Children & Social Work Bill [Lords]

Written evidence submitted by John Plummer (CSWB 36)

Children and Social Work Bill: power to test different ways of working (new clauses 2-9)

1 Summary:

I worked with children in care, in secondary schools and as an LEA adviser always motivated by concern for vulnerable children. I deplore the continuing trend to experiment with these crucial services. Local Authority provision has often been seriously flawed but we should not try to escape from local and public accountability. We need a long term strategy not more restructuring and blame games played out between Westminster, local authorities and agencies. The costs of our failures have already been huge. Only government, central and local, working in harmony on an agreed strategy, can make this work.

2 Personal background and experience

i. I worked as a student in the sixties for Lambeth and Camden Councils as a locum houseparent and summer camp manager in total about 7 or 8 months. The experience has always stayed with me. I have crystal clear memories of some of those children. I then became a secondary school teacher before moving into LEA advisory work, first in Leeds, then in Cheshire. I had direct responsibilities for managing colleagues who dealt with children in care, educated at home and those affected by trauma. I also managed wider LEA provision, ensuring access to services for children of limited means, for instance Residential and Outdoor Centres, Theatre in Education, Performing and Visual Arts and Technology. I have managed survivors of the care systems who have built responsible careers working with children. I will reflect on the crucial roles of Local Authorities – many already abandoned – and on the essential, unchanging realities affecting the life chances of Children in Care. I am not blind to the failings of Local Authorities but they remain the only long-term option for securing these crucial services.

ii. In the 1960s, prior to the integration of Social Services, children in care often endured uneven support but they did at least have dedicated Child Care Officers who offered advice and advocacy. The greatest single flaw in the system, as I experienced it, was the quality, training and monitoring of residential staff. That I was recruited at all at 18 was alarming evidence enough. Staff turnover was high, recruitment difficult, salaries unattractive and behaviours unregulated. Two permanent staff I worked with were eventually imprisoned for child abuse. I had no direct evidence of this and was anyway too naïve to be alert. Two others were ex-prison officers whose attitudes to their girls were entirely unsympathetic.

iii. Rivalries between services (Care, Police, Schools, Youth, Social Workers, legal system) undermined any real sense of purpose or direction in these homes. The very experienced youth worker who managed the summer camps I helped to run, rubbished all outside his own limited circle. There were a handful of heroic and inspired social workers who were widely respected by staff and children alike. And some staff were intuitive and empathetic in their dealings with children. Their role as House-parents was fulfilled. Too many children were in children’s homes because fostering and adoption were on offer. Maybe Homes were a cheaper solution.

iv. Many of the children had experienced much more hardship, trauma, abuse and neglect in their little lives than I could ever have imagined. The service contained them – though evidently some were unforgivably abused. Their trust had been broken repeatedly from infancy onwards. They could not rely on the quality of care provided by Local Authorities. The core concern for these children is TRUST. Unless we can build, re-build and sustain trust (that they will challenge relentlessly) we cannot achieve very much. Aspiration, improved attainment, fulfilling employment, stable relationships – great aims - can only grow from restored trust

iv. But for all the reforms, the fine words, outsourcing, integration, restructuring, the repetitive mantra that ‘Lessons will be learnt’, the huge difficulties of running good quality care services for children remain intractable. Reforms have often distorted rather than advanced the needs of children whose lives are already wrecked. These latest proposals to exempt local authorities from their duty of care for such children are perverse. Only a sense of public service, a spirit of generosity and commitment to children’s well-being can give them their lives back. Only local authorities, working in harmony with the voluntary sector, can do this. A dogma that insists on profit motive as the only way to tackle this dreadful inheritance is both absurd and, frankly, obscene. It will only deepen the crisis. The characteristics of the 1960s seem very familiar in the 2010s.

