Last Night’s TV – Dispatches: Lost in Care

dispatches-lost-in-care-Rageh Omaar

As part of the ‘Britain’s Forgotten Children’ season, this programme revealed the scandals of the British care system and, presented by reporter Rageh Omaar asked, is the care system working or failing our children?

By the end of the programme, there was no doubt that it’s the latter; children who have been through the care system in this country are likely to leave that system – at just 16 years old – ill equipped to deal with independence and with emotional and psychological problems. They are also more likely to become homeless, drug and/or alcohol users and fall foul of the law.

This documentary revealed some shocking statistics; for instance, one in five girls leaving care will become mothers within a year, nearly a quarter of prisoners and one in three homeless people have been in care. This is the bleak outlook that faces many of the 80,000 children who are in care in the UK and one of the first questions Rageh asked as the programme began was, “What’s being done to help the 80,000 kids who risk being lost in care?”

britains forgotten children

Sadly, it seems the answer is, woefully little, and what help there is, is inadequate and insufficient.

Rageh’s purpose in the programme was to examine each stage of state provision for the 25,000 children who enter the care system every year, from adoption and fostering to residential care homes. Why do so many babies have to wait for adoption? Why are so many kids shunted from foster parent to foster parent? And why has residential care become a refuge of last resort, and a potential school for failure and crime?

natasha finlaysonNatasha Finlayson, Chief Executive of the Who Cares? Trust and Dr Julie Selwyn spoke throughout the programme about the failings – and all too occasionally – the successes of the care system, which we also heard about first hand from those who’ve experienced it.

Young adults such as Natasha and Jerome spent the majority of their childhoods being shunted from foster care placements to residential care homes and never got adopted. Natasha had over 30 placements and another teenager had been in 46 different placements before the age of 16.

Shockingly, on average, 4,300 babies under one year old enter the care system annually yet only 120 are adopted while they are still babies. 2,000 of those children will remain in care without ever “going home” again. Dr Selwyn stated that “For every year a child is in care, their chances of being adopted reduce by 20%”

Another shocking fact was that in Glasgow for instance, more than 120 babies a year are born already addicted to heroin or crack but the legalities surrounding the care system give the child’s biological parents sometimes years to have a claim to their child, even though it’s obvious they will never be able to be responsible parents.

This means that thousands of babies will be moved around the foster and residential care system and miss out on what some child psychology experts suggest is the premium ‘bonding’ time in their lives and this, according to experts such as Professor Neil McKeganey, is in part responsible for the emotional damage that children in care suffer.

This in turn leads to long-term psychological and emotional damage which may in itself mean that the children present such ‘challenging’ behaviour, it’s unlikely they will ever be placed permanently with a loving family and may experience up to 50 different ‘homes’ before they are 16.

Professor McKeganey and Dr Dan Hughes both discussed the fact that in America, their laws now state that unless the biological parents of the child can prove they are going to be ‘responsible’ and stable parents to their child, the law severs all the child’s ties with them by the age of 15 months, thereby increasing the chances of that child being adopted and reducing the long-term damage that the lack of stability in infancy can bring in later life.

Here in the UK, on average, a child will be 2½ years old before legally, the child’s parents will be forced to give up any claim to that child, and the experts such as McKeganey and Hughes agree that the critical ‘bonding’ time has by then passed and “the damage is done”.

As Rageh discovered, one answer to this problem is “concurrent planning” in which a child – often from birth – is placed with a foster family who have the intention of adopting that child once, and if, the child’s biological parents are deemed unsuitable to have their child back. One such couple  who’ve experienced this were Lucy and David whose now adopted son was with them from birth. His biological mother was given more than nine months to demonstrate that she’d “got herself together” enough to care for her child, but this transpired not to be the case so Lucy and David formally adopted their son.

This method meant that the baby in question had already formed bonds with Lucy and David, as well as, albeit temporarily as it turned out, his biological mother, so whatever the outcome had been, the trauma of not having a bond with a loving adult was never an issue for that child.

So is this the answer? Well, maybe in part it is, however, I know for me, were I ever to foster a child from birth then live under the ‘shadow’ of the prospect of having to give that child up, I simply couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t even consider it; the pain of loving a child as one’s own then having to possibly give up that child would be more than I could bear, and I suspect that is the case for many foster carers who are undertaking this potentially very traumatic ‘plan’. Whilst it’s undoubtedly an excellent solution for the infant, it would be that issue which would ‘put me off’ ever doing it.

However, as less then 2% of local authorities currently offer concurrent planning as a solution, it’s perhaps not something that an inordinate number of foster carers/adoptive parents are facing, but for those who are, the trauma must be tremendous.

Equally, many of the young people who’d experienced care with and whom Rageh spoke in last night’s documentary, may well have benefited from concurrent planning, but for some, their experiences of being placed with foster families were not happy ones.

A young woman called Awan told Rageh, “There’s no such thing as a ‘nice’ foster family… there’s no such thing. It doesn’t exist to me; it’s just a fairytale”

Jerome and other young people described their experiences of foster placements which included being forced to have separate ‘fridges from the foster family which often contained little food. Another described how she wasn’t permitted to use the family’s bathroom and Awan told how in one foster home placement, she had gone without food for two days.

Of the 50,000 children a year who are fostered, Rageh said, “Some do brilliantly, most do not.”

