This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
Children's Minister talks about how the Children and Families Bill will support vulnerable children and their families.
Thanks, Anne Marie (Carrie, Barnado’s Chief Executive), for that warm welcome and for very kindly hosting this event and to Peter, from the Institute for Government, for kindly accommodating us. Thanks also to all of you, many of whom I have had the pleasure to work with, for finding time to join me here today.
Almost 150 years after it was founded, Barnado’s continues to lead the way in standing up for the most vulnerable and voiceless children and young people in our society. Spurring us all to do much more to support them so that every child, whatever their background, has the chance to succeed.
It’s an ambition and determination that this government very much shares and which is key to the publication, today, of the Children and Families Bill.
And, it’s an ambition which, as many of you know, is particularly close to my heart.
Growing up with many foster children and adopted siblings, I saw, first-hand, the huge challenges vulnerable children face, but also the huge scope for turning lives around.
It wasn’t always easy. It can put a real strain on your own family and your relationships with each other. I remember coming home from school one day to find two boys I’d never seen before playing with my toys. Now, I’m sorry to say that my first reaction was to run upstairs, shut myself in my room and refuse to come out until they’d left.
Many of the children who came into our home had been damaged by chaotic, difficult backgrounds. Their behaviour was, at times, incredibly challenging.
I’ve seen babies addicted to heroin go into spasms. I’ve watched as an abused and deeply angry little boy shattered every pane of glass in my dad’s prized greenhouse because he didn’t know how else to let his anger out. And I became proficient in most swear words by the age of 10 thanks to the foster children who parroted back to me what they had heard at home.
But, over time, as they gradually settled, I came to treasure seeing how love, stability and routine could help even the most troubled youngsters thrive and develop.
It was this experience of caring for foster children and seeing how they could transcend disadvantage that gave me the impetus to train as a family barrister often representing children in care.
It’s why, going into politics, I’ve made it my mission to improve the life chances of our most vulnerable children.
And it’s why I’m proud to be introducing a Bill, with my coalition colleague Jo Swinson, that firmly puts the needs of these children at the heart of the government’s agenda.
The Bill sets out our plans to:
- sweep away barriers to adoption
- speed up care proceedings in the family courts
- strengthen support for those with special educational needs.
Families will also get extra support through a new system of shared parental leave, the right to request flexible working and improved childcare for working parents.
And a theme running through the Bill is the enhancement of children’s rights.
Of course, we all know that legislation alone isn’t enough. There’s also got to be a decisive shift in our attitudes to vulnerable children, especially those in care, if we’re to do better by them.
Care can be the birth of hope and healing; the chance to trust in a better future. I’ve seen it and lived with it myself.
But, too often, there continues to be a tendency to apply much lower standards and aspirations, whether it be safety, a suitable home environment or educational attainment, to looked-after children than would ever be thought acceptable for others.
No ordinary parent would put up with their child moving home every 6 weeks, changing schools every term or going missing again and again. Yet, this is somehow regarded as sad, but inevitable for children in care.
It’s a gulf in attitudes that seems to be based largely on defeatist assumptions that these children are too damaged or disadvantaged for us to expect much from them at all. Assumptions that see the care system as a bottom-of-the-pile, end-of-the-road option.
And given this, it’s little wonder that, despite some encouraging progress in recent years, the prospects of looked after children continue to lag behind those of other children.
The figures are dismally familiar.
Only 15% of children in care get 5 good GCSEs, including English and maths, compared to nearly 60% of other children.
Looked after children are 3 times more likely to end up unemployed. And they’re also 3 times more likely to suffer from a mental health condition than their peers.
“Good enough” care for these children clearly isn’t good enough.
Let’s be honest: Would we happy if this is where are our own children ended up? If the best they could hope for was to underachieve as a matter of course?
Of course we wouldn’t. So why should we accept this for children in care?
Especially when it’s been proved, time and time again, that these children can succeed, given the right care and support.
In Essex, for example, the council is backing 1,700 new apprenticeships for vulnerable groups, a hundred of which are specifically reserved for looked after young people and care leavers. The council pays half of the young person’s wages, giving businesses no excuse not to take on bright, ambitious people who’ve been through the care system.
