THE BLOG
23/06/2015 17:41 BST | Updated 23/06/2016 10:59 BST

Children in Care - Prison Isn't Destiny

We believe in children, and each and every day we hear from foster carers who are bursting with pride because the child that they have devoted weeks, months, and even years to caring for have achieved their exam results, secured an apprenticeship, got married, passed their driving test. The list goes on. The list of things that foster carers have to celebrate with the children they care for just goes on and on.

But we only have to look at the news stories around the Prison Reform Trust consultation, "Only 2% are taken into care primarily because of their own socially unacceptable behaviour, according to government figures from 2014" to see how society talks about children living in care. The automatic angle is the negative.

I believe that we need to convey a much more positive, powerful message - one that that says that despite the loss and trauma that the vast majority of children in care have experienced, they've worked harder than anyone to build a positive future for themselves.

If every time you heard someone talk about you, and people with a similar background to you, and it was negative - how would you feel?

It's wrong that as society we have accepted that young people in care are perceived to already have a troubled future mapped out for them because of their background and personal circumstance.

We believe the care system can work to benefit the vast majority of children who have a journey through it, and would caution against the stigmatisation of children in care. Almost all children in care are from backgrounds of deprivation, abuse and neglect often resulting in emotional, social and behavioural difficulties, including behaviour which can get them in trouble with the police, but the vast majority of whom not only don't get in to trouble but in fact are ambitious and outstanding young men and women.

Indeed, research carried out by Schofield et al for TACT shows that early entry to care followed by sensitive parenting in a stable placement with good professional support from a range of agencies, including education and health, minimises the risk of offending behaviour.

The review into why children in care are more likely than others to be caught up in the criminal justice system is welcome news, as is the appointment of Lord Laming, who has the relevant experience to lead the review. We hope that the review will have as wide a scope as possible because we need to understand why young care experienced people are over-represented in the prison system. If we know the root causes of this, then we can better support foster carers and other professionals to ensure early intervention and protective factors are in place, rather than tackling the symptoms of the problem.

The focus by the review on placement moves is also particularly welcome as a survey conducted recently by The Fostering Network found that two in five (40 per cent) fostered teenagers are already living with their third foster family since coming into care. Being moved from home to home can have a hugely detrimental effect on children's education, wellbeing and ability to make and maintain relationships.

When our team is out talking to young people, they are often told of the importance of protective factors, such as social and peer support, which need to be in place so children in care can flourish. If these protective factors aren't available at home, because they're in a placement or care setting that isn't suitable, then they will find those protective factors elsewhere. Being a part of a gang may provide the family, self-esteem and sense of belonging that they feel they haven't got, and without a guiding hand they will not see that any rewards reaped through crime will not only be short lived, but hugely detrimental to their futures.

We must not only look at reasons for the higher rates of care leavers in the prison system that can be put into statistics, we've got to look deep into the lives of each individual. Foster care, where the vast majority of children in care live, is aimed at giving a child who can't live with their birth or adoptive family the opportunity to experience what society would consider to be a 'normal' childhood.

However, foster carers must be supported and have appropriate authority delegated to them to be able to make this happen. How does the child who can't go on a school trip because their foster carer can't sign a permission form feel?

Early intervention, education and supporting foster carers in providing a stable upbringing could go a long way towards stopping young people walk headlong into the revolving door of youth offending. For a long time we needed to realise that our responsibility to children and young people does not end when they get to 17 and 364 days, and that's why The Fostering Network successfully campaigned to allow young people to stay with their foster carers until the age of 21.

We seem to have created a system where if you're succeeding then you'll be supported, but if you start to fall, then the focus quickly moves from rehabilitation to punishment. Of course we have to ensure that in all aspects of life we reward success, but with young people who may have only experienced abandonment, we have to make sure that we're their strongest allies, and we have to show that no matter what we're there for them. Our services have to be joined up and make sure that young people who are in danger of falling on hard times don't fall between the cracks and get lost to society forever.

Investment in foster care, in education support for children in care, and delegating authority to the foster carers who know the children in their care best can go a long way towards enabling young people to continue down the path of positivity and to a successful adulthood.

It's much harder to allow them to fail, it's much more effort to turn the other cheek, and I hope that this review will shine a light on many of the steps we can all take towards supporting young people and helping them to achieve their dreams.