• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 19th June, 2009

Fate worse than death or port in storm?

In the heat of the debate about UK child welfare, several influential experts have argued that more children should be taken into care. Their line is that to leave children in neglectful families exposes them to a continuous risk of serious harm, and, since their development is almost certainly impaired, denies them their right to a healthy, fulfilling life. Others warier of heavy-handed approaches point out that all of the evidence on children in care (“looked after” children as they are called in the UK) indicates that it is a disaster area.Their riposte is that it is impossible to meet all of the needs of such vulnerable children in artificial situations - witness the fact that as adults they are overrepresented in every problematic group – whether through offending, addiction, teenage pregnancy, mental illness, failed relationships or homelessness. So, who’s right?Donald Forrester from the University of Bedfordshire and colleagues have reviewed recent UK research evidence on the psycho-social development of children in care and discovered that both arguments are true. They say that the problems lie within the system. They confirm that every study reveals that children entering care will have already experienced deprivation and abuse far more severe than that experienced by young people in the general population. They will find it difficult to recover, whatever happens. But, at the same time, most of the follow-up studies of children, whether at risk of harm but remaining at home, adopted or placed in foster or residential care, do surprisingly well. They catch other children up in developmental terms or recover sufficiently to lead a reasonably normal life. The problems arise after they leave care. Thrown into a hostile environment, alone and unloved, many find it difficult to cope and the gains made during care are all too swiftly extinguished.Over the past 12 years, the UK Labour government has tried hard to remedy this situation by allocating more resources to substitute care, making the legislation more flexible, monitoring children’s progress and strengthening after-care services. The approach prescribed in its policy document Care Matters is more of the same and relies on enhanced public funding to prop up the current system. Forrester and colleagues want something more radical. Their first recommendation is to intervene earlier before care becomes necessary – a cliché perhaps, but that should not detract from the pressing need to find out what is possible. The important point is that this does not mean that we need less care, but only less of the type currently available. More substitute care of a different kind might be effective as a prevention strategy. After all, they remind us, there’s plenty of research to show that care can have positive effects on a child’s welfare.They therefore argue that the UK system should move away from an adversarial US model that regards care as an alternative to living with the birth family. They propose that it is replaced by a Scandinavian model in which care is provided as a means of family support, with less emphasis on permanent alternatives – but not denying that those are necessary for some children. A fact that has surprised many observers is that the countries adopting this approach have a higher rate of children in care than does the UK.The crucial difference is that they use it to rescue families from difficulty rather than as a residual service that involves a child’s forcible removal from home and consignment to a fate worse than death.See: Donald Forrester, Keith Goodman, Christine Cocker, Charlotte Binnie and Graham Jensch, “What is the impact of public care in children’s welfare? A review of research findings from England and Wales and their policy implications’ Journal of Social Policy, 38:3, pp 439-56.

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