Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Who will care for these lost and abused children?

The assessments are that poor and hasty decisions are being made – in my view to save money

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The Independent Online

These are the best of times for the rich and middle classes and the worst of times for the disadvantaged, hopeless and vulnerable. I am talking about the children of Britain. Most are better looked after and loved than ever before in history while the rest are as wretched and impecunious as poor Victorian children. Exceptional individuals and committed organisations do try to save these lost kids, but the rest of society seems not to give a damn. More attention is paid to the recycling of rubbish than to the many kids trashed by families and disregarded by the state.

The recession and benefits cuts will make these young lives even more exposed to domestic violence, sexual exploitation and mistreatment. The PM and Deputy PM and too many members of the Cabinet represent constituencies with low levels of poverty and relatively few problem families. Their voters despise the "feckless, fecund and feral" underclass, so the politicians can happily ignore the losers.

Today an NSPCC report warns that almost half of the 90,000 children in care are sent back to abusive and neglectful families. Austerity means more applications for care and more returns. More than 70 per cent of such children interviewed by the NSPCC did not want to go back home. The assessments are that poor and hasty decisions are being made – in my view to save money. Abusive parents, from what I know as a journalist, can accuse returned children of treachery and subject them to increased torment. Many youngsters will have to be taken into care again or will run away.

The statistics are grim: 14,000 children are living with relatives because their own parents are alcoholics or drug addicts. According to the Missing Persons Bureau and Make Runaways Safe, around 100,000 children under 17 go missing every year, a large number to escape from brutal parents. Unicef and OECD reports have, over the past five years, concluded that too many children in our country have broken lives and no hopes for their futures.

More than 10 years ago I was writing a book which included a section on the disproportionately high numbers of biracial children in care. Among others I interviewed a 14-year-old girl who lived in a council children's home up the road from me. Let's call her Lizzie, for to this day I have no idea what was on her birth certificate, as she changed her name and stories frequently. The staff told me not to push her on this as "it made her mad" and then she broke things and beat up the other kids. She was tiny, pretty and very smart. Since babyhood her life had been a battered ship on turbulent seas trying, but failing, ever to dock at a safe port (this is an image she herself used in an essay she showed me, an outpouring of disappointment and pain, with intense descriptions of feeling sick and drowning).

In brief, these were the facts that I did confirm. She was taken into care at the age of two, fostered and then returned to her parents. That happened five times. Two foster families did manage to calm her down and make her feel secure, but she was snatched away from them and handed back to her mum, who had a run of boyfriends, two sons and a drug habit, though she always said she loved Lizzie. Sexual abuse with the collusion of the mother appears to have been the final straw, after which they kept the child away from her mum. Two adoptions had failed disastrously.

I met her at this point. She had such hate in her eyes they singed you when you tried to get her to talk. Her thighs were dotted with cigarette marks and she told me one of her rapists had branded her for not being nice to him. Sometimes Lizzie ran away from the care home and returned when she was frightened or desperate. After some months she started to trust me and we went out to Pizza Hut or clothes shops and once I took her to Richmond Park. She had never seen deer before, or real paper kites. Soon after that she disappeared for ever. Her key worker was sure all the damage was caused by sending this child back to her chaotic and cruel home. I still dream of her sometimes.

So what does our Government say or do? It is obsessed with finding fairy godparents to come forth and adopt unwanted children. There will never be enough such mums and dads for the more-than-90,000 kids in care and some adoptions break down, leaving children even more hurt and angry. The only other "strategy" is to pass all responsibility and blame to local authorities, as Tim Loughton, Children's minister, did this weekend: "It is right to keep families together... We've toughened up the law, so local authorities must make a rigorous assessment of parents' suitability..." blah blah blah. While they squabble, more children suffer or disappear into the twilight underworld of crime and prostitution.

These wasted young lives are neglected and abused by the nation as much as by their own families. Many will end up in our courts and be thoroughly punished. But at least then they will finally be seen and heard.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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