There was nearly a fist-fight at the back of the church. I was giving a talk about God’s concern for vulnerable children at a church in Leeds that runs the largest homeless outreach programme in the city. There were men present who had recently come out of prison and men who had been sleeping rough, as well as professionals, and students in their 20s. Such a fascinating mix of people demonstrated something of church at its best. Contrary to what you may be expecting, it wasn’t one of the ex-offenders at the heart of the dust-up. I was taking questions, and a member of the audience had taken offence at something I had said. He declared himself to be a member and former employee of Ukip and he was quick to tell me that it was the Labour Party and the Conservative Party who were responsible for the recent child abuse cases in Rotherham and Oxfordshire. The Ukip member’s question didn’t sit well with a local activist for a more leftist party, and things got a little bit feisty over coffee and cake at the end.
For me that service was a collision of important cross-currents in both church and culture as we approached the General Election. It is so easy to forget the most vulnerable; to forget those without a voice who are victims – even of systems designed to protect them. Every 22 minutes, a child enters the UK care system. Every year, 9,000 young people ‘age out’ of the care system – becoming too old to be fostered, adopted, or cared for. Staggeringly, 38% of those young people are not staying in education, training or finding employment.
As a nation we are failing children who have had the hardest start to their lives. We are failing to provide them safety while they are in care or to leave care equipped for life.
I was very uncomfortable with the attempt to politicise child protection. The horrific levels of child abuse that took place in Oxford and Rotherham came about partly because of the way that young people in care had been problematised, and so their reports of abuse and cries for help were not heard. Bureaucracy, cuts in social service provision, cultural sensitivities – all of these contributed to the situation. But for any party to try and make political capital out of this misery is, to my mind, inappropriate to say the least. Despite personal reservations about Ukip on a number of fronts, I must commend them for including this substantial commitment in their manifesto:
UKIP will reform the care system so the 68,000 children in care in the UK… can find stability through fostering and adoption in a faster, more efficient way. We will extend the provisions of the Children and Families Act 2014, which gives children in care the choice to stay with their foster families until they turn 21, to children in homes, so they too have the same opportunity.
This is difficult to fault as a manifesto promise, but the promise of young people to be able to stay with their foster families is already in place thanks to the “staying put scheme” introduced by the last government. Some might see various of Ukip’s other policies working against this promise, for example plans to withhold benefits to asylum seekers and migrant workers will put more families at risk of not being able to provide for their children and so endanger the wellbeing of more children, potentially bringing more children into the care system.
Only the Liberal Democrats were even more expansive on their plans to reform the care system. In their manifesto they made commitments that included:
* Expect Local Authorities to set out a clear purpose for the care system: to promote emotional wellbeing and resilience, provide a secure base on which children can be supported in their development and provide individually tailored help with recovery.
* Raise the quality and profile of children’s social work, continuing and expanding the Frontline programme – which is fast-tracking the brightest and best into the profession – to at least 300 graduate recruits each year.
* Tackle delay and instability in foster care, with better support and training for foster carers, including on mental health issues.
* Continue to make it easier for children in care to find a loving home, through the national Adoption Register and the new national gateway for adoption, a first point of contact for potential adopters.
* Prevent looked after children and young people being drawn into the criminal justice system unnecessarily by promoting restorative justice.
After significant investment and innovation in the area of adoption including increased post-adoption support and innovations including the introduction of the £19m Adoption Support Fund and the Pupil Premium; streamlining of the adoption process and reduction of undue emphasis on ethnic matching; introduction of ‘Fostering for Adoption’ and the “staying put” scheme giving foster children the option to stay with their foster carers until aged 21, and the announcement of a review of SGOs, it is surprising that the Conservative Party Manifesto had but the most minimal of commitments:
We have made progress in reforming our adoption system, but there is more to do . We will introduce regional adoption agencies, working across local authority boundaries to match children with the best parents for them. We will continue to raise the quality of children’s social work.
The Labour Party and Greens have nothing specific about adoption or fostering that I could see in their manifestos. This potential omission is a problem.
In the light of the child abuse scandals of Rotherham and Oxford, it is expected that more of these kind of systematised abuses of children in care are going to come to light in other areas. At present, children entering the care system are disadvantaged and this can have long-lasting effects – like the stark fact that young care leavers make up only 1% of the population’s young people but comprise 11% of our homeless population. Or the sobering fact that in different areas of the UK anywhere between 30% and 70% of sex workers are young people that have aged out of care. As I looked around the church building in Leeds I wondered how many of the prison leavers were once young people in the care system: according to the national average 24% of the prison population are care leavers.
We must do better for children who have received the hardest start in life and have been brought into care because of neglect and abuse, and then have to face life without the relationships or skills they need to thrive. Some have been critical about the level of enthusiasm that our politicians showed during this election campaign. Some have been trying to pump themselves up and make themselves appear as people of real passion. Well, I think that the care of the vulnerable is something to get worked up about, and that’s what we want to see happen. I don’t think that a fist-fight in a church is a good idea, but I do think we need to stand up and fight for the needs of the children which our care system is failing, and call on all those with political power to do all they can do to change this.
You can read the Home for Good Manifesto in full HERE.