We should all feel responsible for the children dumped in care

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The Independent Culture
THE PREFERRED term for children in care is "looked-after children". I find the term sweetly endearing but impossible to use, because there is so much evidence that these children are often dumped and dumped on rather than "looked after" by most of the adults they encounter in their lives.

The league table published yesterday by the Department of Health is an important move in the right direction. For years the Tories let social services departments fester because their work did not fit in with market forces or with the traditional family ideologies that became so rampant during that reign of terror. Terror, yes, because victimhood was pronounced worse than victimisation; those who could not survive the rush were allowed to be crushed. And the people who were involved in picking up the pieces were seen as a burden on society, rather than an asset to it.

Unsurprisingly, a dark, damp, inward-looking atmosphere developed in most social work departments. The fact that the media were always available to bash a social worker - for doing nothing, and also for interfering - made this worse. So I am pleased that this Government is taking social services as seriously as it takes education.

The bad news is, though, that the information that has come out is much worse than I thought. A large number of boroughs, mine included, are not even achieving minimal standards, and children, in particular, are being failed miserably.

A new daytime series on BBC television, which begins in January, intends to show individual children in care who need parents, with the hope that people watching may be moved to offer foster placements or even adoption. There has been a furore about this, with people complaining that it is putting "up for sale" children who are already hurt. I disagree. I think opening up this area is a crucial part of change. For years I have been curious to know whether children living in care institutions have their birthdays celebrated. Who buys their clothes, and do they have a choice? Where do they go when they are being maltreated by a member of staff or foster-parent? But, most of all, who provides continuity of care as they go in and out of various care sites?

If these programmes allow us to understand what goes on, perhaps we will finally decide that these are our children, and be prepared to do something tangible to ensure that they do not end up like poor, poor Aliyah Ismail, who died earlier this year at the age of 13, a prostitute and drug addict, while under the care of Harrow. Or Billy Jo, the lovely teenager who was murdered by her adoptive father.

I feel personally responsible when I discover that five minutes away from where I live my council is not able to provide for the needs of children in care. Yes, they must do everything they can to change their department, policies and practices. And I know that many have already embarked on a difficult process of change to achieve the excellence demanded of them. But what can I do, as a concerned citizen who wishes to do more?

These children are crying out for someone they can trust, and who they know will be there when everything else around them is changing; they themselves often have serious psychological problems. I have met many of them. They are not Milky Bar kids. Many are tough, unlovely and calculatedly difficult. But new evidence from the NSPCC suggests that many of them can be helped by someone in their lives who is independent, available to talk and help, and capable of being a friend.

Take Samantha, who was taken into care aged eight following ceaseless brutality by her natural parents. She has (thankfully, I say) not seen them for four years. She has had several different carers and six foster placements, which has added to her insecurity. An aggressive child, who ran away frequently, she was seen as trouble.

Enter Julie, a professional, single woman in her forties who agrees to be an "independent visitor" as part of a scheme promoted by the NSPCC and the NHS Action for Children. She met Samantha three years ago and sees her every fortnight. They talk on the phone, take trips and go horse- riding. When Samantha ran away again recently, she rang Julie in a state of panic. Julie arranged for her to be picked up and argued for a new foster-family. They have bonded, and both say that they have gained much.

Other children are also enthusiastic. One says: "I now have someone for me and I am not always in the wrong. She doesn't keep telling me off." Another says: "I was passed round everywhere. I became angry and isolated. I was hurting so much. Now I can talk to someone and she is always there. I can't have my own family. Or a substitute. But I have someone who cares and I can care about."

There are about 8,000 children in care who have little or no parental contact. Under the Children Act of 1988 these children are entitled to an independent visitor. In 1997, William Utting recommended that the scheme be extended to all children in care. Yet until 12 months ago, the National Children's Bureau found, only 4 per cent of those eligible had an independent visitor.

I have been trying for two years to get someone to let me play this role. I know other people - including hardened journalists - with jobs, money and a genuine desire to do more than wearily write out that cheque for a charity every time guilt strikes at their hearts. There is expected to be an increasing number of people who choose not to have children. Yet matching them with children in care is beyond the wit of local government. Of course, the people will need to be properly vetted and scrutinised, and there are bound to be failures. But this is something that can work, and is almost cost-free.

What has shocked me is that most of the children I have been interviewing, especially those over the age of 10, are vehemently against foster families. They don't want to be poor little things in some one else's family. They long for their own parents and don't want that longing interfered with, even when they know that their dreams will never come true.

An independent visitor, as one of them told me, "is not a parent or pretend parent. Just a friend I can trust. That's all I want."

Last weekend the writer won the BBC Asian Success, Innovation and Achievement Award for writing