Can we make room for love while keeping those in children’s homes safe?

loveTHERE are lots of little things you take for granted when you’re a young person with someone at home who cares. It’s a given that someone will read your school report and attend your parents’ evening. That someone will take pride in your triumphs and help you overcome any setbacks. That someone will enforce boundaries for your safety and comfort you with cuddles.

Children in care cannot take any of this for granted. They may not even take for granted that next week, next month or next year they will be living with the same family. They may not be living with a family at all. They may be in an institution, looked after by staff.

Residential care in modern Scotland is a far cry from the grim institutions of decades past

Think of a children’s home, and what comes to mind? An imposing old building full of dormitory beds, or a family home in a suburban street, with bedrooms decorated by their young residents? Residential care in modern Scotland is a far cry from the grim institutions of decades past – about which we’ll be hearing a lot over the next few years – but there’s are two constants. These homes are run by workers, not mums and dads, and they house some of the most vulnerable young people in our society.

The Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry finally held its first hearing this week after a stormy first 18 months during which it lost not only its original chair but both of its other two panel members amid claims of government interference. It’s little wonder many abuse survivors lack confidence in the whole process, which is looking at abuse of children in care and has two vitally important aims. The first is to provide a “forum for validation” of the experience and testimony of those who were abused, many of whom may have suffered in silence for decades – or, worse still, worked up the courage to speak out only to be disbelieved. The second aim is to make recommendations for law, policy and practice, to ensure such abuse cannot happen again.

The hearing began with unreserved apologies from numerous organisations under whose watch children were abused. Such words cannot, of course, undo the serious harm that has blighted so many lives, but they’re a start.

We have mandatory reporting procedures for those working with children, and a better understanding of warning signs

The child protection landscape has changed significantly since the days when orphaned or abandoned children were sent to homes run by charities or churches that made their own rules and avoided scrutiny. We now have a Care Inspectorate that’s responsible for assessing and grading services, then making recommendations for how they can improve. We have mandatory reporting procedures for those working with children, and a better understanding of warning signs like aggressive outbursts and sexualised behaviour. Staff working in children’s units produce incident logs, receive training in safe restraint methods, and attend child protection case conferences.

But despite all of this change, or perhaps even because of it, something is missing. In a powerful TEDx talk she delivered in Glasgow last year, Laura Beveridge summed it up starkly: “Love is not part of the deal”. She described moving from foster carers to residential accommodation and ultimately, after a suicide attempt, a secure unit. Her physical needs were being met by those employed to look after her, but she felt rejected and unloved. She says committed, caring staff were not allowed to tell her otherwise.

Nicola Sturgeon has been listening care-experienced people like Laura, and has ordered a “root and branch” review of the system in which their voices will be heard. This isn’t an exercise in tokenism – half of those in the initial discovery group have been “looked-after” themselves. Children in care “need to know they are loved and feel cared for,” the First Minister has said. “This review is not about determining if this can be achieved, but how we create a system that puts love for the children it cares for at its heart.”

We have paradoxical attitudes towards children generally, and children in care in particular

This will not be an easy task, because as a society we have paradoxical attitudes towards children generally, and children in care in particular. On one hand we know they need love if they are to grow into healthy, happy adults – of course we do – but on the other we’ve become more and more suspicious about the motives of the unrelated adults around them. Those who make headlines are generally not the teachers and support workers who encourage and inspire, or the youth group leaders and sports coaches who build up self-esteem and unlock hidden talents. We hear more about predators than positive role models, and more about the red tape of child protection than the positive benefits of volunteering. It will not be surprising if the recommendations of the abuse inquiry are in direct contradiction to those of the care review.

Perhaps those trying to improve the care system will welcome moves such as a the recent designation of two dozen organisations as “corporate parents” with a duty to listen to the “needs, fears and wishes of children and young people” and be proactive in their efforts to meed them. But it may well suggest that a single human being – an adult who truly cares – is worth more to a young person than anything the likes of Creative Scotland or the Scottish Housing Regulator might be able to do.

You cannot legislate for love. But you can try to make sure you don’t legislate against it.

A version of this article first appeared in The National.

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