Leading article: The child abuse challenge: to transform the culture of care

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Sir Bill Utting's report, published yesterday, is a record of unforgiveable misery. But before tackling its recommendations, it is worth saying that the recent history of child care has been a great success. There is less of it. Fewer children are being taken into care by social services - between the early Eighties and the early Nineties the number fell by 40 per cent, and among those the numbers accommodated in children's residential homes has shrunk even more dramatically. Of children taken into care, a high proportion are found foster homes. Social work practice is, sometimes, perverted by political correctness of a kind which is blind to the best interests of an individual child. But by and large a lot of dedicated effort by professionals and foster parents provides a reasonable simulacrum of family life for many damaged children.

All that needs to be recognised and prized. Breakdowns, such as the recent case in Peterborough, for which Cambridgeshire social services were heavily criticised, punctuate that history, it's true. But victims of failed procedure or professional negligence, from Jasmine Beckford onwards, have provided lessons which have generally been learnt. Except, it seems, in that archipelago of exploitation made up by small, badly regulated local authority children's homes of which Clwyd County Council's stand as a recent proxy. Our reports about them 18 months ago were only the latest disclosures about a sector of social care which seems especially cursed.

And yet, using emotive language like that won't do. The problem of caring for the relatively small number of children who need to be accommodated by the state is a problem of organisation. And the greatest disappointment we register in Sir William Utting's study is that he - too much, perhaps, a doyen of the present system - has not thought radically enough about the management changes demanded in response to the catalogue of failure that he doggedly records.

The problem, let it be clearly recognised, is not primarily one of money. It is how the money is spent and results monitored. Utting notes that elementary record-keeping has been woefully inadequate; if not, how could so many children for whom the local authority stands in loco parentis just "go missing".

Child abuse in local authority homes is a classic instance of a service supplier (the council) failing to build reliable mechanisms to monitor its own performance. It was to prevent just such a conflict of interest that, in health and other council services, "providers" and "purchasers" were split in the Eighties: that was one of the great Tory public sector reforms. The split does not have to be mechanistic, nor does it necessarily involve privatisation or contracting out. It does involve a director of social service being able to stand figuratively outside the children's home and rap on its windows demanding to be assured that the terms of its contract are being punctiliously fulfilled.

Is local government even capable of administering a social service as difficult as child care? Sir William might have posed that question less tentatively. Child abuse scandals surely point in another direction - towards reliable, uniform standards, guarantees against abuse and perversion of the process of child care. In other words, towards some country-wide institution stronger even than Utting's proposed national council (which might consider promoting an equivalent of prison visitors, in other words some lay participation in the business of looking and listening).

Inquiring into the abuse of children is like looking in a rearview mirror in which a horror story plays out. It happened then, in the past, but now - official voices have been too swift to assure - things are different, procedures have been tightened, inspection has been regularised and the children are listened to. But Utting proves previous such assurances were false. Before he reported, the necessary scheme of reform was well enough known, from systematic inspection to registration of staff. The problems were equally apparent: to work in residential institutions with children requires from staff a certain temperament and character, possibly including qualities which potential abusers have in abundance. What is wanted now is a guarantee that reform will be implemented - a clear commitment by the Social Services Inspectorate, the Local Government Association, whoever it takes, that if abuse takes place in future (it would be utopian to rule that out) it happens in spite of the system not because of it.

Ironically, Sir William's was not the only report on children and young people published yesterday. By chance the Home Office produced a study of prisons for young offenders. It ought, at least, to remind us that the roots of delinquency and crime lie in childhood. Police and prisons come late into the game. The point in ameliorating child care is not just to eliminate abuse; it is to try to give damaged children a break. Or at least prevent further deterioration in their prospects for life.

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