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After the publicity surrounding horrific cases of child abuse the number of youngsters in care has been rising. It's now higher than at any time since 1981. Too many? Or too few?

AT the age of five, Jade was frequently left alone to fend for herself while her heroin-addict mother disappeared for days at a time.

Three decades later, after being placed in a secure home with adoptive parents, she is now a settled mother-of-two. However, she still has mixed feelings about being taken away from her own mother, despite the neglect she suffered at an early age.

"I loved my mum and even when I got adopted, I always missed her," she says. "My mum actually did sort herself out within two years and has never taken drugs again, had another child and got married.

"I'm not bitter about my situation as it worked out fine for me, but some parents deserve a chance, even though it might not look like it on the surface."

The decision to remove a child from their home is never easy. But it is one that has become increasingly common in Scotland over the past decade in the wake of high-profile child abuse cases and concerns over issues such as parental drug abuse.

New figures show the number of children being removed from their homes under emergency measures to protect them from harm has risen by nearly 10% in a year. A total of 552 child protection orders (CPOs) were recorded across Scotland between April and December last year, compared to 503 over the same time in 2010.

The statistics from the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration (SCRA) also show 185 CPOs were issued between October to December 2011, a rise of about 15% compared to the same quarter in the previous year. In 1999, a total of just 370 CPOs were issued across Scotland.

Neil Hunter, principal reporter and chief executive of SCRA, which deals with the children's hearings system, said one issue was that increasing numbers of younger children were being referred to the organisation.

"Child protection orders are granted mainly for very young children, reflecting the high risk and vulnerability of these children, and their requirement for immediate protection," he said. "It's imperative that when an immediate risk to a child is identified they are removed from that situation.

"The reasons why CPOs are made, for very young children in particular, are extremely complex.

"However, common factors include high risk of physical neglect of the child, parents who are violent, issues with parental substance abuse and parents who are not able to provide a safe and stable environment for their child."

The increase in CPOs – which are issued by courts when a youngster is believed to be at risk of significant harm – reflects a wider trend of rising numbers of children in care in Scotland. Broadly, this is down to the state taking a tougher line with neglectful parents in the wake of horrific abuse cases such as the murder of toddler Declan Hainey by his heroin-using mother in Paisley, as well as a perceived increase in the number of drug-addicted parents in Scotland. More than 16,000 Scottish children are now being looked after by local authorities, the highest number since 1981.

England has also seen a rise in the number of children being taken into care, with the number of applications from councils exceeding 10,000 in a year for the first time. Like Scotland, experts say that one key reason for the increase in the use of care in England is "less tolerance" of neglect in the wake of cases such as the death of Peter Connelly – Baby P – a 17-month-old who died at his home in London after months of abuse.

Scotland has seen its share of child neglect tragedies in recent years, including Caleb Ness, an 11-week-old baby who was shaken to death by his father in Edinburgh, and 23-month-old Brandon Muir, who was killed by his mother's partner in Dundee.

Anne Houston, chief executive of charity Children 1st, said the latest statistics on youngsters being taken into care could indicate a "reassuring" increased level of awareness and willingness of the public to report their concerns about children.

But she added: "Despite increasing awareness and a review of child protection procedures, there are still too many children in Scotland suffering from abuse and neglect every day."

However, Fred McBride, convener of the Association of Directors of Social Work's children and families committee, pointed out there was also a danger of "over-concentrating" on parental weaknesses.

"Our starting point is about trying to support children at home with their parents and we are also working very hard to try to adopt an approach which tries to maximise parent strengths and mitigate against their weaknesses," he said. "We fully understand that there are circumstances in which children are living which they may need to be removed from. But we also need to balance the risks with an approach which helps parents to parent in a way which is good enough for their children. That is the difficult balance."

McBride added that one useful guiding principle of when to act was based around the concept of "significant harm", saying: "It is harm which is not superficial, it's not transient and it is at least as serious as the trauma that would inevitably be caused by removing a child from their parent or carer.

"It is not meant to be an absolute definition and it can't be applied in an absolute way, but it can be used as a guide to determine when professionals need to consider removing a child from their parent's care."

Children can be looked after by local authorities in varying ways, from remaining at home with their parents under a supervision order, to being looked after in residential care. Figures for last year show that of the 16,171 children in care in Scotland, about one-third remained at home and one-third were with foster carers or prospective adoptive parents. Just under one-quarter were in another "community placement"– such as being looked after by friends or relatives – while 9% were in residential care.

But although 'looked after' children may have been protected from harm at home, there is plentiful evidence that they often face poorer life prospects in care and after care. For example, more than one in ten young people leaving care in Scotland experiences homelessness within two years, while just under half of looked-after children have mental health problems.

A recent survey found more than one-third of female prisoners had been in care at some point during their childhood, compared to one-quarter of male prisoners.

Jim Wallace, acting head of children's services at Barnardo's Scotland, said: "If we have got increasing numbers of looked-after children and we are not seeing improvements in terms of outcomes, we need to worry about that.

