VCF – The Victoria Climbié Foundation UK seeks to understand why so many children are placed in care, in circumstances that do not benefit them in the long term. Through our advocacy casework service, we have seen first-hand the impact on looked-after children, as a result of decisions that were clearly NOT in their best interests, nor catered for their health or wellbeing.
As 2015 draws to a close, VCF offers case examples to highlight the need to effectively engage with families for the care and protection of children, amid concerns and frustration (from the side-lines) at the lack of positive outcomes for too many children taken into care.
Case example 1
An Afro-Caribbean grandmother taking responsibility for her grandson when his mother failed to meet his needs is forced to watch him grow up in care, despite his determination to remain with her. “I have run away so many times. I want to go back to my grandma but each time I do, she has to call the Police and I have to leave again.”
The boy, aged 11 at the time, was clearly in need of support, as his mother was in a downward spiral and unable to adequately parent her child. Now supported by VCF, he has spoken of his experiences and provides an extremely valuable lesson to the sector about what constitutes child protection versus a child in need.
We were saddened to hear this young boy admit that whilst in care, he could come and go as he pleased, engaged in sex with an older girl in his residential home, and started smoking – cigarettes and weed. The initial freedom was clearly this young boy’s dream, and very different to life with Grandma who, despite her limitations, offers a caring and loving approach in a less than ideal situation.
The grandmother does not pose a significant risk of harm to the child, yet his ‘on the run’ experiences raise extremely grave safeguarding concerns. She has been battling with her local authority for years, seeking much-needed support for her two youngest daughters, subsequently placed on child protection plans for neglect and obesity when she was unable to respond to local authority demands. She was not then considered a suitable candidate to look after her grandson, arguably becoming a victim of the system, rather than a recipient for social care support. The grandmother does not have much, but in our view she has all that her grandson needs.
With VCF advice and assistance, she has since been successful in accessing the required services for her daughters; their case is now closed, and continues to support her grandson from afar. He is now 14 and facing a bleak and uncertain future.
Case example 2
A father, who physically chastised his son, when he acted inappropriately at his local Mosque, was subsequently charged with child cruelty, and the two older children removed from their parents and placed with foster carers. Curiously, the two younger children remain with the parents.
The family, who came to understand the legal reasons for the removal of their children, are struggling to come to terms with the consequences of their disciplinary action, borne out of shame, which would be fully understood and to an extent expected by their 10-year old son, albeit in conflict with UK child protection laws.
Communication was a major factor in this case, particularly at the early stage, for parents whose first language is not English, their lack of awareness and understanding of the roles and functions of statutory agencies, followed by anger and frustration at inconsistent and unexplained contact arrangements.
Fast forward 3 years; the parents are demoralised and the boy’s father feeling completely impotent in the face of his son’s behaviour in care. The boy has become increasingly resentful and has admitted to drug-taking, adding to a number of concerns raised by his parents in the intervening years and the challenge of trying to cope with their teenage son, at a distance.
The outcomes for this child are clearly not improved as a result of his removal from his parents, and his cultural and religious structure. Now, more than ever, these children will need care and protection as a result of their Syrian origins. Who, or what is in place to provide this emotional support in lieu of recent political conflicts?
Case example 3
A mother of African origin, with 2 children, clings to the hope that she will be reunited with her daughter, placed in care at the age of 12 after threatening to self harm following an alleged rape by two boys at her school. When the mother did not consent to her daughter being placed in foster care, an emergency order was obtained to remove her.
Neither children’s social care nor the police were interested in taking the allegations further, despite medical evidence to support the child’s claims. The mother does not understand why the authorities have not sought to prosecute the perpetrators, nor why her daughter was removed. Her infant son, was removed briefly, and returned after 6 weeks.
Contact with her daughter took place weekly, before being reduced to fortnightly with no permitted telephone contact; the reason given that it upsets her daughter to see her and she cries. The daughter was initially placed in foster care, a 3-hour train journey for her mother. Communication between the mother and the child’s social worker has been patchy, and led to inconsistent contact arrangements. The social worker informed the mother that her daughter could not be returned as she would run away, yet was not forthcoming about incidents of the child running from her foster carer on numerous occasions, nor that her daughter had written to the Judge requesting to be returned to her mother.
Her daughter was then moved to a residential placement, where she witnessed the death of another child who committed suicide at the home. She is now 15, with different foster carers, and despairs of ever being able to return to her mother and brother who is now 5.
An historical involvement with Children’s Social Care may be at the heart of the local authority’s decision to remove this child. The family were known to children’s social care; the mother suffered domestic abuse when her daughter was 18 months. There had been no involvement in the intervening time.
In all three examples, the family are in contact and remain the focal point for emotional support to these children. None of these children have been abandoned by the family, yet the barriers and lack of opportunity for discussions to address their offspring’s concerns is leading to damaged relationships and even worse damaged children. Can this really be viewed as practice in the best interests of the child?
For many children and families being supported by VCF, the care system offers unparalleled freedom to young people who by the time they are returned, which is rare, or granted regular contact, which is limited, have experienced more than any child should be expected to endure at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. Add to this, the loss of cultural or faith values, and you begin to see why it is nonsensical to remove children from families, who do not pose a significant risk of harm – the indicator for such action.
Yet, if we deem it necessary to remove children from their family, then surely we are obliged to offer improved circumstances for the child. Otherwise, all we achieve is a shocking statistic that increases every time we make decisions to remove children from ‘so-called’ dysfunctional families, to a life that offers no better!
VCF continues to be concerned about the lack of effective engagement with families in child protection processes. Contempt for families often overrides the protection of a child. A child does not always distinguish between a parent (carer) who is harmful or harmless, thus the involvement of family members must, yes, be challenged, yet in context such that we do not limit the opportunities for children to be supported within the family, where possible, or removed where it is not. The process must go further than merely a damage limitation exercise.
In his recent speech at the Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron spoke about the shame of this country in relation to children in care. “Children in care today are almost guaranteed to live in poverty. 84% leave school without five good GCSEs, 70% of prostitutes were once in care, and tragically care leavers are four times more likely to commit suicide than anyone else,”
At VCF, we would go further to state that many children entering care are not necessarily those who will benefit from the experience or environment in which they are placed, either culturally or without a strong sense of belonging.
Ineffective communication between professionals (required to meet their statutory obligations) and families from BME communities (many of whom lack awareness and understanding of statutory functions) is leading to misunderstandings for an increasing number of children, destined for, or in, care. Language is one aspect that VCF and its partners are seeking to address within child protection, both for families and professionals, to ensure a fairer system and equal justice for all.
Child protection professionals and academics are becoming increasingly aware of, and signalling, the importance of engaging, consulting and listening to families, with a view to ensuring longer-term benefits for children.
In 2016, it is imperative that we work together, within a children’s rights care and protection agenda, to secure the trust of our communities, with whom this sector has become profoundly dis-engaged!