calais child refugees

Accepting more child refugees from Calais prolongs the heartache of those already in care

It appears that the perfidious French have ‘got one over on us’ again. Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed with President Macron to pay additional monies to assist the control of immigration in Calais rather than at Dover, and additionally agreed to accept more unaccompanied child refugees into the UK than we have taken until now.

Actually, I do not feel terribly strongly about the issue of the money, or the arrival of minors: hitherto we have only accepted about 300 such youngsters, and most folk in the UK will not feel too strongly against such an act of charity. They might worry about whether generosity might prove a magnet to encourage other vulnerable youngsters to begin the perilous journey, but that is a separate concern.

The complexity of the subject is worth taking some time over, however, especially if it were to be suggested that we make a more substantial offer to increase the numbers. By all means do it – but let’s enter the field with our eyes wide open, and let’s make sure we do it on an informed basis and do it properly.

At any one time, there are in England and Wales approximately 6,000 children and young people in the care of Local Authorities. Each will have been removed from their birth families by reason of having suffered or being “at risk of suffering serious harm”. This means they are being rescued from abuse, neglect or tragic circumstance. Every one of those 6,000 will have individual histories, needs, aspirations and sibling or social ties, some of which will need to be sustained in new homes.

Some such children are placed in new ‘forever homes’ relatively quickly (which means within a year after any court case ended), but inevitably some will be much harder to find stable homes. Older children, those who have been sexually abused, larger sibling groups, those with complex medical needs or others from small communities with cultural needs but needing anonymity, can all encounter delay in the matching process, and tragically, some become long-term stayers in the care system. For them, the oft-repeated reminder to the Court that “the State is a very bad parent” is an ever-present reality. Multiple moves, each with emotional upset, will feature prominently in such children’s stories. For them the outcomes are depressingly easy to catalogue. Children leaving the institutional care of the State are depressingly over-represented among those suffering depression, homelessness, educational under-achievement, substance abuse, suicide, and criminality.

When well-meaning declarations are made that we must take in more unaccompanied child refugees, we ought at least to remind ourselves that the price of such generosity will be paid by these children in the shadows, those who are currently long-term inhabitants of the pool awaiting placement, and those who are inadvertently competing for the compassion of those special adults willing and able to care for a child in need. These children do not need greater competition for placement. It is uncomfortable to think of these children in that way, but it is part of a practical problem with which social services wrestle all the time. Whose needs shall we meet next?

It will probably not be those virtue-signalling councillors voting to offer assistance to unaccompanied child refugees who will actually deliver the help to those in need, whether they be migrant or indigenous.

There is a remarkable variation in how children cope with difficult circumstances. Some will be highly emotionally damaged by their experiences, others less so. Siblings can show differing levels of resilience, notwithstanding shared backgrounds. Will we prioritise the most damaged or the least?

Taking in a child from a war zone, especially one who has been trafficked, raises a lot of questions for would-be careers. Will they be inured to suffering? Will empathy have been driven out of them by circumstances completely outside of their control? Will they suffer Post Traumatic Shock Disorder? When might we know? Will potential carers be warned of what this might mean?

If a youngster has been abused, have themselves abused or perhaps having become habituated to transactional sex, this raises huge complexities for would-be carers and their families. Offers of sex and threats of accusation occur in foster homes – perhaps not that many, but every would-be carer needs to be informed, trained, and confident about managing challenging behaviours. It is not only the foster carers who need protection by sound preparation: if there are other children within the home, their interests also have to be carefully evaluated. Not every willing compassionate family is right to fulfil these needs, however pressing the need or sincere those making the offer.

Those opening their homes need to understand what they are getting themselves into, and new foster carers are themselves vulnerable to abuse by Local Authorities who often place responsibilities on others, forgetting that the Local Authority remains “the Statutory Parent”, holding ultimate responsibility. Sometimes it is the foster carer left to resolve problems which rightfully belong to the Local Authority.

If you accept a traumatised child, precisely how much support can be counted on? Already a child needing the assistance from the Community Child Adolescent Mental Health Services can expect to wait several months for an appointment. Fast-tracking this child extends the waiting time for that one. These are not services which are being extended or better resourced in the light of the migration debate.

A child in care is entitled to priority admission to local schools. Whose child loses the place and how great was their need? The public debate rarely has the small detail examined

This is not an argument to deny admission to anyone, or to offer any advice on what the ‘right number’ might be. It is, however, proper to suggest that, first of all, the decision needs to be informed by how many new foster carers have been recruited; that this may not produce a very impressive number, and if we are being honest, we need, at the very least, to acknowledge that some of those new recruits will be needed to reduce the urgent need of those already awaiting adoption or settled long-term foster care.

Bad decisions almost always have bad consequences. Failing war-zone infant migrants through ill thought-through preparation will not serve anyone well. When we know that historically the State is a notoriously bad parent, it is only prudent to require it to show us its plans, ensure that the projects are thought through in advance, properly resourced, and in all regards fully prepared to meet the needs of these vulnerable youngsters.

“We’ll sort it out somehow” just will not do.