3 What can be done to turn this around?

i Quality of Staff

We need house-parents who are well grounded and have sufficient life experience to engage with these young people effectively. We need terms of employment (salary, leave, support, accommodation) to recruit people for 10 years plus into a professional career (not 10 months in a destructively tough job). Ideally we need sensitive people with positive experience of adoption, fostering, care and parenting. We know enough about the causes of child abuse to avoid recruiting likely perpetrators. The vast majority of adults motivated to work with children pose no threat at all. Effective oversight and management should weed out the others. Recruitment to these roles, and to their management, is highly specialised. It is no good at all having a stellar Head of Service if quality is not disseminated throughout. Only a locally accountable service can achieve all this. It must be a long term strategy, not this endless series of changing structures and priorities. Qualifications, rewards and training should be integrated with wider social work. Residential care is exhausting and demoralising work, for all the rewards its small successes may bring.

ii. Entitlements for children in care

Children in care need entitlements that go beyond children who grow up in secure family settings. Building trust over years is the core of this. Placements need to be meticulously researched and supported. They need protection from frequent moves between homes, schools, communities. They need to be heard. When they are in trouble (school, police eg) they need sympathetic advocacy and treatment. They must accept responsibility for their actions but be trusted with chances to redeem them. Their histories often do not make them lovable or likable. Many will experiment with cheap drugs. Some will sell their bodies for money. Some will perpetrate dreadful acts. They will test everyone to the limit. We need a strategic set of practices to enable staff and children to cope wisely with this. Educational and work opportunities need individual design. Fitting in to yet another school, mid-term, without friends, with discontinuous learning behind them, is unlikely to work. Only local authorities can bring the stream of services involved together. Atomising the needs and handing them to commercially driven agencies will be disastrous for the majority. Children in care are most prone to fall into trouble in evenings, weekends and school holiday periods. They should have access to good quality, reliably staffed locations and activities (eg the arts, sport, vocational, adventure). Only a well organised local authority can secure such provision and is the most likely environment to safeguard children from predation. And these young people deserve first class provision to deal with personal and sexual health, relationships, mental health etc. It is irresponsible to leave them in the queue with everybody else.

iii. Costs and Resources

We need rock solid, connected public investment in services for children in care. Short contracts with the likes of G4S may create headlines but are doomed as a long term approach. This is about staffing and domestic provision (good food, secure environments, well run buildings, leisure activities etc). But it is also about funding for the transition to work and to independent living. These young people should have access, where appropriate, to the free education which my generation enjoyed. No loans, no debts, no half-cost grants. More halfway house facilities are needed to protect them from the private rental sector. There should be financial support well beyond 21 for those that need it. Again this is a role for the public purse and provision. It needs the scrutiny and accountability of local representatives.

4 Why should we?

i. Attitudes to children in care and to their carers have never been sympathetic or constructive. The popular media denigrate social workers and breathe fire at any hint of special, costly provision for ‘delinquents’. The police are too stretched to provide nuanced treatment for difficult children or to spend time in meetings with social workers and teachers. The NHS is overwhelmed. Magistrates seem constrained in dealing with young people. The government’s austerity measures have scaled back mental health provision for damaged young people. This has buckled with the rest of their support services. The voluntary sector is struggling too.

Ii The costs of failing to build a strategy are massive. Too many of these young people are drawn into anti-social and criminal activity. Too many of them spend expensive time in custody and institutions, often lacking the skills and understanding to stabilise their lives on release. Many of them under-achieve in education and employment where they find it difficult to conform. They endure periods of homelessness. Many of them find it even more difficult than the rest of us to sustain mutually satisfying relationships. The catalogue goes on. We have, as a society failed them so that they become vulnerable or aggressive adults. In cost benefit terms (if no other) we would be better off investing wholeheartedly in the well-being of children in care to enhance their life chances. It will always be imperfect but it can be better.

5 Exempting Local Authorities from providing services

Exempting local authorities from their duties of care for children at risk is taking us in the wrong direction. We need cohesion and quality in these services. We need central and local government acting in harmony (despite decades of war) to improve provision in the interest of vulnerable children and of our wider society. If shortcuts existed we would know by now.

January 2017

 

Prepared 5th January 2017