"We need to have better information on their outcomes in terms of education, employment and the accommodation they go into when they are care-leavers. We need to know the kind of support that they need, if they are getting the right support and if it is accessible to them at the right times.

"It's the old adage: If you keep doing what you have always done, you will always get what you have always got. We need to do something different."

Cases where children have had to frequently move around care placements are not uncommon. For instance, one child had been in eight different foster homes and attended ten different schools by the age of 11.

Anna, 17, from Inverness, was taken into care at the age of four and spent time in different foster homes and a residential care home, before attempting to move back with her family at the age of 16. She says: "I moved in and out of the family home due to lots of arguments and not knowing how to live with a family."

Matt Forde, national head of NSPCC Scotland, said children were often in the care system for too long before a decision about their future was made.

"We do know that some children experience multiple moves of placement from one foster family, perhaps back to family care, and then back into the care system," he said.

"It is a huge chunk of their childhood that can be spent in the situation where there isn't a final resolution."

Forde argued that providing support to families at an early stage was a crucial part of tackling the problem, for example through improving health visitor services.

David Barr, area manager at children's charity Aberlour, pointed out there was inevitably tension between trying to keep families together as much as possible and potentially leaving children in "less-than-perfect circumstances" for too long.

"You can understand why local authorities find it difficult to achieve the right balance, as there is a very strong culture in this country of family first and parents are best," he said. "I wouldn't claim to know the answer to these questions, but they are being discussed.

"From the most recent research in brain science, we know that some of the damage that can be done in those very early years – in terms of the attachment between the child and the caring adult – is very difficult to undo. If those things aren't happening properly in the first couple of years of life it is very difficult to relearn them."

This kind of damage makes it difficult to form relationships and can go on to affect every aspect of a child's life, from their use of alcohol to job prospects and mental well-being. Children can develop into adults who are aggressive, distrustful and badly behaved – paving the way for prison, addiction, divorce, and ending up as failed parents themselves.

While the often grim prospects for children in care have to be acknowledged, others point to the fact it can also mean youngsters in that situation face unfair stigma and being written off by society.

Duncan Dunlop, chief executive of Who Cares? Scotland, a charity that supports children and young people in care, said many care-leavers managed significant achievements, despite the difficulties in their upbringing.

"People need to be aware of the poor outcomes for young people, but we don't want that to exacerbate the stereotype that kids in care are all young criminals or all problematic people," he said.

He also argued that everyone had a responsibility to help children in care. "Society has to wake up and say 'hang on a minute, these are our young people, what are we as individuals doing to improve their lot?'," he said.

"There might be the kid in the primary school class who doesn't get invited to the birthday party of your kid as they might be slightly more chaotic. Including them in normal life experiences like that helps them feel like accepted members of our society, not someone who is different and excluded."

He added: "We always think it is a massive thing we have to do – that we have to be a foster family, which there are a dearth of – but there are smaller ways in which we could start to help the young person."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said it had taken steps to increase awareness of child protection in recent years, which helped account for the rise in CPOs. He added: "The Scottish Government places great importance on ensuring care-leavers get the right support. The transition to independence is one where young people are particularly vulnerable and local councils and associated agencies, as their corporate parents, should ensure the right practical and emotional support is in place."

'Not everyone that lives in care is bad'

William Ryan (pictured) challenges all of our assumptions about kids and care. The 19-year-old from Saltcoats, Ayrshire, went into residential care orphaned at the age of 11 after both his parents died. He spent nearly five years in two different units. Now he is using his own experiences to help others in the same situation and has been working at the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration for the past 14 months, helping to improve services for young people.

Unlike many other children who went through the care system, he came out the other side a well-adjusted young man with good prospects in front of him.

Ryan volunteers with the charity Who Cares? Scotland and has twice been on charity trips to Nepal, helping to raise funds of more than £20,000 for charities and projects such as providing a local school with a clean water system.

"Living in care was alright," he said, "but it was really different from living at home. It was strange going from living with my family to living with so many other kids. There was 15 young people wanting different things on the telly and lassies wanting to straighten and blow dry their hair when you want to watch the football, things like that.

"My close friends and people in the community knew that I was in care, but it wasn't an issue. I only moved one town away, so I could keep up with everyone. I still had my pals, I still played football and went ice-skating with the same people.

"I am still technically in care, but I have moved to supported accommodation, which is like a stepping stone before leaving care to get your own house. I am happy where I am and hope to stay there for the foreseeable future."

Ryan agreed children were often unfairly stigmatised just because they were in care.

"When I lived in residential care, we used to help the old lady that lived next to us – sometimes some of us would cut her grass or take her weeds out or take her dog for walk. Not everybody that lives in care is bad," he said.

"But the odd time you will get one that will spoil it for everyone and then all the hard work that others have done just gets forgotten."

Ryan has not yet decided what to do in the future, but is considering going to college or university to study social care and "put a bit back into society". He is also undertaking another charity trek to Everest base camp in November this year with Who Cares? Scotland.

"It did change my life going to Nepal, seeing the poverty and realising that you are better off than other people," he added.

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