Most professionals working within the family justice system and children’s social care have no personal experience of what it feels like, as a child, to be removed from your family and taken into the care of strangers. Paradoxically, we also know too much about what is happening in our cases for us to easily think ourselves into what the child at the centre of proceedings is feeling when these events are taking place. We make decisions every day about moving children from one placement to another, about sibling groups and a range of other things based on what we believe will be best for those children, or, at least, the best that can be done in the circumstances. These decisions are all taken with the best motivations and intentions, but I wonder how far we are able to really imagine what it feels like to be the subject of these decisions? If we could and did, would it change the way we acted? Would we, for example, move children with black bin bags for their belongings? Would we be so quick to end all contact with a foster carer, when a child moves to live with adopters?
What prompted these ruminations, was a conjunction between three reports this year. The first, was the report from Sir Martin Narey and Mark Owers which, amongst many things, suggested that Independent Reviewing Officers were of little value and that local authorities should be allowed to dispense with them. One of the striking things about this recommendation was the complete lack of any input from any of the children served by IROs. Thankfully, this recommendation has not been accepted the Government. Interestingly, Sir Martin’s report also recorded that many children in care felt that they had too little contact with their siblings.
In June 2018, there came the Care Crisis Review, which is a wide-ranging piece of work, including the results of a survey of ‘care-experienced’ young people and adults. The authors accept that their respondents cover a large slice of time and so some of their experiences may not be reflective of current practice. Notwithstanding this, they highlight a number of common, recurring themes which run through the responses to the survey, regardless of the period of time under discussion.
One of these themes is headed as ‘the voice of the child’ and for me, after 30 years involvement in care and adoption cases, it makes for depressing reading. There is still a clear message that children, caught up in the family justice system, or being looked after by the state, often do not understand why they are in the position they are in, what is happening to them and why. The authors say that ‘an overarching theme was participants wanting to be respected and have meaningful engagement with professionals’ … ‘wanting clear information in an appropriate and timely manner’ but that these things were not always provided to them.
Why are we still struggling to get this right? Involving a child in the decisions which are being made about them is a slow and a resource-intensive process. It eats up two kinds of resources; time and emotional resources. Neither of these is infinite.
You cannot just walk into a stranger’s world and ask them to discuss their most personal and painful inner fears with you. It takes time, to start from the safe, outside edges of their world and to work inwards. It must be taken at the child’s pace and not yours. There are gates to be opened and the toll is usually paid through being able to trade something of your own. If several sessions are needed, there is no point sending a colleague next time. The relationship you are trying to build is a personal one.
There is an emotional toll as well, which limits the number of cases which can be done properly, at any one time. Building a relationship and explaining how the child came to be where they are and the possible roads ahead can be hard, draining work, if you are going to carry your companion along with you. Walking ahead of them, out of sight and out of earshot, delivering a scripted soliloquy, is much easier. It is also ineffectual and pointless, save that it allows a box to be ticked on the sheet that says ‘gave child explanation of case’.
None of this is compatible with ‘smarter working’ or fixed fees. It is the age-old conflict between the artisan and the industrial process and I know, because history tells me, there is only one outcome. That does not make it the right outcome. Work with people is simply not capable of industrialisation, increasing work rates and reducing the number and skills of the staff, because it is tied to the speed at which the individuals moving through that system are able make the changes and adaptations necessary.
Children are not goods and chattels. They cannot be processed like bales of cotton or sheet steel. They are individuals, who have inherent rights, which the state and everyone else must respect. Failure to make them part of the decisions which affect them has consequences. They are going to be in our society for longer than most of us and the way in which they behave towards others will often be a reflection of how others have behaved towards them. Whilst our children will choose our nursing home for us, it is these people, emerging from our care system, who will be staffing it.
Another consistent theme found by the Care Crisis Review is echoed in the All Party Parliamentary Group for Children report ‘Storing Up Trouble’ which came out in July 2018. The headline-grabbing sections deal with postcode lotteries for child-protection and early intervention thresholds, but the final section looks at involving children and young people in decisions about their care. Both reports raise concerns about contact with siblings and the lasting harm to children when these relationships are deliberately severed.
The APPG inquiry says that Cafcass outlined to it the benefits of sibling contact, in areas as wide-ranging as mental health, academic performance and placement stability. Cafcass argued that for some children, sibling relationships can be as important as contact with birth parents. Despite this, the evidence to the enquiry from ‘Catch 22 Young People’s Benchmarking Forum’ included an account of a young person who had received no explanation for the ending of his contact with his siblings after they were adopted and was left wondering if he was a risk to them and whether he had done something wrong.
In the Care Crisis Review, the respondents to the survey who had lost their sibling relationships, talk about a lack of long-term relationships throughout their lives. The decisions which we make are not erased when the child becomes 18. They continue to reverberate through that person’s life and, perhaps, into the lives of children yet unborn.
I have always been an unapologetic defender of sibling relationships. They are likely to be the most enduring relationships in an individual’s life. We do not acquire omni-competence when we turn 18, although many of us (briefly) think we have. Life is quick to disabuse us and the reality is that we never cease to need the support of others. Sometimes it is to share our successes with, at other times to help us to get back to our feet after a fall. If a child can no longer have its parents then we must surely try to leave them with some remaining family to call their own. Those with whom we have a shared history are, I would suggest, likely to have the closest bond with us.
Looked at through the child’s eyes, the path to, for example, adoption, is strewn with ‘bereavements’. The child (for good reason) has to be separated from their parents. However good the reason and however necessary, it is still a loss. The child goes to foster carers but then leaves there, perhaps also leaving brothers and sisters behind. They go to adopters and it is as though the past has to be erased to start again, reborn into a new family. Planning for permanence can be a cold and utilitarian exercise in my experience; often carried out without much in the way of debate with the child, particularly once final court orders have been made.
What should we be doing better? We must get better at seeing the world through the eyes of the child. We need to always ask, if this were being done to me and I only knew what this child knows, what would I be feeling? That is not something which is quickly answered whilst hot-desking and taking telephone calls. It requires time and quiet space to think yourself into another’s world.
Perhaps, we also need to be more honest in our conversations with adopters and to have the courage to tell them that children have pasts. They have siblings and other people who are important to them and cannot necessarily be expunged.
We need to involve the child in the decisions which are made about their futures. We should not be surprised to have disaffected teenagers with low self-esteem, if we have not made it clear that they and their views are important and respected. Even if those views cannot be acted on, the child needs to know that time has been spent listening to and thinking about what they are saying. We need to spend more time explaining and debating the awful choices which sometimes have to be made with the people most permanently and deeply affected by those decisions. We need to be rather more humble and willing to accept that others may not want what we think is best for them. If we are going to override those views, we must first know what those views are and why they are held. All of that takes time, but it also changes lives. Forever.