Christina Patterson: Britain's gulag of neglect and despair

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Many years ago, I asked a handsome film-maker, on our second date, where he had learned to cook. During the long silence that followed, he stared down at his plate. In the end, he gave a sheepish smile. "In prison," he said.

This, it turned out, was one of the least eventful periods in an unusually eventful life. Abandoned on a doorstep at birth, Simon and his twin sister had been looked after by nuns before being placed in care. The family who fostered his sister didn't want him too, so he ricocheted between a foster family in which he was beaten and a children's home where he faced the daily prospect of sexual abuse. By 14, he'd had enough. On the streets of Soho, he found a new home (a nice cardboard box) and a new craft (breaking into offices). In time, of course, he found another new home, in a large Victorian building in Wandsworth.

Simon was lucky. He didn't end up as what the police in Jersey have called an "interesting" discovery in a sealed-off cellar. He wasn't tortured. He even – because, he said, he "ran fast" – wasn't raped. He got out of prison and he didn't go back. The "film-making", I discovered, was something of a fantasy. Actually, he was working as a volunteer at Oxfam. And living off his travel expenses of £4 per day.

He couldn't write very well, but at least he could read. Which is more than can be said for many children brought up in care, and for many young adults in prison. A friend of mine, a novelist currently working as a writer in residence in a prison which had better remain unnamed, was shocked to discover the magnitude of her task. Never mind creative writing, basic literacy would have been a start. Many of her students, she discovered, have been abused. Many leave prison with a heroin addiction they didn't have when they arrived. And an alarmingly high proportion of them were brought up in care.

Nearly half of all children brought up in care (49 per cent at the last count) end up in prison. Yes, I did say nearly half. That's the same percentage as pupils at Westminster who get into Oxbridge. It's really quite a simple formula: nice mummy and daddy plus good school equals career in media, politics or law. Dead, incompetent or absent mummy (never mind daddy) plus social care equals – well, let's just say the bottom of the barrel.

Strangely, there aren't any statistics for the number of children in care who are abused or raped by their carers. Perhaps it doesn't happen any more. Perhaps all the people who work in children's homes, like all the people who work in prisons, are thoroughly decent human beings, thoroughly committed to the welfare of their charges and to developing their potential. Perhaps.

Perhaps they try their best, with little support and scant resources. Perhaps they're caught in a terrible no-man's-land between useless natural parent and Kafkaesque state bureaucracy. Perhaps they go home every night and weep. All I know is this: that children in care in this country have about as much chance of becoming happy, well balanced, successful adults as Ralph Nader has of becoming President of the United States.

Children need families. If the state is unable to provide them with a reasonably functioning surrogate family structure, or offer their natural parents the support to enable them to do a "good enough" parenting job, it should do everything in its power to encourage, and expedite, adoption. The average age of children adopted from care is four years and two months. On the scrapheap at five years old. This, in a country whose government claims that "every child matters".

If you go down to the woods today...

It's great to know that at least some fundamentalist Muslims are following the Government's advice and taking plenty of fresh air and exercise – with nice rambles in the Lake District and even a spot of that yuppie favourite, paintballing.

It's slightly less good, perhaps, to know that these aerobic activities are accompanied by cries not of "work those gluts" or "crunch that tum" but of "death to all infidels", or some equivalent. It's even more alarming to see that these keep-fit crusaders are a motley crew of petty criminals and drug users (one on his first ever trip out of London), largely incapable of getting, or keeping, a job.

I'm not at all sure that these are people we can trust to mastermind, and conduct, a global war of terror.

* In the week that a so-called aristocrat announced that he wanted a TV company to pay him to go abroad in search of an heir for his family pile in Somerset (homosexuals and Guardian readers need not apply, apparently), an 18-year-old former binge-drinker wept for joy as an elderly woman pronounced her "a lady". Well, actually she cried last summer, when the final episode of Ladette to Lady was filmed, but in post-Big Brother Britain we don't need to worry about niceties like that.

For the boundaries between real-life "reality" and its TV equivalent have never been so blurred. In this Through the Looking Glass world, a working-class teenager is indoctrinated, in a fake finishing school, in the values, and mores, of a Mitfordian pre-war class system – one parodied, of course, even by the Mitfords. If there was irony here – or in the intentions of the programme's almost-certainly-not working-class creators – it certainly wasn't evident in those tears.