Martin Narey, the chief executive of the Barnardo’s charity, is rarely out of the headlines. His latest outburst is to demand the permanent removal of very young children from “dysfunctional parents”.
He said, “We can’t keep trying to fix families that are completely broken. If we really cared about the interests of the child, we would take children away as babies and put them into permanent adoptive families.”
The call to take children from so-called bad or inadequate homes is not new. It came to prominence in 1973 after the death of seven year old Maria Colwell at the hands of her stepfather.
Dr David Owen, then Labour health minister, formulated the Children Act (1975). This legislation was to increase the powers of adoption agencies and to reduce the rights of natural parents. The Conservatives supported it.
Now Narey has rekindled the childcare battle. Having – unlike him – spent over 30 years living in deprived areas alongside struggling parents, I acknowledge that the safety of some children does require their removal from dangerous parents.
Simultaneously, I have also seen some children taken from parents who, given sufficient personal and material support, could have coped with them.
Narey’s case for an increase in removals does not give the whole picture. First, where are the children to go? Finding the right kind of skilled and motivated adoptive parents or foster carers is not easy. Long-term residential care can be helpful but is very expensive and hard to come by.
Second, Narey’s strategy takes little account of the lack of preventative services which could enable more parents to cope.
Many social workers are keen to undertake prevention. But the present emphasis on the monitoring of families means that they spend more time in front of computers than they do in personal relationships with adults and children.
During the 1980s, the community social work teams of local authorities proved that they could do the job. But prevention is held back by a lack of government strategy and funds.
Third, as someone who lobbies the government about child poverty, it is odd that Narey overlooks the fact that it is the children of the poor who are most likely to be candidates for care.
Low incomes do not inevitably result in children being neglected. But poverty can undermine family life and is associated with family breakdowns. Demands to remove children from their parents should not be made without demands to end poverty.
Fourth, there is inequality. Recent research by professor Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett demonstrates that more unequal societies, including Britain, score highest on almost all social problems, including mental ill health, violence, absent fathers, child abuse and teenage pregnancies.
These experiences undermine good parenting and the sound upbringing of children. The advocates of child removal ignore the impact of inequality.
The demand to take more children from their parents overlooks the factors which make it difficult for some parents to cope.
In order to improve family life and to lessen the need for more children to be taken from their homes, Britain needs a strategy that will promote prevention, counter poverty and abolish extreme inequality.
It requires services that focus on individual families and policies that change the structure of our unequal society.
Yet here is a dilemma for gurus like Martin Narey and other executives of voluntary organisations. To lessen the gap between rich and poor would entail cutting their high incomes. No wonder they say so little about it.
Bob Holman is a former academic who worked in deprived areas for 30 years