Rob Williams: Why children at risk are not put into care

Things have to be really bad at home for the alternative to seem better
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The Independent Online

In the shocked aftermath of the appalling case of Baby P, the question that has been asked time and again is why the little boy was not removed from his family and taken into care. While one can go on arguing the specifics of this case, one thing should be made quite clear: children cared for by the state do so badly that others remain living with dangerous families. Such is the reluctance to move them into a system that offers so little.

Our process presumes that it is normally better for a child to stay with the family, even in a household which falls far below the ideal, and social workers who go to their managers with a recommendation to commence care proceedings know that they will have to put up a very strong case.

When you consider the outcomes of the 60,000 looked-after children in our care, this is hardly surprising. Almost threequarters of them will leave care with no formal qualifications. Only one per cent will go on to enter any kind of university education. One fifth of looked-after children are homeless two years after leaving care; 25 per cent of our prison population has been through the care system. Things have to be really bad at home before care looks like a better option.

Yet in other countries the picture is very different. In Germany looked-after children do extremely well, with 95 per cent of children in the German care system going on to vocational education. Crime committed by looked-after children in Germany runs at 5 per cent of the rate of crime committed by those in our care.

Money is important. In Germany most looked-after children live in small community homes, with fewer than 16 residents. By contrast, more than two-thirds of our looked-after children are placed in foster families which cost less than a quarter of a residential placement in Germany.

Money also hangs in the air at case management meetings, and sets up serious conflicts of interest. It is the local authority managers who decide whether to go for care proceedings. They are also the people who will have to find the money to pay for care.

When budgets are tight, the best interests of the child are not always aligned with the best interests of the local authority. In fact the two can often be contradictory. And in those crucial meetings the social worker, the main advocate for the child's welfare, is often the most junior person in the room.

Lord Laming's inquiry into baby P will need to look at how front-line social workers can stand up for the best interests of the child without putting their own jobs at risk. At the very least, a social worker needs to be able to call in an independent assessor to give a second opinion if they feel that the management meeting has produced a result which is dangerous for the child.

It's true that the courts are able to look objectively at the best interests of a child. And yet we now have significant new barriers which prevent children accessing the benefit of their deliberation.

From May this year, court fees payable by a local authority initiating care proceedings rose from £150 to more than £5,000 for a fully contested case. From October last year the funding available to lawyers representing children in court was severely reduced by the Legal Services Commission: a consequence of its new approach to flat rates for different types of cases, which replaces the old system of lawyers charging on an hourly basis.

Non-lawyers might sympathise with the need to avoid the danger of paying excessive fees to over-zealous counsel. But there is now increasing evidence that the reforms have gone badly wrong. Many publicly-funded firms are reducing their family practice or pulling out of representing children altogether.

The sums no longer add up for this kind of legal work. In April this year a senior family judge, Mr Justice Coleridge, said that the family justice system was "overstretched to the point of collapse and acutely and chronically under-funded at all points".

The best interests of children in danger are not served by meetings of budget-constrained managers who have to choose between the devil of the family and the deep blue sea of the care system, and who meet in the absence of any truly independent representation of the child concerned. The system needs to be looked at with one eye on what we can learn from other countries, and with an appetite for reforms at least as radical as those proposed by Lord Laming the last time he examined the area of child protection.

Rob Williams was Deputy Children's Commissioner for England from 2006 to 2008