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Criminal Care? · 21 Jun 2018

Why are we still failing children in care?

This is the ultimate question, and one that many have campaigned about, written about, sought to find practical and policy-based answers to; and yet we still do not have the answer.

Why, in one of the richest nations in the world, are children in care disproportionately represented in the youth justice and adult criminal justice systems?

Why is nearly half of the adult prison population made up of people who were formerly in care?

What are we getting so wrong? Why is the State as corporate parent letting our children down?

I would love to say that I have the answer. I don’t. However, I can offer some thoughts based on my own research and experiences of growing up with my parents as foster carers. As a mum, I often reflect on this challenge and think about my own kids. Would I accept what the care system offers for my own children? Absolutely not.

If my daughter was placed with a family that she had never met, in an area that she did not know, sent to a school that she had not attended before, expected to ‘fit in’ to a family that was not her own, with some form of contact with her family depending on a risk assessment, would I accept this?

If my daughter then struggled to cope and adapt, and started running away to try and be with her own friends, where she feels accepted and has a clear sense of her own place in the world, would I call the police and force her to return to the ‘home’ that she was told that she must reside?

Would I accept what the care system offers for my own children? Absolutely not.

If, as a result of this, she started to display challenging behaviour, would I move her to another place, to go through the whole traumatising process above, again?

Would this be repeated on many, many occasions, with ultimately my daughter being labelled a criminal, a runaway, difficult to engage, untrustworthy of those in authority, angry, violent, having mental health problems etc etc?

I can honestly say, absolutely and definitely not. As a parent I would fight hard, with all of my physical, emotional and mental strength to protect my daughter from this.

I would offer her a place of safety, warmth, that she felt in control of and happy with, near to her family and friends, so that she could continue with her life and feel as little disruption as possible.

She may be traumatised and need some form of therapy. So, the home where she lived would be a therapeutic environment, based on her needs, with no expense spared.

If she misbehaved or struggled to cope and ran away, she would not be labelled as problematic or face some form of sanction for her behaviour. Instead, she would receive wraparound support, love, care and warmth, and the opportunity to speak about and receive help for whatever was worrying/ bothering/concerning her.

This is the job of a parent. And we should expect no less from the corporate parent. If the State, as corporate parent, is going to remove a child from their home, family, friends, and everything that they are familiar with (often for very good reason); it is crucial that the parenting that follows is of the highest standard.

It should set a benchmark for parenting standards that all parents should look to. I cannot offer any answers; but I do feel that the State’s role as corporate parent is not meeting the standards or expectations that should go with this huge responsibility.

I am currently completing a piece of research, which involved interviewing 19 children in care who were also subject to youth justice supervision.

They spoke about many situations where they were excluded and subject to labelling and dehumanising treatment for their challenging behaviours.

For example, upon being placed in a Pupil Referral Unit, Anthony described his punishment for his behaviour:

“I got that bad that they got me in a room on me own, the teacher used to come in, pass me work, leave me in the room, put a drink of water there, and leave me in the room to do me work…..they were treating me like I was a dog or something. Treating me like some animal.”

Can I imagine saying to my daughter, if you do not behave, you will not see me for one week, but if you do, you can see me tomorrow? When framed within the role of a parent, this is a ridiculous situation, but one that a number of the children I interviewed described.

 

Some of the children recalled being told by their social worker that if they behaved in their residential placement, they would increase contact with their birth family.

For example, Jack describes being offered increased contact with his mother if he behaves or ‘proves’ himself:

“You shouldn’t have to prove yourself to have contact with your own mum, and it’s only 4 hours as well, it’s not even like it’s an overnight stay or anything. Just 4 hours contact per month. Pathetic.”

The use of such measures to deal with a child’s challenging behaviour is cruel, and not one that most parents would consider using for their own children.

Can I imagine saying to my daughter, if you do not behave, you will not see me for one week, but if you do, you can see me tomorrow? When framed within the role of a parent, this is a ridiculous situation, but one that a number of the children I interviewed described.

All of the children felt that they were responsible in some way for their behaviour, describing themselves as ‘bad’, ‘fucked up’, or ‘insane’.

It was clear that the State, rather than seeking to consider its own role as to why these children were displaying challenging behaviour, was placing responsibility and blame firmly with the child.

The harmful effects of labelling a child are well known; and there are wider issues at play including that children in the youth justice system in England and Wales are blamed and responsibilised for their behaviours.

Perhaps the question that is asked is incorrect. Rather than ask ‘why are we still failing children in care?’, we should ask ‘why is the State as corporate parent not treating children in care as they would their own, and what can be done to urgently address this?’

Anne-Marie Day is a Researcher at the University of Bedfordshire

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