Who cares for these children?

Children in care are not adorable poppets but hulking teenagers with long criminal records

ALL FAMILIES are equal but some are more equal than others. This is, as far as I can tell, what the new consultation document, "Supporting Families", boils down to.

No one wants to say nasty things about single parents and gay couples, so let's not say anything at all. Let's talk about how family structures have changed, but not really look at what is driving those changes. Let's have happily married men suggesting we shore up marriage, when so many unhappily married women are the ones who are initiating divorce. Above all, let's say that all that matters in the end is the children. No one will argue with that. Wanting "the best for the children" is like believing in world peace. Everyone is on the same side, aren't they?

Well, no. I often think that those who continually evoke the phrase "for the sake of the children" are often not interested in children's needs at all. Couples who stay together in a kind of half-life on the grounds that they have reproduced often subject their offspring to years of torturous resentment. The demand that we turn away from child-centred education towards more old-fashioned methods is also done for "the sake of the children", no matter how miserable it may make them. Now we have a government that wants "to protect the interests of children by strengthening marriage". This means nothing at all to me, unless it means that being a parent is synonymous with being a partner.

I am intrigued, though, to see what government, any government, can do to make marriage more attractive. Marriage as an idea is already hopelessly attractive - a triumph of faith over reason - witness all those who come out of failed marriages and go on to marry again. For those, however, living in the doomed reality of a disastrous marriage, divorce is also a hopelessly attractive idea, and free luncheon vouchers and a bit of pre-marital advice from a registrar are not going to provide that vital spark. To deprive equally miserable co-habiting folk of these perks seems rather mean-spirited.

But, of course, I would say that wouldn't I? I am a child of divorce who went on to become a single parent and live happily ever after. I am a statistic that proves what ever it is that you want it to prove. I am, though, statistically normal in that I feel this is no one's business but my own.

I don't think that family life has changed. I know it has. I know exactly who my family are not because of some biological accident a couple of generations ago, but because we have chosen each other. Blood is thicker than water? That must be why it is full of clots and never flows easily. Clearly, families are havens for some, hell-holes for others. They liberate and oppress in equal measure. This is why I never really know what the phrase "family values" means. Which families? Which values? The attempt by New Labour to put a liberal and contemporary gloss on a set of ideals that are often reactionary, and in denial about the enormous changes that have taken place in women's lives over the last 50 years, is bound to irritate.

The knee-jerk distaste for government intruding into the private and intimate life of the electorate is completely legitimate. While a debate rages over just how much we should know about the private lives of politicians, it is apparent that all politicians have to tread very carefully indeed when it comes to the private lives of ordinary people. This is exactly how it should be, because we all know that the higher up the social scale you go, the less likely you are to have your privacy invaded. Those at the bottom of society routinely have their privacy invaded. To be on benefit, to apply for a grant, to be old and frail, to be mentally ill, to be homeless, means that all sorts of people feel they have the right to know all sorts of details about your life.

For when precious families do break down, and the state truly has to intervene in the form of social services, then invasion of privacy becomes the least of our concerns. In spite of all the waffle about divorce being the end of civilisation as we know it, we do in fact understand what damages children: boring old material deprivation, poverty if we want to be old- fashioned about it, and conflict. You can grow up amid conflict as the child of two lesbians or two cardboard cut-out heterosexuals. Your parents may be an exhausted single mother and her dopey boyfriend, or divorcing middle-class professionals involved in marriage guidance counselling, and there can still be conflict. No legislation, no pep talks issued by the arranged marriage of Jack Straw and Margaret Hodge, are going to do a damn thing about it.

Actually, something is being done this week which I think will be of far more benefit to children in need than all this illogical and sanctimonious twaddle. Frank Dobson is making a start at putting into practice many of the recommendations of Sir William Utting's report on child abuse in children's homes, which came out a year ago. Certainly, when children are removed from families and looked after by the state, the record has been appalling. At the time of Utting's report there were 18 separate police investigations going on into child abuse in homes. Though our self- image may be one of a nation that is deeply concerned about children's welfare, this fact alone shows that for more than 20 years we have consistently failed the children taken into care.

Either we accept that these children are already so damaged that nothing can be done, or we accept that the system needs a vast overhaul. Having worked with children in care, I do not feel particularly sentimental about them. Many of these children will never be fostered, and if they are they will do their utmost to wreck the household they enter. They will steal and lie. They are not adorable poppets, but hulking great teenagers, often with a long police record.

These are kids who have been let down over and over again. By everyone. It is no wonder that 40 per cent of the prison population will have been in care, that three-quarters of children in care will leave school with no qualifications, that one in seven of these female school-leavers will already be pregnant.

Such children - the product of real family breakdown, not just separating parents - have for years been targeted by paedophiles and are among the most deprived members of our society. Their health, both physical and mental, is shockingly poor; their chances are grim. If the state is to lecture us about how to bring up children, then it must get its own house in order and show us that the children for whom it does assume ultimate responsibility get better treatment than has so far been evident. Any signs that it is willing to do so are to be welcomed. We cannot stomach a nanny state when the nanny has proved to be not just negligent, but actively abusive.

When everyone these days talks of stress and trauma because the car wouldn't start, or because they have had a hard day at work, it is easy to forget what real stress and real trauma are. We have become over-anxious about children who may not have been brought up in perfect families, but who will otherwise have had stable childhoods.

We cannot protect all children from all pain. Instead we should concentrate on children who really are victims of families that cannot hold it together, and children whose parents cannot afford to look after them adequately. The phrase "in care" often amounts to little more than institutionalised neglect. And that - rather than the fact that so many of us muddle along, marrying, divorcing, separating, co-habiting, but still manage along the way to be "good enough" parents - is the real national disgrace.

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