No child would ever want to be in care. Sometimes they simply need to be – sometimes care saves lives. It’s fair to say that at the time of being admitted, care is usually better than the alternative. Even so, when a child is admitted to care they are thrust into a new and strange world of public ‘ownership’ at a time when they have probably experienced trauma sufficient to justify them being removed from their family.
Consider those children who are removed from ‘abusive’ families. This might be an entirely appropriate thing to do, fully justified legally and even morally – but it is often the child who suffers. In meeting their duty to protect, the ‘rescuers’ are taking the child away from all he or she knows. Whatever little security and attachment the child has is removed suddenly. It may well be in their best interests …….but try telling that to the child.
There are thousands of skilful, dedicated and committed social care, health and education professionals and carers ready to look after the child. These people all want to help the child. Why then does the care system fail so many children? Why, when the child has experienced the trauma of being removed from all that he or she has ever known, do so many children face this process being repeated sometimes time and time again?
Many social workers or carers will tell you about placement breakdowns and, in an unwittingly entered competition, you may find that they will often ‘gazump’ each other with true stories of a child who has had twenty, thirty, forty or more placements. It is impossible to work in child care and not come across these children. Even after decades, it still happens with appalling frequency.
How might these numerous and changing placements impact on the child’s development, education, sense of attachment, self-esteem? Badly, inevitably.
Should we be surprised that looked after children fare less well in education, for example? Of course not – so would we all if we changed school every few months and could not be entirely certain where we would be living from one month to another. There’s another thing – ‘attachment’. I am not one of those who feel that ‘attachment theory’ holds all the answers but it does provide quite a few. Many people switch off when they hear the word ‘theory’, yet often theory is simply condensed common sense. In my view, the impact of changing placement on a child’s capacity to form meaningful attachments is critical.
Even today, it sadly remains true that few children who enter care remain very long in their first placement. A change of placement within weeks or even days is still common. What impact do such changes of placement have? (Actually, the term ‘changes of placement’ doesn’t begin to tell the whole story does it? What it means as children often move through two, three, five, ten or twenty placements is that their carers change all of the time. Their social network is built and then dismantled, whatever trust they developed in their carers evaporates and for reasons of basic self-preservation, the young people are less likely to trust the next carer or carers in line.)
Pause a moment all those of you who haven’t been in care. Can you really imagine what that feels like? I can’t. I can conceptualise it but I can’t begin to imagine the pain and emotional impact. Of course the more complex the child the more likely it is that he or she will experience more upheavals, and every one adds to the litany of damage caused to the child in care.
Do people generally know what an attachment disorder is? What it looks like? The impact it can have? I suspect not. This piece is not even going to try to go there. I have not the skill with words to do so. However I implore you to watch the video on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0
As you watch this video, remember that it was a securely attached child experiencing a moment in time, not a whole childhood of unmet needs.
What therapy do we offer these children in care to begin to help them deal with their trauma? Frequently none, rarely consistently and almost never enough. If we placed a child in hospital because of a broken leg, would we simply feed, clean, keep it warm and as safe as we could it for a period and then send it on? No: we would ‘fix’ the leg.
Why then don’t we fix the trauma, and why then are we surprised that there are consequences for the rest of the child’s life. Seems simple doesn’t it?
Here is a true story of a referral I received from a social worker in October 2012
The social worker told me “J.’s age is a major issue. At 8 he is not of an age of criminal consent, which denies him access to further services, and means that his case is not deemed appropriate for discussion in certain arenas. I recently completed the ‘Vulnerability Checklist’ for J. in an attempt to have his case discussed at RMG.”
(I was then told that he had ‘wrecked the house, stabbed and killed a pony, kicked a pet pigeon to death, that he frequently and violently assaults his mother, father and siblings; that he is permanently excluded from school.)
The social worker continued: “However, due to his age and his non – involvement in sexual exploitation, hard drugs or overnight absconding for example, he only scored at 49 and the referral would not have been accepted.”
Did the local authority want a therapeutic placement? Oh no that would cost too much! I was told. I could not help but think to myself that if only he could have killed someone perhaps he would have ‘qualified’ for the help he so clearly needs.
Of course I have little doubt that J. was found an ‘affordable’ (for affordable read probably inappropriate to his needs) placement but I can be certain it will not have met his needs and that it will probably have broken down – as will several others afterwards – at which point finding the right placement may be impossible as the child’s experiences in all probability have pushed him further away from rather than towards recovery. And the cycle continues…
As the journey through care progresses, the situation does not improve for many children. Many may be increasingly vulnerable to someone who shows them affection and attention (which may lead to sexual exploitation).
Many may seek to take control of that part of their life that they can (sometimes manifesting as self-harm), or they try to block out bad memories and a pretty awful life (sometimes involving substance abuse). Some simply try to flee and become listed as missing.
These are our children – ‘Children in the Public Care’ as one Act states it. Who cares? Not enough people that’s for sure.
Moving towards the end of their care experience, even those children who have thrived and progressed face an abnormal future. They are effectively evicted from home by their 18th birthday at the latest in most cases and generally long before.
Sure, in theory (and subject to the capacity and benevolence of their foster carers) some children can ‘stay put’ until they are 21. Disgracefully, for children in residential care this is not even an option. This government seems to think it’s OK to discriminate between children with the same needs.
At a time when our society ponders why it is that so many ‘twenty and thirty somethings’ are still living at home with their parents, why is it that care leavers (who are often much less well equipped by virtue of their disrupted childhoods) are thrown out by their ‘parents’ at little more than half that age? It hurts, it’s frightening and it’s dangerous – and we do it to our care leavers.
Little wonder then that so many care leavers have troubled adult lives – the statistics are well known and I shan’t repeat them here. It is amazing that so many care leavers still have the courage and resilience to make the transition to adulthood without the struggle becoming too much. Very many don’t. They don’t because we as corporate parents have failed to meet their needs. Essentially we contribute to the ruining of some lives, not just childhoods, and the lives that those affected bring into the world are often affected too.
Care……….there is no escape for some. It just keeps on hurting for a lifetime.
Please sign Children England’s petition calling on party leaders to answer the simple question: “What will you do for children in care?”