Social workers who must decide when a child should be removed from their family have an almost impossibly difficult task. All too often they are damned if they do, and equally if they do not, so it is hardly surprising that the number of children being taken into care has climbed inexorably since the death of Baby P at the hands of his mother and two of her friends five years ago. But although it is understandable, it is a development that should nonetheless be approached with caution.
It need hardly be said that there must never be another case like that of Peter Connelly. And the fact that the 17-month-old was both on the at-risk register, and had received some 60 visits from social workers and other professionals, cannot but point to failures in the system. But to conclude on the basis of a single – albeit horrific – case that the state should step in earlier rather than later presents risks of its own.
By itself, the fact that 10,000-plus children are now being taken into care every year may well be evidence of lessons learnt, a reflection of social workers making faster decisions to protect children from emotional, as well as physical, abuse and neglect. All well and good. But without significant improvements in the longer-term outlook for these children, simply removing them from their families will not be enough.
As things now stand, that outlook is bleak indeed. Children in care, and the adults they become, tend to be not only less educated than their peers, but also far more likely to be unemployed, to have health problems, and to spend time in prison. A difficult family background is hard enough. The institutional confusion that follows – the children's homes, multiple foster carers, and an all-but-broken adoption system – only compounds such problems.
In fairness, the Government is making positive noises. David Cameron himself has pledged to overhaul the adoption process, and many of the measures proposed are sensible ones. But they are not enough by themselves, and do nothing, for example, to address the critical shortage of foster carers. Simply avoiding another Baby P case cannot be the only goal. Children in care deserve a better chance in life too.