Leading Article: State of crisis over child care

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THE STATE is a muddled and incompetent parent in its care of troubled children. Its failures are well documented: teenage suicides in prisons, sexual and physical abuse in children's homes, over-use of drugs in psychiatric units, bureaucratic and politicised adoption procedures, low educational achievement by children in care, and the large numbers of young people who leave the state's care destined for the dole and prison.

There seems little enough reason to take the state seriously on institutional child care. The poor fabric of its children's homes and their demoralised, low- paid, under-trained staff offer little cause for confidence. However, the Government's announcement yesterday that it wants the private sector to run secure, locked units for Britain's most disturbed children is even more worrying. If the state can make such a mess of its own role, what guarantee is there that its agents in the private sector will not be even worse?

It may be argued that private companies deserve their chance, given the failures of the public sector. Certainly, there is no reason why, properly monitored, they should not be more successful, distasteful though their role in this capacity would be to many people. However, the private sector can only be as good as the demands of those who control the purse strings and set the standards. It is hard to envisage that the state, which has failed to set its own house in order, will be tough enough with private institutions that are a further step removed from democratic control. Reports that ministers are under Treasury pressure to cut spending reinforce fears that cost-saving, rather than better child care, lies at the heart of these proposals.

There is a more general problem with the Government's policy on caring for difficult children, of which this latest announcement is one more symptom. There seems to be no overall strategy or vision of what best serves their welfare; simply a series of disconnected and incoherent policy initiatives. It is, for example, a matter almost of chance whether a troubled child ends up in a residential special school, a psychiatric unit, a youth treatment centre, a children's home or a secure unit. The outcome depends on whether the child is labelled as having educational, behavioural, emotional or criminal problems. The type of treatment a child receives will vary according to the accident of such labelling.

It is also clear that children in the state's care are playthings of political fashion. One year they are victims of social neglect and abuse, the next they are characterised as vicious criminals who must be dealt with severely, as both Labour and Conservatives try to establish themselves as the toughest on crime. And then there are the departmental turf battles. In March, the Home Office detailed its plans to develop detention centres for persistent young offenders. So yesterday, the Department of Health, partly taking back the initiative over institutional child care, announced its own plans for secure units.

All these factors make for unpredictability in the state's behaviour as parent. Violent swings in policy do vulnerable children little good. These problems are now compounded by the Government's latest wish to inject into institutional child care its ideological commitment to privatisation.

Thanks to all these changes, policy on institutional child care is fragmented and lacks continuity. It would be far better if a single government agency became responsible for co-ordinating the policy, management and safety of care for children by the state. Privatisation is a distraction until the state has properly established the goals of institutional child care and made clear that it will insist on the highest standards and adequate funding, whoever is in charge.