Piece for "Fresh Social Work" May 2018.
I have a very strong vested interest in the English care system. I grew up in it, spending 16 years with a selection of children’s homes and foster carers. My entire childhood from being a toddler to being a man was spent in the English care system. My involvement did not stop there. I spent over 40 years as a social worker, working in community field work, as a manager of residential children’s homes and latterly for about 17 years as an inspector.
After over 60 years around the care system I can now safely say that I don’t know all the answers. I am now informed and experienced enough to know that I don’t even know all the questions. I am not an expert, because experts in the merits of the English care system don’t exist. Every child is unique and the best interests and most appropriate care for each child is unique, and there can never be a ‘one size fits all’ approach to the care system. The one lesson that I have learned is that the care system is a paradox. The care system was responsible for some of the most miserable, frightening and damaging years in my life. But that same care system saved my life. In care, I routinely endured physical, emotional and institutional abuse from some of the most unpleasant people I have met during my lifetime. Yet I literally owe my life and anything I achieved in later life to people in the care system who went the extra mile for me.
National disadvantage statistics annually repeat the list of disadvantages young people from care have faced. Massively over represented amongst the prison population, amongst the homeless, the unemployed, the poorly educated, and so on. We shake our heads and tell each other something must be done. Yet we also see the vast majority of young people leaving care to have ordinary normal lives, disappearing invisibly into the general population. Some do exceptionally well and become household names. Many of those who do well have also appeared in the disadvantage statistics. The same children can figure as both failures and successes of the care system. The paradox that is the care system.
It is usual at this time offer solutions to solve the many issues that impact upon our care system and make it the paradox that it is. There are so many things need doing – more investment, more, better paid and qualified staff, more choice of resources, - so many things need doing, I can support them all. I suggest none will work without adhering to certain key principles.
Obviously, young people come into care to protect them from harm, to remove them from harmful situations, or to prevent them from causing harm. Those are not ends in themselves – those must be starting points. Placing a child in care must be a therapeutic process. Every placement must be part of an ongoing care plan based on the best interests of the child, but not just the child, but the adult they are to become. All care settings must be greenhouses, offering care that enriches the child and nurtures the adult to come. None should simply offer safe storage, keeping a child out of trouble and out od the public’s hair. There should be no place in children’s social care for such warehouses. It is my experience that there are still some ‘warehouses’ out there.
Given the paradox of the care system, how can we possibly know what is the best way to improve it? To me there can only be one way - ask those who use it and have used it. It is not enough to hold a focus group or consult a few kids who have recently left care. We need to get the widest view based on the longest, most diverse and most experienced consultants available -the care experienced community of all ages, in all its glorious diversity. That is why I support a conference for the care experienced people of all ages.
Of course, it not enough to consult unless you then act upon the consultation. I should like to see a full root and branch review of the English care system, much as they are undertaking in Scotland. The learning could be the basis of a fully funded reform programme. Will this bring the much needed changes vital if we are to get the best from our care system? I don’t know. What I do know is that it will be the first serious attempt to address the paradox of care in the six decades I have shared with it.