It’s an approach that we’re supporting whole-heartedly through the From Care2Work programme, encouraging more businesses to provide them a route into work that may otherwise be beyond their reach.
Far from giving up on vulnerable children, because they haven’t had the best start in life, we should be doubly determined to help them achieve all the things we would want for our own children - high aspirations in education and work, strong, stable relationships, good health and a positive involvement in their communities.
I know that all we want to stop having to repeat those bleak statistics and begin to turn them, instead, into something that we can celebrate. To do this effectively, there’s got to be an unwavering focus on securing the best possible outcomes for vulnerable children in the shortest feasible time.
I want everyone who’s involved in a vulnerable child’s life; teachers, social workers, foster carers, health professionals, councillors, to have a real sense of parental responsibility for their prospects. To, not just focus on their narrow area, but look at the child’s overall welfare. To ask themselves, before they make a decision or fill in a form, “Would this be good enough for my own child?”
This is our best hope for challenging the end-of-the-road attitudes that have held children back and for genuinely putting their needs first - not just in principle, as has happened in the past, but, actually, in practice. So that the system fits in with what’s best for them and not the other way around.
Top of the list of these needs is the need for stability, both during their time in the care system and when they’re leaving it. This is absolutely fundamental to their chances of overcoming damage and getting on in life.
Children often cite stability, the laying down of roots, as the best thing about being in care - and moving around as the worst. Without it, they are left floundering.
Yet, for too many of them, the care system heaps further uncertainty and upheaval onto children who have already had to contend with more than enough of this in their short lives.
Too many find themselves on a conveyor belt of care.
Being shunted from one placement to another.
Being returned home too quickly to once again face the dangers that originally demanded their removal.
Being forced to leave care at 16 - much earlier than most young people would be left to fend for themselves.
There are cases of children with placements in the double figures.
Almost a third of children in children’s homes have been through 5 or more placement breakdowns before moving into the home. I was told about a 16-year-old boy who was moved 31 times after being taken into care at the age of 3. One of his planned placements lasted less than 24 hours.
But it’s not just a case of moving home. Children often have to move schools, adjust to new carers, new social workers, entirely new surroundings. To repeatedly see the plug pulled on everything that has become familiar.
The fallout from being uprooted so often is profound. Evidence clearly shows that more placements equal worse outcomes. That the more times placements break down, the more rejected a child feels, seriously corroding their emotional resilience.
Just under 40% of children who had one or two placements got 5 good GCSEs in 2010 compared to just 14.5% who had 3 or more placements.
So it’s critical we do much more to reinforce stability. I want to see more local authorities learning from each other and improving their performance on placement stability.
We’ll shortly be publishing a data pack that includes more detailed information on how often local authorities move children. We’ll also be putting in place more robust data collection to help local areas understand where they need to improve.
On returns home from care, we’re aiming to support a number of local areas to develop and use interventions that work. We’re also planning to consult on changes to sharpen focus in this area and make it a bigger priority.
A stable, supported transition to adulthood is also crucial for young people leaving care. We want to see more young people stay in care until their 18th birthday.
This is something that the best local authorities are doing, giving care leavers the sort of support, as they become independent, that other young people take for granted. I very much applaud those that do and, with the participation age about to go up, call on other councils to follow suit.
I regularly meet a group of care leavers to talk about how we can improve the support they receive. Their input was key to developing the Charter for Care Leavers and the Access all Areas report. Some, I believe, are in the audience today and I want to say how much I appreciate your continuing support and challenge.
For my own part, I’ve been knocking on the doors of other government departments in Westminster and challenging them on the Access all Areas report and what they’re doing for care leavers. Because there’s, undeniably, a wider responsibility for their outcomes and there are many ways in which, right across government, we can do more to meet that obligation.
One of the biggest barriers to stability is frankly inexcusable delay and drift in the care system. Delays that see thousands of children left in limbo in the adoption system and in the family courts. Delays which aren’t just frustrating or unfortunate, but which are denying children the stability that will lead to a better life.
Because the one thing that children don’t have is time.
A growing body of evidence on child development tells us that there’s a critical window during the early years; when everything that happens to a child has lifelong consequences for every area of their lives. From their ability to form secure attachments and control their emotions, especially when it comes to violence and aggression; to their vulnerability, later in life, to abuse such as child sexual exploitation and their chances of becoming perpetrators of abuse themselves.
