Leading Article: State is a failure in loco parentis

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The Independent Online
THE STATE must take the booby prize when it comes to caring for children. As ministers castigate single mothers they should reflect on their own extraordinary failings. Almost every week there are fresh tales of sexual and physical abuse in bleak, poorly staffed children's homes. It is well-documented that such homes dispatch their charges too young, with poor education, into poverty and isolation. Some of the country's most vulnerable teenagers are virtually abandoned to the dole, prison, pregnancy and destitution.

'Children begin by loving their parents,' Oscar Wilde observed. 'After a time they judge them; rarely, if ever, do they forgive them.' It seems likely that children, forced into council care by family breakdown, may never forgive their parents. Nor will they excuse the state for the dereliction of its duty to act in loco parentis.

As the debate raged this week over possible benefit cuts for lone parents, a sub-plot unfolded, sketching the fecklessness of state child care. A survey for the National Children's Home described teenagers in poor health, going hungry as they tried to live on benefits of pounds 34 a week after leaving care. Nearly half the young women going without food had babies or were pregnant. Ministers may rail about teenage pregnancies, but state children's homes are partly responsible: one in four young women leaving care is already a mother.

The state cannot be blamed for all the problems of the children it cares for. It takes on children who have usually already been damaged by bad experiences of family life. Those in residential care are often the most problematic adolescents for whom fostering or adoption are not available. Many staff are devoted to these children and achieve amazing success. But in the main they work in poor conditions, with low pay, inadequate training and little public recognition. Children inevitably suffer.

The Government's own inspectors this week painted a grim picture of some children's homes as variously out of control, coercive, neglecting education and unsafe for children or staff. Meanwhile, a senior housemaster at a Welsh children's home became just the latest child-care official to be jailed for sexually assaulting children.

There is nothing new about these revelations. More than a dozen national investigations into children's homes have told the same story. Those who framed the 1989 Children Act knew that the 360 teenagers discharged weekly from council care often leave for unfurnished flats or bedsits, with few life skills, little support and just a few pounds in their pockets. But instead of requiring local authorities to look after them properly, the act made follow-up support 'discretionary'. In other words, the state is still permitted to abandon further parental oversight. Thus children leaving care are at the mercy of council finance and whim.

The heart of the national debate about parental care concerns responsibility. Who will ensure that children are properly looked after and helped into useful and fulfulling adult lives? The Government cannot be blamed for fathers who shirk their responsibilities or parents who abuse their children. But it can set an example for looking after children. So far, it has failed to take a lead other than to lecture and scapegoat certain groups.

Yet it could make a difference. Good state nursery education - even at the expense of university funding - could reduce the disadvantage with which many socially deprived children begin school. Combined with child-support, this would particularly help lone parents to work and lift their families out of poverty. And a benefit system more successfully targeting the needy would not leave impoverished teenagers skipping meals.

Most obviously, the Government must not leave unreformed a system of state care for 60,000 children that has become a byword for neglect, abuse and irresponsibility. Ministers must practice what they preach if they are not to be condemned as hypocrites.

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