Today
Fri 28 January 2022

Ministers have failed to see that an absence of care and nurturing lies at the heart of harms to children, says Carolyne Willow

On this day, 30 years ago, the UK Government made a pledge to the United Nations that it would honour the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international human rights treaty containing comprehensive state obligations towards children.

Who could have anticipated that today we would be challenging the Government of the world’s sixth-richest nation on its refusal to provide care to every child in its care?

The Office for National Statistics reports that 60% of 22 year olds in the UK still live with their parents. Yet, a third of children in care aged 16 and 17 live in properties where there are no adult carers. The Government is regulating to make the absence of care legitimate and acceptable.

When it is not in their best interests to live with members of their family, or with foster carers or in an establishment registered as a children’s home (which includes many boarding and residential schools), since September this year the law provides that children must live in settings where they receive care and supervision (a list of permissible places is specified).

However, this only applies to children who are aged 15 years or younger. A legal dividing line has been forged. On one side are children who must always receive care; on the other, are those who can go without.

My small charity, Article 39, is taking the Government to court over this discriminatory treatment of 16 and 17 year olds. As well as age-based age discrimination, boys and children from black, Asian and ethnic minority communities are disproportionately placed in non-care settings. The High Court hearing is scheduled for next February.

It is true that non-care settings have been used for children in care for many decades, certainly pre-dating the UK’s promise to provide special protection and assistance to children separated from their families in line with article 20 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, numbers have spiralled over the past decade and there is an abundance of evidence of very serious harms – violence from within and outside the properties, children with serious mental health difficulties struggling alone, high rates of children running away and going missing, and children feeling abandoned and desperate.

Twenty-two children in care aged 16 and 17 died while living in properties without care between 2018 and 2020. Article 39’s own research shows that 64 councils were notified of 334 allegations against adults working in non-care settings in the three years to March 2021.

In May 2019, BBC’s Newsnight reported the case of a child moved from foster care into supported accommodation at 16, who said: “I felt very alone for quite a while. I just felt like I was dumped into this place, and I didn’t really know what to do.” When asked whether an ordinary parent would move a 16-year-old child into this environment, she replied: “Not at all, not at all, there’s a massive safety risk behind it… it’s just a massive shock really.”

During a discussion with care leavers, held as part of the Government’s consultation on changing the law, one young man told me that he had been the victim of a very serious crime by a member of staff at his ‘supported’ accommodation (where he lived between the ages of 16 and 18). He only found help after he went back to his old children’s home to speak with the manager there. 

Ministers have failed to see that it is the absence of loving care and nurturing which lies at the heart of harms to children.

The Education Secretary at the time of the legal change, Gavin Williamson, said that he could not imagine any child under the age of 16 living in a place where they don’t receive care. Presumably, the minister then in charge of the country’s education system was able to visualise the plight of children in care aged 16 and 17 studying for GCSE and ‘A’ Level exams while living in accommodation alongside adults trying to cope with addiction, mental health problems and having recently left prison.

Social worker Rebekah Pierre recently published extracts from the diary she wrote as a highly vulnerable teenager in care. In it, she observed that she was “intimidated by the angry mob outside the entrance, leering, laughing. The loneliness is astounding; if I needed help I could shout no one”.

Yesterday, the Department for Education signalled its plan to press on with regulating the absence of care in these buildings. As well as giving the green light to an inferior inspection process – whereby only a sample of providers’ properties will be inspected instead of every place where children live – the Government unashamedly announced that it has “no intention of banning the mixing of different age groups”.

When the UK ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, two groups of children were deliberately excluded: child refugees and children in prison. It took until November 2008 for the UK’s reservations on protection for child refugees and keeping children out of adult prisons to be formally lifted.

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Yet, here we are in 2021 with unaccompanied children – including those who have survived treacherous Channel crossings on flimsy boats – more than six times more likely to be put into accommodation where they don’t receive any care. And it’s acknowledged in Government papers, released through a Freedom of Information request, that the very significant increase in children entering care as teenagers is connected to the marked reduction in child imprisonment.

The Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel – recently given the task of reviewing the circumstances of the appalling death of little Arthur Labinjo-Hughes – reported this year that “children were coming into care in adolescence having experienced long-term parental abuse and neglect”. But the child welfare system has not opened its arms to teenagers with high levels of need that in the past may have been hidden out of sight in our child prisons.

Instead, it has recalibrated and built an annex to the care system for those it deems able to manage without care – with 39% of children living in ‘semi-independent’ accommodation having been put there within less than a week of entering care. Like those languishing in child prisons, these are disproportionately black boys.

Paradoxically, while the prisons inspectorate has care as one of its five categories of expectations for child prisons, when inspectors start their selective inspections of supported accommodation for teenagers in care, expected in 2023, Ofsted won’t be checking that children are cared for. The absurdity of this could only be matched by hospitals without nurses, schools without teachers, and swimming pools without lifeguards.

Carolyne Willow is the director of the charity Article 39

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