Early experiences of abuse and neglect cast a long shadow of a child’s future prospects at school, work and in their relationships. So every day of delay, in getting a vulnerable child the help they desperately need, damages their life chances.
So given this, there can be little question as to why a child’s needs; to immediately be safe, to immediately have their basic needs met, must take priority over any other consideration - including the rights of biological parents who are unable or unwilling to reform their behaviour within the brief time-frame that’s so critical to a child’s development and when they’re at greatest risk of suffering serious harm.
Over 60% of children coming into care do so because of abuse and neglect, so this compelling evidence should focus minds. Compared with 10, 20, 30 years ago, we have a much better understanding of what interventions work.
Yet, it’s abundantly clear that timely intervention isn’t happening anywhere near enough.
This was brought home to me all too painfully during my decade as a barrister in the care system. By the time a case landed on my desk, the damage had, all too often, already been done and it was a matter of trying to make the best of a bad job. It was apparent that cases were managed, all too often, for the convenience of adults rather than the interests of the child.
This cannot continue. Reducing delays and promoting stability to meet the needs of vulnerable children has to be an absolute priority for everyone involved in their care. That’s why we’re legislating to make this happen.
So, in future, there will be a 6-month time limit for the family courts to decide whether a child should be taken into care. The courts will also have to make sure decision-making and timetables take into account the child’s needs and the impact of delays on them. And, as the tri-borough project here in London demonstrates, this can be done.
We’re also speeding up and simplifying the adoption system.
Adoption offers vulnerable children one of the most stable foundations for a successful life. But the system is currently failing to deliver. Chronic delays mean that children in care wait an average of two years - in the worst cases, three years - to be adopted.
There are currently just over 4,500 children with their lives on hold as they sit on adoption waiting lists. Yet, in some areas, prospective adopters are being ignored or turned away.
Many are put off by intrusive and irrelevant checks. I recently heard about a couple who were asked what insurance company their car was registered with - what can that possibly have to do with their ability to adopt?
I know from my own family experience of adoption - and the Secretary of State has also spoken eloquently about his - just how life-changing it can be, especially for those adopted at a young age.
But, again, time is critical. Evidence shows that a child’s chances of adoption are reduced by almost 20% for every year they spend in care.
Many in this room will know that I’m committed to doing whatever it takes to change this and bring vulnerable children and prospective parents together more quickly.
We recently announced that we will be making £150 million available to councils to boost adoption rates.
We’ve increased accountability by publishing data on how long it takes each local authority to place children for adoption, so we can drive up performance.
And now we’re legislating to promote “fostering for adoption” placements, so people can foster the child they hope to adopt and build a bond earlier.
The Bill will also end the undue emphasis on finding an ethnic match between the child and adoptive parents. A child’s background and individual characteristics are, of course, important, and we will maintain necessary checks and safeguards as already set out in the Children Act. But it’s not acceptable that it takes black children, on average, a year longer to find adoptive parents.
Some councils are doing excellent work on adoption - Bristol, for example, has set and succeeded in hitting a target to increase adopter approvals by 50% - but performance, across the country, is too patchy.
I’m keen to see rapid improvement and I truly hope we do. But if this doesn’t happen, we will intervene to make sure we have a system that meets the current and future demand for adopters and that works for children.
Clearly, adoption isn’t right for every child. For 3/4 of children in care, fostering provides an equally valuable opportunity to enjoy some stability and enjoy normal family life.
I regularly meet groups of children in care and quite a few have extolled the fantastic support foster carers provide. It’s why I wrote to foster carers a few months ago, letting them know how extremely grateful I am for all that they do.
But, as with adoption, we need to recruit more foster carers, from a wider range of backgrounds, who can take on children with complex needs.
People have said, in reference to my parents fostering, “You must be a very special person to do this.” I’m sure my parents won’t mind me saying this, but there are many people who could do what they have done.
But fostering often isn’t seen as a viable option for modern, working families.
We’re taking steps to change this; by making it easier for working people to undertake fostering. And by cutting the red-tape that stops foster carers from making every day parenting decisions about getting a child’s hair cut or letting them stay over with a friend.
