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Let's end discrimination against looked-after children

The really awful part is that the report could have been written 10, 20 or 30 years ago.

It seems even in the 21st century we haven't lost the capacity to fail the most vulnerable children in our midst.

This time it came from England, where the office of the Children's Commissioner detailed an all-too-familiar litany of staff with poor qualifications, children whose complex needs were not addressed, young people put in homes at the opposite end of the country from where they had previous relationships, and, chillingly, places commissioned by cash-strapped local authorities on the basis more of cost than quality, often on an 80/20 split between the two.

Nothing could be further from the core guidelines of children's legislation underscoring that their needs must have primacy over any other considerations. As the deputy Children's Commissioner for England, Sue Berelowitz, commented: "Children in care are entitled to a proper childhood. The state removes them from their homes with the expectation that it will do a better job than the one the child experiences at the parents' hands."

There is no room for complacency in a Scottish context, but it's interesting to have the take of Duncan Dunlop, chief executive of Who Cares, the main body advocating for the rights of children in and leaving care. While he recognises some of the same patterns, like the expansion of private sector provision, he sees the principal problem as a failure of society in general to recognise, understand, and prioritise the lives of looked-after children.

"They represent just 1% of the population yet they are the most discriminated-against group in society," he argues. "How can that be? We have a cross-party understanding of the issues here in Scotland, and a lot of parliamentary knowledge, but what we don't have is a political mandate to address the problem, because the pressure just isn't coming from the public."

His mission is to find ways to get that engagement and buy-in from a public who, he says, often fail to understand the damage and vulnerability of children from often-chaotic backgrounds, and tend to brand them potential villains rather than actual victims.

And of course too many of them will end up in the criminal justice system, just as too many will become homeless and unemployed. Why wouldn't they, if we fail to offer them proper care and support, fail to prepare them adequately for life outside a structured environment, and fail to understand that in not allowing them to fulfil their potential we store up trouble for society as well as for the young people themselves.

And the "we" he is talking about is not just the employees in residential care homes who, by this September, will all require to have a certain minimum qualification. Dunlop talks about children not being invited to birthday parties all their classmates attend and not being involved in activities like football where parents deliver and fetch their offspring. "All these things lead to them feeling stigmatised and all of them are areas where we all could make and do things better."

Dunlop is reasonably confident that we've at least managed to move beyond the days where physical and sexual abuse were part of children's experience at too many establishments, though he says restraining techniques remain problematical. And he says too that children are pretty good at spotting the difference between committed adult with whom they might build some much-needed trust and those merely putting in a shift.

But he suggests that cost is often given too much weight here too, with some young people moved on for budgetary reasons just at a point, perhaps a year or 18 months down the road, when they've begun to form a relationship with an adult carer they believe to be in their corner.

As he says, why spend all that money just to disrupt the child's life and damage their prospects of learning and growing all over again? "It stands to reason that if you create a stable long-term environment, the child is going to perform better."

Of course leaving care, even after a reasonably successful placement, poses different challenges. Some young people will return to the family situation whose chaotic nature prompted the care order in the first place. Others will be largely cast adrift into a world they barely understand and where, currently, there are plenty more fortunate youngsters in the queue for jobs and work experience.

Over the years there have been no shortage of campaigns and strategies in Scotland. The child protection audit "it's everyone's job to make sure I'm all right", and the Getting it Right for Every Child initiative both made all the right noises. They're commitments which now need to spread from the professionals to the public.

Contextual targeting label: 
Families

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