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Expert Comment: 'Serious weaknesses' in England's care system

Runaway Wednesday 20 June 2012

This investigation into the welfare of children looked after in residential care, especially the welfare of those who run away, is to be welcomed. However, it is important to grasp the complexities of the problem and resist calling for seemingly simple solutions such as ‘scorecard systems’.

Whilst it can be accepted that some children need to be placed away from family due to concerns about their safety, there are also many children who are placed away from their home community because there are no suitable placements available locally. This is a problem of resources which is likely to be exacerbated by recent cuts to Local Authority funding.

Children run away for many reasons. Some do so because they do not feel safe where they have been placed. Children have reported being afraid in a strange school and community environment, told of their fears and incidents of being hurt by other children in residential care, and reported being hurt by the staff caring from them.  Even if they do not fear for their safety, they report feeling alienated by an institutional and community environment where the routines, language, values and expectations are so different to what they are familiar with. On top of this, children have complained of feeling trapped by the restrictions on their freedom to do the ordinary every day things most of us take for granted.  For example, they discover that seeing their friends and family, going out for an evening, or pursuing an interest cannot be done without agreement, which can take days or even weeks to gain.

Children are not just running away – they are also running to something or someone. Children who have been placed away from home due to neglect or abuse may worry for other siblings that have not been removed from the family home or they may fear for the safety of a carer who is at risk of abuse. Even if they are not worried about the safety of those at home they may just need to be with friends and family members that those making the decisions about placement have not recognised as important to them. Making contact arrangements takes time and is bound by the formalities of care plans, reviews meetings and often court procedures which are very difficult for children to feel they have any control over.

The recognition of the need for training and support for staff doing the difficult job of caring for children facing these difficulties is important.  However, the problems are long standing and have their origins in the low value that society places on those who provide this care. The pay and conditions of the people working most closely with the children are correspondingly poor.  Furthermore, the difficulties that these children are facing have their origins not just in the personal troubles facing them and their families but also in the growing structural inequalities in society. The children and families are coping with conditions of poverty, poor housing, neighbourhood crime, and such limited opportunities for employment that there seems little hope for accessing the wealth, status and respect afforded to other sections of society.  

By Rose Devereux, Learning and Development manager  working in partnership with Personal Services Society and Hope university to promote service user involvement. Previously a senior social work practitioner with children’s looked after team and a former foster carer with many years of experience of social care and Liz Fern, Lecturer in Social Work with 20 years of experience in working with children and families including chairing case conferences for children who have been abused and are being looked after.         

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