We’re also providing more support to existing foster carers. We’re enhancing the status and help available for long-term fostering; giving carers tailored support and a bigger say in how they look after the children to whom they’re committing. And making sure they face less bureaucracy.
We’re also providing training for foster carers, especially when children with particularly challenging needs are involved.
Schemes such as Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care, an intensive treatment programme delivered by the foster carers with the support of a skilled clinical team, have shown some really encouraging results.
And we’re supporting local authorities and their partners to develop these specialist interventions so many children can benefit from this kind of help. Our aim is for more than half of local authorities to have embedded these and other specialist schemes for children in care and those on the edge of care into their core services by 2015.
I believe we that have some specialist foster carers; Julie and Lauretta, with us today. I know from experience that taking on and sticking with children with such challenging needs can be incredibly demanding. I want to take this opportunity to say how thankful I am for your efforts. I’m sure the children you’ve helped will never forget what you’ve done for them.
Some of the turnarounds that the scheme has achieved have been truly remarkable.
In one case, the programme helped a 15-year-old boy, from a broken home plagued by violence, alcohol and drug use, to overcome a history of offending and school exclusions. Having been supported to re-enter education, he passed most of this exams - the first he’d ever achieved. He’s now attending college and has not re-offended for 2 years.
It doesn’t surprise me that education played such a key role in transforming this boy’s prospects.
Education is the engine of opportunity that offers all children the prospect of transcending the circumstances of their birth and the promise of a better life - and none more so than the most vulnerable.
Yet, as I said earlier, there persists this glaring gap in educational achievement between children in care and their peers.
There’s no doubt that looked after children can find it harder to achieve in education. But, with the right support, we’ve seen that children in care can and do achieve at school.
Making this the norm, and not the exception, is every bit as important as finding them stable, loving homes.
I want the education of looked after children to be a much higher priority. So that everyone involved in their care has the same high aspirations for them as they would their own children - and the same determination, as any other parent, to champion their needs.
And I want children in care to be able to count on this support even if they move school.
Which is why, under the Bill, we’ll be making it a requirement for every local authority to appoint an officer, often known as a virtual school head, to promote the educational achievement of the children it looks after, regardless of where they’re placed.
We know, from Ofsted, that these educational champions can make a real difference, not only to a child’s progress, but also to the stability of their placements and their emotional wellbeing.
In East Sussex, for example, a Virtual School Head has boosted results by working closely with and across primary, secondary and special schools; with the progress of children in secondary schools supported by one-to-one tuition, tailored resources, mentoring and revision courses. Ensuring that nobody gives up on them.
This sort of extra support is vital for children in care, many of whom also have special educational needs - over two-thirds of looked after children have some form of SEN and around a third have a statement.
Those with special educational needs tend to underachieve in education, in any case, so this double disadvantage bites hard.
This makes it even more vital that the SEN system works well. Yet, we know that children with SEN face delays in getting help because their needs are often picked up late and, as with children in care, face poor prospects: around a third of all young people with SEN statements at 16 aren’t in education, employment or training at 18 compared to 13 per cent of their peers.
So we’re taking action, through the Bill, to get services, across local authorities, health and social care, to join up and support for children with SEN. This support will extend from birth to 25 to support a successful transition to adulthood.
It will also be much easier for children with SEN to find out what help is available through a new requirement on local authorities to publish a “Local Offer”.
In making these changes, it’s important to stress that we’ll be maintaining and, in some cases, extending key protections and entitlements that matter to young people and their families.
But, again, a change in the law can only do so much.
Getting different services to work together in this way and put the child and their family in the driving seat demands, above all, cultural change. It can be a difficult road, but, as I’ve seen myself, pathfinders, across the country, are developing new systems with families at their heart, proving it can be done.
But as important as it is to help vulnerable children find stability and drive up educational attainment, our first duty is to keep them safe.
Emerging evidence about the horrors of child sexual exploitation has brought this into sharp focus.
The Barnardo’s Cut Them Free campaign has done a great deal, not just to raise awareness of this despicable abuse, but also to propose solutions.
I’m extremely thankful to you, and others here today, for working with us to tackle this issue. This work has involved contributions to our national action plan and to a roundtable meeting which I chaired in December, involving other Government Ministers and a range of organisations.
