12th November 2019

Why we must not be afraid to call out bad parenting when it comes to helping children in care…

RT Hon. Lord (Michael) Farmer | The Telegraph

Whenever children in care fare badly, local councils are blamed. Of course, they have a statutory duty to be good corporate parents, but central government must be honest about what is driving the year-on-year increase in children looked after by the state.

It’s not complicated but a simple diagnosis is never forthcoming because it implicates actual voters, rather than faceless services. The inability of some parents to provide their children with safe, stable and nurturing relationships is the great unmentionable. The family breakdown which ensues is the elephant in the room of social policy.

Yet, most if not all parents agree their job is tough, untrained for and unremitting. They know how easy it is for the wheels to fall off the family wagon with sometimes devastating effects. Politicians should be tapping into this well of understanding, not covering it over with platitudes.

A child is taken into care every 15 minutes in England and councils resorting to desperately inadequate lodgings are stuck in a crisis-driven response. They described ‘phoning 100, 200 places’ before they found anywhere for children who cannot remain in family homes.

Yet all local authorities know that prevention is better than cure. Fully signed up to the principle of early intervention, they need leadership and dedicated funding from the centre to work upstream with families at risk.

Less than ten years ago, Children’s Services in Leeds were caught in a downward spiral of failure. Morale had slumped and a quarter of their staff were from agencies costing £7 million per year. Referrals had increased by almost a third, they had the second highest number of looked-after children in the country and the number of children with a Child Protection Plan had almost doubled.

They turned the ship around by putting relationships at the centre of all they did: relationships within families; relationships between parents and the services there to help; and relationships between the myriad providers, statutory and voluntary.

Focusing on prevention, they combined their children’s centres with ‘early help’ family hubs. These co-locate a massive range of support for families with children of all ages, in a non-stigmatising environment.

Schools can flag up when children seem to be doing badly at the earliest point, because there’s somewhere parents can get help. Crises are averted, numbers of children in care are down, social work agency costs have shrunk by over 90 per cent and Leeds is now a Department for Education Practice Improvement authority to whom other councils go to learn.

The family breakdown crisis in this country is worse than almost anywhere else in the OECD. Children are languishing in narrowboats whilst politicians shy away from this inconvenient truth. Polling shows policies to prevent family breakdown are vote-winners. All political parties should ditch the platitudes, acknowledge the elephant in the room and make manifesto promises to strengthen family relationships.

Tel 12/11 (Written in response to the recent Newsnight finding that children in care were living in canalboats and caravans)

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