Children in the care system are some of the most at risk in our society. As the scandals of recent years have shown, when issues arise in this system the voices of looked after children are often lost or silenced.
One problem that is clear time and again is that children from troubled backgrounds are often treated as a problem to be solved rather than a person to be nurtured.
A recent report ‘Lives transformed, potential fulfilled’ detailed the impact that this has: children who have been in care make up 25% of the homeless and 24% of the prison population, and just 13% of care leavers progress to higher education by the age of 19. Mental health provision in many areas is poor and a survey for the care leavers charity Become found that 50% of children in care and 51% of care leavers agreed that, ‘People think that it is children’s fault that they are in care.’
Also included in this report is deeply disturbing accounts of unnecessary physical force being used against children in the care system, such as being placed in handcuffs or transported in caged vehicles like a police van.
These aren’t children and young people accused of a crime, rather they are children in the care system who need to travel to or from residential homes, hospitals or schools. It’s dehumanising and, shockingly, this isn’t even a problem we can begin to quantify. Private companies who are hired to transport vulnerable looked after children from A to B aren’t required to record the number of times they use restraint or why it was supposedly necessary.
Children’s transport provider Serenity Welfare, who funded the report, are calling for greater government oversight in this area. Founder Emily Aklan says that, since the company’s inception 5 years ago, by using de-escalation and mentoring they have never had to use handcuffs on a child. In short – they treat these children how they would want their own family to be treated.
Over the past decade, we have seen a 25% increase in the number of children in care. At the same time, funding for early and preventative interventions has been cut by around 60% in real terms. The net result of this neglect is that outcomes for looked after children are extremely poor, with thousands of young people falling by the wayside after they leave the system. The report found that 39% of care leavers aged 19-21 years old were classed as: Not in education, employment or training (NEET).
What is obvious is that the care system is repeatedly failing some of society's most vulnerable children. These young people have likely already faced traumas that most of us can’t imagine. It is woefully inadequate that we are not doing everything we can to give them the best possible chance in life.
To achieve better outcomes for looked after children we must change our mindset towards them. Ensuring young people end up in education, employment or training is not only the right thing to do, but also the smart thing. The annual economic cost – from lost earnings or local economic growth – of care leaver NEETs is £163m. Supporting care leavers to fulfil their potential is a prudent investment not only in young people’s future but in our economy.
If we don’t support young people in the care system, help them to raise their ambitions and achievements, they will slip through the cracks. On Sunday it was National Children’s Day, which is dedicated to the importance of a healthy childhood, and protecting the rights and freedoms of children. Every child deserves a fair start in life.
To ensure that happens for looked after children, we need to start changing our approach.