The good news is that more perpetrators are being prosecuted and locked away for years. But we know there’s a lot more to do to combat these terrible crimes.
We know, for example, that children who go missing from care are at serious risk of being exploited and harmed. Reports issued last year by the Joint All Party Parliamentary Group Inquiry and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner illustrated this only too starkly.
So, if we’re to get to grips with this abuse, it’s clear we must have robust data on children who go missing to work with.
The Working Group we set up last year to look at this has now reported and I can announce today that we will begin piloting a new data collection in the next few months.
This will, for the first time, collect information on all children who go missing from their placement - not just those missing for 24 hours - enabling better analysis and more effective practice to prevent and combat the problem.
In addition, we will shortly issue revised statutory guidance on Children who go Missing from Home or Care based on the best local practice. This will complement guidance issued to police forces by the Association of Chief Police Officers.
Ofsted’s new looked after children inspections and the new multi-agency inspections, which will begin in June, will also shine a powerful light on progress being made on the ground.
Sexual predators also exploit weaknesses in the residential care system, particularly an “out of sight out of mind” culture, which has seen too many children being placed in children’s home many miles from family and friends.
In March 2011, children’s homes in 15 local authorities were entirely occupied by children from other local authorities.
At the same time, 13 other local authorities, which had children’s homes in their area, made no placements in these homes; instead preferring to send their children to homes in other areas.
Good children’s homes provide young people, for whom other placements aren’t suitable, with just the intensive, caring professional help and stability they need. But we know that there are some homes where support for children and security are poor. Which are located in parts of the country with meagre facilities and, worse still, where there are disproportionately large numbers of sex offenders often synonymous with organised criminal activity.
Damaged children are particularly vulnerable to these dangers and we’re determined to do much more to protect them.
We’re already on track to make it possible for Ofsted to share information on the location of children’s homes with the police and we will be urgently consulting on a number of further changes:
- That require local authorities, at a senior level, to take more responsibility for out of area placements that are a significant distance away.
- That ensure there’s rigorous independent scrutiny of the quality of care in each home.
- That clarify the roles and responsibilities of the placing authority, the children’s home and the area where the home is located, so there’s a real, shared responsibility for safeguarding the child and promoting their welfare.
We’re also proposing to reform the qualifications framework to address the low level of qualifications among staff in children’s homes.
And, by this summer, we’ll publish a revised data pack on residential care which will include more detailed information about children’s homes by local authority and region. This should go some way towards helping local authorities make much better choices. In all of this, we will continue to work key partners to find the best way forward.
There can be no greater responsibility, for those entrusted with the care of vulnerable children, than to keep them safe. I can promise that I won’t hesitate to hold those who are failing to do so to account.
I’m in no doubt that vulnerable children represent one of the sternest tests of our society. Doing what it takes to help them; undertaking reform and challenging and changing cultural assumptions and work practices, clearly isn’t easy.
But it’s a test I’ve seen carers and professionals, across the country, meeting with love and dedication every day.
Carers and professionals who are intervening decisively and providing the stability that we know offers vulnerable children the best chance to succeed - that offers them the chance to recover and secure good outcomes in the shortest time.
I’ve seen for myself, at home and at work, the incredible difference that love and stability, particularly in a family setting, can make to overturning disadvantage. It’s why I want to see more adopters and more specialist foster carers recruited and why I want to see better residential care homes.
Far too many vulnerable children, who have already missed out on so much in life, are missing out on this love and stability for no good reason - the damage and disadvantage they’ve suffered compounded by a system that’s supposed to be there to rescue them.
Again, I ask, how would we feel if these were our own children?
We’d almost certainly be outraged. Spurred into immediate action. So what’s the difference with the children in the care system?
The truth is that there is no difference. They are our children. What happens to them, happens to us. If they do well at school, find work, form healthy relationships; we all benefit. Equally, if they end up in prison, suffer poor health and are unemployed, we all suffer.
So, there’s a clear imperative, moral and hard-headed, for changing the game when it comes to the support we give them.
To reduce delays, make well-informed, child-focused decisions and provide the love and stability they need and crave as quickly as possible.
To give them the chance to have the kind of childhood and springboard to a better life that we would wish for own children.
To not just say we’re going to put the needs of vulnerable children first, but actually do it.