He was speaking at The challenge of permanence, an event attended by social work, health and legal professionals, care-experienced families and young people and Coram staff designed to shape best practice in permanence. Permanence is defined in the Children Act 1989 as the long term plan for the child’s upbringing, aimed at ensuring that children have a secure, stable and loving family to support them though childhood and beyond and to give them a sense of security, continuity, commitment, identity and belonging.
Sir James noted that explicit in the definition of permanence is the long term, going far beyond when the child becomes 18, fitting the child for adulthood and well beyond. He argued that it is, unhappily, ‘notorious’ that the state is failing far too many children in its care. “These serious failings, by a country which is still one of the richest in the world, are the subject of increasing concern by the judges and increasing criticism in the media.”
Sir James set out four examples of failings that “call into question our right to call ourselves civilised and compassionate”
- The serious lack of adequate provision, residential and non-residential, for the increasing numbers of children with mental health difficulties
- Increasing difficulties in finding suitable secure accommodation and other therapeutic resources for some of our most troubled children
- The unfair treatment of kinship carers
- The scarcity of suitable housing accommodation available for young people in care or as they transition out of the care system into adulthood.
He continued: “It is a commonplace that we live in an era of austerity. But however great the temptation, in or out of Whitehall, to use this as a convenient explanation for the serious problems currently facing us, the truth is bleaker and more profound. For these problems have their roots in policies, seemingly shared by Governments of whatever political stripe, long pre-dating the banking collapses and ensuing financial crisis of 2008.
“We are, even in these times of austerity, one of the richest countries in the world. Our children and young people are our future. As is often said, one of the measures of a civilised society is how well it looks after the most vulnerable members of its society. If this is the best we can do, what right do we, what right do the system, our society and indeed the State itself, have to call ourselves civilised?”
Sir James set out four areas for urgent action:
- More research into and analysis of what is going on in the care system, including research into what we know are very significant regional and local variations, for example, in the differing legal frameworks used for kinship care.
- A serious re-vamp of the failed independent reviewing officer system
- We must make a reality, rather than an empty promise, of the entire ‘leaving care’ system, essential to enabling children in care to transition into adult life, but still too often a matter of mere rhetoric rather than practical help.
- Most fundamentally of all, we need a drastic increase in the resources necessary if these problems are to be tackled effectively;
“But given the lack of compassion and political will in our society, how likely of achievement is this in contemporary Britain? This is not a cry for some distant and unachievable utopia. It is a call for decency, humanity and compassion to be afforded their proper place in a very affluent society so that this affluent society can properly claim the right to be called civilised.”
The event also heard from John Diamond, CEO of The Mulberry Bush, who explored the role of specialist therapeutic residential child care and how it can facilitate emotional growth and a subsequent sense of ‘belonging’ for some of the most emotionally damaged children in society and explored how high quality residential provision can decrease mental health problems for emotionally troubled children.
He said: “Residential care can offer a different experience from that of foster care. Thoughtfully delivered residential care can provide an ethos of professional neutrality, which allows children and young people a safe environment and the conditions in which to explore relationships, and if this is backed by a responsible financial commitment they can do so in their own time. This requires the provision of a relational system that can provide appropriate ‘emotional distance regulation’.
“Unfortunately, in a time of economic uncertainty there is a tendency for residential care and foster care to be constructed as in competition, rather than with the potential to complement and support each other, and this can work against the development of a system of flexible provision. Also, in the current context of local authority cuts and the general ethos of national austerity, the costs associated with residential care do little to raise the profile of this important and valuable resource into public consciousness. “
Dr Carol Homden CBE, CEO of Coram, said: “We’re having this debate because the single most important thing a society does is to care for the children that need that care.”