Oh, but the timing is terrible. As we reel from reports of abuse in children’s homes, a Commons Education Select Committee announces the findings of its report: that more children in Britain should be taken into care. Not surprisingly, reaction is colourful and, in most cases, damning.
We have a difficult relationship with the concept of “care”; dating back far beyond the current horror stories. But there is truth in the findings – that too often parents have been given second (and third, and fourth) chances to make a decent job of looking after their children when the evidence of neglect and abuse is undeniable. Neglect, of course, is abuse – the most common and an incredibly damaging form. A child who cannot speak, or socialise, or learn, will struggle their entire life.
This must end (and I have written on the subject before, as the mother of two who travelled through the system to be adopted by me). Early intervention makes all the difference. The legacy of leaving a child in a chaotic home is that it will often be followed by a sibling, and perhaps a third, before the situation is deemed unsalvageable. And, as the British Association for Fostering and Adoption notes, sibling groups are the hardest to place.
The decision of when to intervene has led to some appalling situations (for what is leaving a child in a dirty, harrowing home if not just another version of neglect, but by “the authorities” rather than parents?). Many children interviewed by the NSPCC believe the care they receive “in care” is better than the alternative, so perhaps we need to revise the level of our hand-wringing. And if half of those children returned to their birth families after a period away go on to be abused again, well, anything is better than that.
But the speeding up of one end of the process is no good if the other is too slow. If you take children into care, you must be ready to get them out again and into a loving family. An edition of You and Yours on Radio 4 on Tuesday made for difficult listening as adopters told of horrendous delays, mysterious rejections and heart-rending breakdowns. A 24-year-old graduate on their first social-work job should not be the one to decide: one of my children was asked, two weeks after placement, by a well-meaning but utterly inexperienced social worker how he was “adjusting to the new family dynamic”. “Mum, what does she mean?” It seems to sum up all that is wrong: book learning not matched by life experience.
If we are to break the cycle, we must utilise adopters and adoptees on panels to help make the decisions – who better to recognise potential and pitfalls than them? And we must use some of the £35,000 a year spent on a child in care to support those with the potential to parent them.