I recently wrote a piece for Community Care about the difficulties involved in keeping some looked after children safe and what I think needs to be done to address this. If you haven’t already, you can read it here. It received a much bigger response than anything else I have ever written – most of it positive or, at least, engaged with the issue, and some of it critical.
However, while it is of course flattering when people say nice things or agree with me on Twitter (I have an ego), I did not write it for these reasons. Nor did I write it as clickbait for Community Care. I wrote it because I am very worried about the issue and feel passionately about it. It is for this reason I am pleased it got a bit of attention.
Although there are recurring themes running through my blog posts and published articles, I do not usually return directly to the same topic. I am going to break with that habit here – partly because I feel the issue is so important, partly to expand on my ideas, and partly to directly address the criticism.
Firstly, and for the sake of clarity, here are some things I was not suggesting in my article and definitely do not think:
I do not think all looked after children need to be cared for in the type of provision I outlined. I do not think one size fits all. I do not think we should return to 1970’s approved schools. I do not think all current children’s homes should be given the power lock children up . I do not think the answer to children running away and putting themselves at risk is simply to lock them all up. And, having reread it several times since it was published, I am certain nothing in the article suggests that I do think these things and nothing in it could reasonably be interpreted as implying I think these things.
I do think a significant number of children are at considerable risk (in fact, not just at risk of, but actually being harmed) and society is a) not doing anything meaningful to keep them safe and b) not caring for them, or helping them, in a way which is likely to lead to them going on to have the kinds of adult lives we would wish for them.
The model of care I describe in the Community Care piece is what I think is necessary to protect some very traumatised and disturbed young people from further abuse while ensuring they get the therapeutic help they need in order to recover and heal. I stand by it.
I am suggesting a new type of provision, within a new legislative framework, which I think would be in the immediate and long term best interests of a large number of extremely vulnerable and damaged young people (but still a small minority of looked after children). Quite obviously it would need fleshing out beyond the few paragraphs I devoted to it in a 1000 word article for an online magazine.
One of my critics messaged me to say I had not considered the children’s rights. So let us look at some of those rights:
1. In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration
2. States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures.
3. States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision.
States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislative, administrative, social and educational measures, to protect children from the illicit use of narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances as defined in the relevant international treaties, and to prevent the use of children in the illicit production and trafficking of such substances.
States Parties undertake to protect the child from all forms of sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. For these purposes,States Parties shall in particular take all appropriate national, bilateral and multilateral measures to prevent:
(a) The inducement or coercion of a child to engage in any unlawful sexual activity;
(b) The exploitative use of children in prostitution or other unlawful sexual practices;
(c) The exploitative use of children in pornographic performances and materials.
To be frank, if anyone working in children’s social care or for any organisation concerned, in any way, with the well-being of children, sincerely believes we are currently meeting these rights for many looked after children, then I urge them to consider whether they have the awareness or understanding required for their current job role.
What makes this so much worse is I am not discussing kids who have slipped through the net or who have not come to the attention of services – I am discussing children who are already in the care of the state.
Of course children also have the right not to be deprived of their liberty. But it is a simple and inevitable truth where human rights are concerned that one right often has to be balanced against another (plenty of human rights lawyers make a great deal of money off the back of these unavoidable dilemmas). A typical and well-known example would be the importance of press freedom vs an individual’s right to privacy.
No one should be deprived of freedom without good reason but what exactly is it we are giving these extremely vulnerable and traumatised children, who simply do not have the capacity to make healthy decisions, the freedom to do? The freedom to be exploited and abused? The freedom to take ridiculously damaging psychoactive substances – causing unknown harm to their already fragile psyches? The freedom to runaway from good care? The freedom to fuck up their own lives?
One commenter on social media suggested a similar set-up already exists regarding adult mental health. I am very reluctant to draw this comparison. Not least because, while the type of provision I describe would hardly be like an ordinary home, it would have to be much closer to a home environment than a hospital.
Nevertheless, the important point here is that even with vulnerable and disturbed adults, past a certain threshold, society will intervene in their best interests. And it is possible to devise legal frameworks to manage this.
I see no point in repeating the original article here but as is clear from any sane reading of it – I am not suggesting we lock children up and forget about them and the type of provision I describe allows for the possibility of going out into the community with staff initially, and later, when professionals feel it would be safe, without support.
Usually, I write when I am in a thoughtful mood, a sad mood, or sometimes both. On this occasion I am angry.
N.B Normal service will be resumed for my next post.