Kids in care deserve our compassion, not suspicion 

thomas-tankWHEN children in care hit the headlines, it’s rarely for the right reasons. A drip-feed of statistics shows them to be under-performing at school, over-represented in prisons and returning to the attention of social services when they become parents themselves. At first glance it might look as though going into care is just about the worst thing that could happen to a young person … but what if the opposite is true?

When National Care Leavers Week Scotland begins this week, the focus will not be on doom and gloom but on the achievements and talents of care-experienced Scots. It’s perhaps an indication of how much there is to celebrate that the “week” actually lasts 10 days. The advocacy charity co-ordinating it all, Who Cares? Scotland, aims to challenge the stigma the “in care” label attracts, while recognising the grim outcomes associated with it and working to transform them.

It’s a fine line to tread. Of course the statistics are a cause for concern  and the root-and-branch review of the system promised by Nicola Sturgeon at the weekend is to be warmly welcomed, especially since care-experienced young people are to be at its heart – but look behind the headline figures and a more complex picture emerges.

It is the pupils ‘looked after’ at home, the ones who most people wouldn’t think of as being in care, who have the worst school results

To most people, “in care” means looked after away from home, in a foster placement or children’s home. But those oft-cited education statistics cover the wider population of “looked-after” children – which includes those looked after at home, by their parents, under the supervision of social work. It is actually these pupils, the ones who most people wouldn’t think of as being in care, who have the worst school results.

Why might this be? Well, consider the profile of these children. There are serious concerns about them – serious enough that someone has made a referral to the children’s reporter – and it has been decided by a children’s panel that compulsory measures of care are required. The starting point for any such decision is the principle of minimum intervention, which means families have the chance to work with the social work department on a voluntary basis and avoid the need for a Compulsory Supervision Order. Such orders are not made lightly – so it’s perhaps little wonder that children who become looked-after in this way are not reaching their full potential at school.

The best place for the vast majority of children to grow up is at home with their parents or other family members

This isn’t to suggest being accommodated away from home is plain sailing – clearly it’s a hugely unsettling experience for any child. The best place for the vast majority of children to grow up is at home with their parents or other family members. But for those who are abused or chronically neglected, foster or residential care can be transformative. It can relieve children of the burden of looking after themselves, their siblings, even their parents. It can replace fear and uncertainty with reassurance and routine. It can gradually restore eroded self-esteem.

The association of care experience with negative outcomes might seem straightforward, but establishing a correlation is not the same as proving a cause-and-effect relationship. Take young offenders: one-third of those in Polmont grew up in care, but research by the Centre for Youth and Criminal Justice based at Strathclyde University found that fully three-quarters of these young men had experienced traumatic bereavements involving suicide, overdose or murder. Focusing on care experience, rather than the dreadful circumstances that might lead to a child being accommodated away from home, risks both labeling this whole group of young people as potential offenders and obscuring the real root cause of very serious problems.

There are no second chances once an order is granted confirming a child will never be returning home

Raw figures can also fail to capture important details about care experience, including the number of placements involved and the age at which the child was first removed from home. Perhaps the most tragic of negative outcomes for a care-experienced person is the permanent removal of their own child. Exams can be re-sat or postponed until later in life, and young offenders can mature and be rehabilitated, but there are no second chances once an order is granted confirming a child will never be returning home. The parent can go on to have further children, but with no guarantee they will be allowed to keep any of them either.

In a recent lecture in Glasgow, Professor Karen Broadhurst of Lancaster University revealed the latest findings from her research into what she terms, for want of a better description, “repeat clients of the family court” in England. She reported that some 40% of the mothers sampled by her team had been in formal care when they were children, and half of these had experienced multiple moves. A closer look at the profile of these parents showed that few entered care as babies or even infants. Nearly half were aged 10 to 16, and it’s probably safe to assume that in most cases things did not suddenly go wrong when they hit double figures. A decade is a very long time to be neglected, or exposed to violence and abuse.

Incremental improvements in outcomes for care-experienced young people in Scotland can likely be explained in part by the drive towards early intervention and the removal of children before irreparable damage is done. But if things are to keep heading in the right direction, the job of boosting these young people’s life chances cannot be left to the social workers, police officers, teachers and other professionals who come into contact with them.

If looked-after children are to thrive and achieve, then every member of society has a role to play

If looked-after children are to thrive and achieve, then every member of society has a role to play. Be honest – if your child, your grandchild, your niece or nephew mentioned a classmate who was in care, how would you react? By encouraging friendship, or proceeding with caution? With compassion or with suspicion? Everyone wants the best for their own children, every parent is alive to the dangers of the bad influence and the “wrong crowd”, but pre-judging children in care risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The vast majority are there though no fault of their own, and as a society we simply can’t afford to marginalise them, or regard them as someone else’s problem. These are our children too.

A version of this article first appeared on the www.stv.tv.

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