Following the recent foster care stocktake, it is important to continually assess what new and emerging factors might bear upon its recommendations. And whether, because of this, action should be taken with greater alacrity to protect vulnerable children.
“We get the society we choose and at the moment we are choosing to gamble with the futures of hundreds of thousands of children.” And that “more than two million children in England are growing up in families where there are serious risks.” These are the words of Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, in a report just out studying childhood vulnerability.
In her forward to the recent foster care stocktake, her opinion was that: “Every child growing up needs and deserves the love, care and support of a family. For the thousands of children in foster care, it is no different, if not even more acute.” It is known from recent figures that 65% of children entering foster carer are suffering trauma to varying degrees, the result of neglect and abuse.
The context for foster care
The report on childhood vulnerability paints an alarming picture. It estimates that 2.1 million of England’s 11.8 million children – nearly 1 in 6 -are living in families with risks so serious that they need help. This is because they are exposed to dangers, including domestic violence as well as residing with parents with problems of alcohol or drug abuse. The figures become even more depressing on closer inspection: of the 2.1 million children, 890,000 live with parents suffering from serious mental health problems and 825,000 are in homes where domestic violence is routine. The group most exposed comprises 100,000 children living with the consequences of “the toxic trio” – domestic violence, mental health problems and alcohol /drug abuse.
These are the stark realities that have affected so many children before they come into foster care. For a long time before this latest report, the reality of daily life for these children must have been suspected. Looked at another way, we are dealing with casualties. And this is the language that should be used: it might stir more decisive action and perhaps have resulted in a foster care stocktake very different in tone. These figures have implications – as is recognised in the report – “Not every vulnerable child needs state intervention, but this research gives us, in stark detail, the scale of need and the challenges ahead – meeting them will not be easy or cost free.”
Foster care will need more financial resources
What now appears to be accepted is a great deal more money is going to be needed to tackle these problems. The chief executive of The Fostering Network, Kevin Williams, said of the foster care stocktake – “it is a missed opportunity.” And it is certainly looking that way, as it seems to have missed; or not anticipated, the kinds of figures we are now seeing, along with the picture being presented of the grim lives of so many children.
In recent times, we have been governed by an elite able to spend billions on a series of military adventures whose outcomes have been deeply questionable to say the least. Money appeared as if by magic. But the very nature and fabric of the society we live in, is now as much at risk for different reasons – and ones far more quantifiable – certainly if this kind of social injustice is tolerated and perpetuated. The voices now calling for action are loud and not easily ignored. Their urgings are backed by hard facts, not the flimsy evidence produced to justify the instantly available billions spent on the Iraq war: vice chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, Roy Perry, has stated – “We want the Government to heed these increasingly urgent warnings and accept the critical need for properly funded children’s services, which face a funding gap of £3billion by 2025 just to keep services running at current levels.”
Add to this, the director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, Imran Hussain, has responded by saying “It’s our most vulnerable children who are paying the price for the punishing central government cuts to council budgets, and being left without the early help they desperately need.”
Why is it resources are so readily available to fight controversial wars abroad when we should now; as a society, be prepared to ‘gird our loins’ and engage in the battle for justice for those most vulnerable? The costs will indeed be huge, but they will be far greater if we choose to do nothing. If the children’s commissioner herself thinks we are now “choosing to gamble with the futures of hundreds of thousands of children”, we are in fact gambling with something more fundamental – the very nature of our society.
Given the figures contained in the study on childhood vulnerability, an addendum to the foster care stocktake should advise we immediately prioritise foster care by providing the resources to create a highly professional cadre of foster carers. War is never fought on the cheap, and neither will addressing this crisis be. As the children’s commissioner says – “We have long warned of the rising demand councils face, with an average of more than 270 children taken into care or placed on a child protection plan every single day to keep them safe from harm.” And it just has to be accepted that many foster children who now come into care, will need therapeutic foster care to help them recover from their experiences. This is costs more but is necessary if these foster children are going to be able to make meaningful progress in their lives. As a society we must accept that the approach to providing foster care cannot be done on the basis of firefighting. We just need to define an approach that is strategic and will deliver success in terms of outcomes for foster children. Then we need to determine its cost and pay for it.
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