Christina Patterson: Europe shows us how to save these children

The residential homes that often produce such terrible results cost seven times as much as Eton

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He sounded cheerful. When a young musician called Kay-Jay Simms talked about his childhood on yesterday's Today programme, he sounded as if he was having a lovely time. When he talked about the mother who abused him, and the teenage son of the foster carer who abused him, and the foster family in Kent who abused him, he sounded as if being abused by people who were meant to be looking after you was no reason at all to make a fuss. "You are," said Justin Webb, "obviously a fundamentally cheerful person. You're talking about it all with a jolly smile."

"I have that jolly smile on my face," said Simms, "because when I think about my childhood it doesn't feel like it's me. But unfortunately," he added, "it is."

Yes, unfortunately, he was betrayed by pretty much every adult in his childhood, and unfortunately his experiences are quite common. Many children "in care", according to a new report by the Deputy Children's Commissioner, Sue Berelowitz, experience violent sexual abuse. It happens, she says, in cars, in taxis, in bus stations, and in parks. It happens to boys, and girls, and children who are disabled. It happens to 10-year-old girls who are bussed across towns, and nine-year-olds who are raped by gangs. It happens, she says, to children as young as four.

It happens, in other words, to the people in our society who have the least, and who need its protection the most.

There are 65,000 children in the care system in this country. More than a third of them leave it with no education, training or job. Only 11 per cent (compared with 56 per cent of children out of it) leave school with five good GCSEs. Up to half the children in custody have been in care. So have nearly a third of the people in our prisons. So have 80 per cent of Big Issue sellers. So have half of all prostitutes. No wonder children in care are three times more likely to run away than children who live with their parents at home.

And no wonder the Children's Minister, who has read the report about the children being abused, and heard its author say that she had "never come across the scale of violence and sadism" that she had discovered while she was writing it, has decided that the care system isn't quite up to scratch. He has criticised the social services chiefs who are sending children to live in care homes that are often a long way from friends and family, and sometimes in the same streets as hostels for sex offenders and violent criminals. He will, he says, "look them in the eye" and ask them: "Would you send your child to live in an area like that?"

The short answer is that they wouldn't. The short answer is that they wouldn't dream of sending their child to a "home" that's run for profit, and often in an area where property prices are low to maximise that profit, and often staffed by people with very few qualifications, and not always all that many social skills. They wouldn't dream of entrusting their child's care to people paid a low wage to do shifts in work they often don't like in short-term jobs they often leave.

But the real answer would take much longer. The real answer would talk about doing what you can with the resources that are available. It would talk about budgets, and training, and culture, and fashion. It would talk about how you try to do one thing for one government, and then you try to do another thing for another government, and you write reports, and then you throw out those reports, and then you write new reports again. The real answer would talk about the fact that you never seem to get the time to act on the reports you've already got.

The real answer, at least if it was given by someone who actually knew what they were talking about, might also talk about a system that seems to have been set up for failure. It might talk about the very big costs involved with children in care, and how all that money wasn't always spent well. It might, for example, mention the fact that the residential homes that often produced such terrible results cost seven times as much as Eton. And that the £200,000 cost per child per year was on top of the teams of people, in social services, and education, and pupil referral units, and youth offending teams, that were also meant to be helping, but which often didn't seem to be doing that good a job.

It might also mention a system that has been used in Germany, and Denmark, and the Netherlands, which seems to work much better. It's called "social pedogogy". It's a system where people are specially trained to work with children in ways that combine practical skills and social education with lasting emotional bonds. It means that every child has one key person who's responsible for them throughout their time in care, and who keeps up with them when they leave it. It means that every child has something like a parent.

It's been tried, or at least a version of it has been tried, in residential homes in Essex, and it seems to be working there, too. The first summer it was introduced, the teenagers at one care home spent every day with their care workers at the beach. Before, trips to the beach were considered too much of a risk.

I think we can guess what Kay-Jay Simms would say about that risk. Please, let's honour him, and all the children who smile and survive, and give it a go.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

Twitter: @queenchristina_ 

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