Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Why do we condemn children to such terrible care homes?

Denmark and Germany have exemplary 'social pedagogy' systems

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Just when you think Channel 4 is sinking in its own sewage it raises its head from the stink and delivers definitive public service programming – unflinching, brave, emotionally engaging and of immense importance.

This week it broadcasts the plight of British children in the care system through documentaries, campaigning journalism and an authentic drama, Unloved, directed by the voltaic actress Samantha Morton, who was just such a child once.

Seventy five thousand children are in state care in Britain - some placed with foster families, a few adopted and the rest in homes run by local authorities or charities. Some 53 percent leave school without any qualifications and only 13 per cent as compared with 47 per cent in the general population manage to achieve GCSE grades A to C.

A quarter of the girls end up as teenage mums. Most get caught up in drugs, crime, violence (often directed at their own children) and a disproportionate number end up in prison or dead. Channel 4's focus on the nation's failed youngsters comes at a crucial time when we are still grieving for Baby Peter, only 17 months old, who died after suffering unspeakable violence in his home. Like so many others before him no one protected him from harm, not his mother, not his social workers, not the police, not even the doctors who saw him.

An assumption was made by all those involved that his mother was still the best chance he had. He will not be the last to die in these circumstances but emerging evidence shows that in every local authority across the land experts are now more proactive, taking children out of destructive homes before they come to more harm. New figures show that there has been a 38 per cent increase in such interventions.

But where will they go? And how will this rise in state custody be funded? Most importantly can we be sure these homes will save and nurture damaged children? Or will they just face further dejection and rejection? I fear at present many care institutions are hopeless places, holding warehouses, without the skills or the capacity to raise their game.

Denmark and Germany have exemplary systems called "social pedagogy". A dedicated social worker ensures each child in care learns risk management, is pushed to academic excellence, and gets hugs and reassurance. Crucially, the countries take pride in the care homes.

In this country, the family is idolised and institutional care is seen as a last resort, a mark of failure. Some local authorities have successfully shifted away from institutional pessimism and are moving staff towards the audacity of high expectations. Ealing, where I live, is one of them. It was damned by inspectors not that long ago but now expects its cared-for young to go to university, aim high and grow real self-esteem.

Only – and there's the rub – moving up from the current abysmal standards will require extraordinary levels of spend. Sacking culpable social workers will not do the trick, nor will the £58m promised to improve social work training and make that profession attractive to bright undergraduates (how many weapons would that buy? )

We need fabulous, high tech new care homes with professionalism of a standard we have not had hitherto. Fostering and adoption work for some children, but others will always need state care. I have met many of them. The most resilient of families would not be able to deal with their volatility and lack of trust. Yet they are ambitious, funny, determined and mutually supportive. They want to be with their own in good care homes. That is their right surely.

I fear for their futures under a Tory government, even under the conscientious Cameron. William Hague has previously said Tories would privatise children's care homes; others in the party are fundamentalist pro-family cheerers or rule-bound Christians, and the rest want to roll back the security blanket provided by the state.

In contrast, Gordon Brown and Ed Balls have committed to state responsibility for at-risk children and with some conviction. This week the public will hopefully understand why these forgotten ones matter. The Government could announce ring-fenced funds to transform the care system. It may not stop them losing the election, but it may repair their shattered reputation and perceived lack of duty to the most defenceless of Britons.


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