A group called A National Voice is run by and for children who are, or have been, in care. Some of the young people in this group described how changing schools repeatedly – and subsequently losing friends – up to 40 times for some of them, meant that the fact that 53% of children leave care without any qualifications is unsurprising. Children in care are also seven times more likely to be permanently excluded from school.

Another form of care discussed was that of Kinship Care whereby a member of a child’s family assumes the care of them when they’ve been placed in dr-julie-selwyncare due to parental failure to look after the child or following abuse.

We heard from Dr Julie Selwyn that kinship care is of course the favoured mode of care for children in that it keeps the child within its own family, however, Dr Selwyn said that upward of 300,000 kinship carers do so without ever having encountered – or received help from – social services.

One such case was that of Maria Coyle whose daughter had been killed in a car crash and subsequently, she took on the responsibility of her daughter’s two young children. They were never placed in care; Maria took them on immediately. This meant that she had to give up her job to care for them and was living on unemployment benefits, child benefits and a guardian’s allowance of just £26 a week for both children. Had the children ever been in local authority care following their mother’s death, then placed with Maria, she would receive around – or in excess of – £250 a week to support and care for the children.

It costs around £25,000 a year to keep a child in local authority care yet when people such as Maria selflessly take on the massive undertaking that is raising someone else’s children – even when they are your ‘blood’ relatives – without putting the children through the trauma of being in care, they are, in effect, penalised for doing so in a financial sense. Maria had to give up her car, her job, and the family hasn’t had a holiday for over eight years.

Only 11% of children in local authority care get kinship care and given that there is a national shortage of around 10,000 foster carers, it’s not a difficult equation to see why 10,000 children end up permanently in residential care homes until they are 16, at which time, they are then forced to live outside the system and are, effectively, on their own.

When children do leave care, most are placed temporarily in “assisted lodgings” before moving on to stay in bed and breakfast accommodation while they are left to find permanent accommodation themselves. Rageh spoke with one young man called Jamie who had been in around 30 B&Bs since leaving care.

One form of newly emerging residential care is termed ‘social pedagogy’ in which the children are treated more like “members of a family” and one residential home that operates under this remit is in Essex. It’s run by husband and wife David and Susan Easterbrook who are working hard to change the historically awful lives of children in residential care where sexual, physical and emotional abuse at one time seemed to be commonplace.

The horrendous Bryn Estyn residential home was cited as one of the children’s care homes that horribly mistreated the vulnerable children in its care. If you aren’t aware of the shocking revelations made surrounding that particular residential care home, you can read the Guardian’s report about it here.

David, Susan and their team are trying hard to change things for children in residential care and following the terrible stories that emerged in the ‘80s and ‘90s – such as Bryn Estyn – are now trying to turn all that around by, for example, hugging the children in their care as they would their own child rather than the “side on” hug demonstrated by one staff member that was recommended by the authorities as the only “safe” way to give physical affection.

Most children in care are not allowed pets but where possible and appropriate, David and Susan allow their charges to have pets, just as they would their own children. They also continue to offer support to children after they’ve left care at 16 and as Paul, one of the children from David and Susan’s Essex based home said, “They’ve literally saved my life”.

He’d had great difficulty adjusting to life on his own when he turned 16 and had experienced times when he’d gone for days and days without food because he wasn’t “trained” in how to cope with life outside the care system. It was at these times that he was able to turn to David and Susan for continued support, despite being over 16… just as any teenager living alone for the first time would from their own family; this is the ethos behind social pedagogy care. Many kids leaving care at 16 aren’t so ‘lucky’…

From simple budgetting to washing clothes and making themselves food, these children are clearly woefully unprepared for life outside the care system. And when one considers that within it, their lives haven’t been a bed of roses, imagine then the loneliness and bewilderment at suddenly being thrust into the big wide world, and totally unprepared for the challenges that brings.

Barry Sheerman MP is one of many of those ‘in authority’ who was interviewed by Rageh for last night’s documentary who are working to try to change the failures in the care system and again, is one of many who are in favour of social pedagogy homes.

Overall, what surprised me the most was the lack of self-pity amongst the young people Rageh spoke with for the film; without exception, and despite being subjected to traumas that one might imagine would create terribly deep scars, they were all very philosophical about their situation. Resentful perhaps, but nonetheless, accepting, and I think that was perhaps the saddest thing of all…

They were failed by their biological parents then failed by the state system that was/is supposed to protect and ‘save’ them, when in actuality, it’s a frying-pan-to-fire situation. It’s hard to imagine how these kids manage to come out of the system as it stands with any chance at a ‘normal’ life, and of course, as the statistics quoted earlier show, not many of them do, which is shocking, upsetting and tragic.

This was a documentary that needed to made and certainly for me, it raised my awareness enormously of what children in care go through, and while that was upsetting, it’s not going to help these and future children to bury our heads in the sand and not listen to what’s happening…

Things need to change and hopefully, because of people such as David and Susan Easterbrook, Dr Julie Selwyn, Natasha Finlayson and MPs such as Barry Sheerman – and reporters such as Rageh who highlighted these failings without bias and unnecessary apportioning of blame; he simply wanted to show how things could be done better – change will indeed come about, and for the most vulnerable of our society’s children, things will hopefully become far less bleak.

Channel 4 has provided a page which lists useful organisations if you are affected by, or interested in, some of the issues arising from the programme which you can find here.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.