Socialist Worker

Not what I call care

The solution to the current crisis in the care system lies with putting children at the heart of it, writes youth worker Scarlet Knight

Issue No. 2152

The horrifying death of Baby Peter brought an outcry with people asking, “How could something like this happen again?” But will this outcry significantly change the lives of children?

I work with many young people who are or have been in the care system.

One person I work with recently told me that she feels that what happened to Baby Peter could easily have happened to her.

What does that say about the government’s Every Child Matters 2004 agenda that was initiated after the death of another child, Victoria Climbie?

It is clear that every child does not matter to the government.

If they did, local authorities and organisations would be helped to develop meaningful strategies to change care in this country.

Most children and young people in care feel very isolated, without a voice, and that they are talked about or talked at.

They also have umpteen different social workers and are moved about from place to place.

Every bit of their experience tells them that they are the problem, the broken ones – despite the fact that because they are in the system they have had to face neglect, abuse or harm.

No wonder some of them rebel against everything, kicking back at whatever they can.

They are placed in chaotic care homes, which are often very hostile environments, or placed with foster carers – many of who are dedicated, caring and compassionate people, but some of who are not.

I have heard stories about children placed in foster care where they faced racism, homophobia, “good old fashioned discipline” and neglect.

The people who do these things give the dedicated foster carers a bad name and should be struck off the list. They get away with it because they appear to offer a “family” structure, which is held up above all else.

I can understand why social workers do everything they can to avoid placing children in care.

But it isn’t right that the family should be the preferred place in every circumstance simply because the alternative is so crap.

We all joke about our own dysfunctional families but for some this represents a very serious breakdown.

The family isn’t a natural phenomenon.

It is a social construct and one which, in isolation and under pressure, can break in an ugly way.

The solution is not to blame social workers, who are underpaid, undervalued and overworked.

Social workers live with the fact that no matter how good they are at their job, or how hard they work, lots of children and young people are being failed everyday.

The solution is also not to scapegoat heads of service, even though they are quite happy to champion every new and useless government initiative while holding up their own borough as an example of good practice.

Then when they are sacked for a monumental cock-up they bleat on about how they knew the system was fundamentally flawed and couldn’t work.

To solve the crisis we need resources, and to tackle poverty, poor housing and unemployment.

But we also need to put young people at the heart of any process and decision-making about policies, strategies and practices.

There are some borough-based teams and voluntary organisations that are championing changes in the system. They are striving to involve children in their own reviews and inspecting care services.

They need to be applauded and supported – but it’s not enough.

There should be a national campaign led by young people and those in the field demanding fundamental changes to the system.

None of what the government has proposed since the death of Baby Peter is going to create a better system of care while those who are in care are placed so far down the pecking order.

A while ago I was in a session with young people, many of whom had been in care.

We asked them if they could have a super power what would it be. The usual came up – super strength, X-ray vision, mind reading.

Then one young girl said, “I already have a super power.”

We asked what it was and she responded, “I’m invisible.”

If the measure of any society is the way in which we treat the most vulnerable, then this is a miserable failure.

The courage, resilience and passion of those young people I know who are or have been in the care system never ceases to amaze me.

They are determined to put their own experience to use in working with others to challenge politicians and change the system.

They need all our support and solidarity in doing so.

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Article information

Tue 19 May 2009, 19:01 BST
Issue No. 2152
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