‘It was Like a Prison Cell for Me’Children in Care, Reunited with Parents in New Initiative, Speak Out
Natasha Phillips reports on the success of the Coventry City reunification pilot featured on Channel 4’s ‘Kids’
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Parents and children in care who were reunited through a pilot scheme run by Coventry City Council, have spoken out about their treatment inside the child protection system, and their experiences of the council’s reunification programme.
The initiative, which was launched in May 2021, was briefly touched on in the Channel 4 documentary ‘Kids’, which looked at the lives of six teenagers who had experienced residential placements, foster care, and family reunification. The programme aired on 10 May, with the final show taking place on 24 May. Almost all of the children in the documentary expressed a desire to go back to their birth families.
Xorin, 17 (pictured below) who appeared in the first episode of the series was the only teenager in the show to go through the reunification pilot. He was removed from his mother on grounds of emotional abuse after she hit him, following an ongoing struggle with poverty which had affected her mental health. Xorin was placed in care for four years, where he was groomed by a gang. He was reunited with his mother through the project and has remained at home.
Paddy Wivell, a BAFTA-winning director, made the documentary to give children inside the care system a voice. Speaking to Byline Times, Wivell said, “Safeguarding is there for a reason but often it makes children in care feel different to their peers. It’s just another way in which they’re made to feel ghettoised and not fully part of society. You’ve got 80,000 kids [in care] who don’t feel like they’ve got a public voice. You just don’t see them at all.”
“In all the films we asked them about how they remember that moment of being removed, and all of the kids have it seared into their memory, they all remember it like it was yesterday. The impact is so profound and lasting. So you’re always thinking, what more could we do to prevent it before it happens, and to support families and young people so they don’t have to leave?” Wivell said.
The Department for Education-funded pilot has reunited 22 children with their birth parents and was launched amid concerns about the excessive costs of state care. Placement fees for children provided by local authorities can run to anywhere between £174,00 to £500,000 pounds a year. Byline Times reached out to the Department to ask whether it thought the pilot had been a success but it declined to comment.
A breakdown of Coventry City Council’s child placement and reunification costs, exclusively shared with Byline Times, held that the project had saved £2.1 million from 2022 to 2023. The figures are likely to be conservative as they only include placement and staff fees, and do not cover the wider costs associated with looked-after children, including long-term outcomes for children in care, who often need ongoing support after leaving the system.
The pilot is seen as a win-win by the council, which is able to reduce child placement costs, reallocate those funds to early interventions designed to prevent removals, and allow it to keep families together wherever possible.
The project has been well received by children and families in the care system.
Issaiah, 14, was removed from his mother Louisa Stabler, in 2021. He spent nine months in care with one of his brothers after his behaviour became challenging. He was sent to an emergency placement 72 miles away from home, in Hereford. His brother was placed in another care home in Blackpool, 144 miles away from Coventry and 177 miles away from Issaiah. The siblings were diagnosed with autism while in care and were eventually placed together in Blackpool after the separation led to a deterioration in Issaiah’s health.
“[Being in care] didn’t feel the same as staying at my mum’s, it was like a prison cell for me,” Issaiah told Byline Times. “We got to see Mum on Sundays and Saturdays, but my brother and me wanted to see her more. [The reunification project] was really good, and I feel great because now I get to be with [my family].”
Stabler had three of her nine children living at home when she entered the reunification programme with the boys: “I was worried about how it was going to work with the other children because they were in a good routine. I was reassured by the team, who were really helpful, and kept me on a positive line rather than let the negatives come in and overtake me.”
The pilot uses the NSPCC’s reunification model, an “evidence-informed” family-focused framework which provides a wraparound service made up of social workers and therapeutic practitioners. The professionals assigned to each family remain with them for the duration of the programme, to offer children and parents consistency and to build trust. The project places the children’s wishes and feelings at the centre of the reunification process, and the teams work closely with families using assessments, therapies and post-reunification support.
The pilot runs alongside the Lifelong Links model provided by charity Family Rights Group, which enables social workers to trace a child’s family members, and adults the child has built positive relationships with, to offer them support.
Birth parents and children in care engaged with Coventry City Council can ask to be referred to the pilot scheme. Along with the 22 children who have been returned to their birth families by the council, an additional 19 children have begun to go though the programme as it enters its third phase. Of the 11 children in the initial pilot, 83 missing person episodes in the previous year were recorded between them. The missing person episodes stopped once the children returned home.
Local authorities are increasingly looking for ways to provide different types of care, following several damning reports about the child protection system. One report by the Education Committee published in July 2022, accused the care sector of a “host of indefensible system failings,” leading to poor education and employment outcomes for looked-after children.
“If the state were a parent it would have a lot of its own children removed because we know the care system is broken, we know children are in expensive placements not achieving good outcomes. We shouldn’t have as many looked after children as we do. Too often it feels like we are breaking relationships instead of helping to restore them, and actually, we can do things differently,” Matt Clayton, the Strategic Lead for Looked After Children at Coventry City Council told Byline Times.
“There’s also a moral aspect. Ultimately if you go back to the Children Act , families are supposed to be kept together where that’s possible. So we need to be thinking that way and we need to not be risk averse just to cover our own backs, and that we’re making decisions that are right for that child and young person,” Clayton said.
Following on from its success, the reunification pilot, which initially focused on teenagers in care in Coventry, is now being rolled out to families with younger children in the area. A mother, who cannot be named for legal reasons, and her two sons who are both under 10 years of age, are the first family with small children to enter the programme.
“I can’t thank [the team at Coventry City Council] enough for the way they did the reunification. I’ve had nothing but bad experiences with social workers up until my social worker that I have now, and who I’ve had for two years,” she said. “Now that I have her, I don’t have to keep fighting my corner. I can just focus on looking after the boys.”
Speaking about the impact care has had on her sons, the mother said, “They think talking to other people is a bad thing because they’ve been in care. They’re just starting to learn to trust the people that are around them.”
“If you saw my case, you would see there wasn’t any need to remove the boys, there were ways they could have been supported,” she said.
Councils rated ‘Outstanding’ for their children’s social care provision by Ofsted, such as Leeds City Council, have expressed interest in the pilot. Coventry City Council has started to work with these local authorities to show them how to embed reunification into their practice.
“Some days it’s the right decision for a child to enter care, but that doesn’t mean that in two or three years’ time, it’s still the right decision for that child to remain in care. We should always be asking ourselves the question: does a child or young person still need to remain in care? Have their family circumstances changed? Parents may change if they’re given a support network, has an unhealthy relationship ended?” Clayton said.
“Ultimately nothing has zero risk: bringing a child into care creates a whole lot of risk, having a child at home can carry risk, so the question is where do we hold that risk and where is the best place for that child or young person for that risk to be held?”