Standards should be revised. All young people need a 'warm, homely environment' but we must expect no less than the management and improvement of emotional, cognitive, social and physical health with progress measured against agreed principles.
E is for evidence. World class residential care should be showcased. We need a new evidence base for the modern residential sector, which is now nearly 75% private and voluntary.
P is for Partnership. Open and good faith collaboration is needed. A partnership of provision as an ethic and practice for all services and support, including the police.
U is for Understanding. The ICHA advocates a new indicator for looked-after children - 'felt security.' A new understanding is emerging: not 'a long way from home' but 'home from home'. 'Felt security,' psychological and emotional well-being, is more important than distance. Indeed distance may be necessary for specialism, safety or choice.
P is for Practice and addresses workforce development. We cannot and won't deny that there are parts of the care system that have been neglected but the figures tell us that overwhelmingly the quality of care is good, and the worst cases that make headlines not the norm. Most homes have radically improved and sustained their performance over many years. There is excellence in the residential system.
We trust that Ministers are aware of the reality and hope that they listen to us but also to other organisations that share our view of the importance of good children's homes.
The DfE, ADCS and the Care Inquiry have issued reports that each says something slightly different about what is required from residential settings. Central and local government leaders should now combine these reports and provide leadership for comprehensive reform rather than mere sectoral tweaking of individual services or placement types. That strategy should be based on a thorough analysis of need and rights.
In England residential child care provides for a significant minority of looked-after children who will continue to have life-long difficulties unless and until they are placed in the correct part of the care system at the correct time. Yet specialism and choice in children's homes are in danger. The country cannot reduce its children's homes sector further. It is already the smallest size ever.
There is a grave danger that we will sleepwalk into a situation where residential and other sectors cannot offer much needed specialism, safety and choice.
The ICHA is not practicing special pleading. We simply want a detailed dialogue about how to care for all our children and hope that the media, ministers and others will join with us in calm reflection on what should be done as a matter of urgency.