Michael Gove and the care of vulnerable children
From Brother Ivo:
When Michael Gove raised his deep disquiet at the way “confidentiality of data” had been restrictively administered, to the detriment of child protection, he did good service to the young within Local Authority care. No doubt he will hold meetings, ask questions and issue instructions.
He is an intellectually rigorous man, and Brother Ivo hopes that he will begin to appreciate that such difficulties arise within a wider context, both within his Department’s culture, and that of our society. Both need to be changed, which is easier said than done. Our public care for vulnerable children is not yielding happy or cost effective results, and Mr Gove will need to dig deep and think harder if he wishes to uncover the full extent of our failures and develop the changes necessary to advance the interests of the young.
The Secretary of State's outrage was triggered when he learnt that his own Department had difficulty in identifying the localities of children’s homes for which it was responsible, whereas the paedophile networks had managed to construct links to ensure that the information they needed was readily available and passed between them countrywide for their vile purposes.
"Mr Gove described a situation where it was very difficult to gather basic information about care homes and the children in them. He said he believed this could have hindered the police and helped individuals and groups seeking to harm children.”Mr Gove is characteristically blunt, and yet because he does not have direct experience in this area, he has yet to grapple with the other dimensions of the problem.
“In the name of 'protecting children' by officially 'protecting' their information, we had ended up helping the very people we were supposed to be protecting them from.”
Not only have well-meaning 'confidentiality' principles compromised the safety of young people, so have 'Children’s Rights'.
Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Our children are being let down by our public interventions in their lives, but this deficiency is not just a failure of administration; neither is it a consequence of insufficiently defined targets or performance indicators. It is a signifier of a much wider neglect of childhood brought about by many who have sought to re-define family values and what it means to be a child.
Even in the best regulated families, childhood has changed. Our little ones have a very different experience of nurture from their parents and grandparents: they may not have prolonged care by their mothers and extended family during infancy; their parents have become more motivated to ‘fulfill themselves', which may mean extended time at work and a greater readiness to bail out of troubled marriages, if they ever had them. To compensate our children for these losses, we have offered them extended public interventions and 'Rights'.
“Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?” Jesus once asked. We might bear this in mind as we see what responses we make to the young.
When families fall into stress and inadequacy - which they do for a variety of accidental and cultural reasons - young people suffer from the inability of their parents to prioritise for them. Responsible parenting gets lost as parents fall out, fail, and give up.
Biological parents are supplanted by statutory interventions, and yet what our authorities offer is all too often little better.
The child who is removed often suffers through that removal whether or not he or she was physically or sexually abused or neglected. We are becoming aware that soldiers returning from war zones often suffer disorientation when they return to a peaceful environment, even when coming home to their families.
It should not therefore surprise us that when we remove children whose personalities are still under formation, they have similar problems. Even if their homes have been inadequate, there is still a bereavement, and removals usually overlook a wise principle: “When making changes in children’s lives, make them one at a time.”
A removal often involves a change of school and locality, the loss of friends, and sometimes sibling separation. Often the 'befriending' social worker who changed your life is relocated to another case within months.
The younger child can usually be managed more easily, and many of these are placed with foster carers. But there is a nationwide lack of foster parents, partly because local authorities do not always treat them fairly or with sensitivity.
It is hard enough to recruit them for the very young, but inevitably when foster homes are sought for the most rebellious, truculent, and aggressive adolescent, that is a more difficult prospect. The more troubled children can pass through multiple carers with incremental losses compounding the problems with every move. Carers skilled in managing such children are in especially short supply and institutional care at massive public expense can become the only option.
Caring for just under 5000 children in private care homes is costing £1billion per year.
Often these children are placed far from home. Sometimes this is for good and understandable reason: children may need to be removed from abusive families, drug dealer networks, or gang cultures. Unsurprisingly, a combination of isolation and association with other children in difficulty within such homes provides a context in which the deceptively friendly paedophile makes his appearance.
Often, these children will have experienced not only removal from family and friends, but multiple failed foster placements and multiple social workers. They have become difficult to manage administrative problems. They may not cry out “I am not a number”, but that is how they will feel. Ill-equipped to make good choices for themselves, the older children frequently become self-contained, suspicious, and self-assertive. Why wouldn’t they?
What few outside this world of public childcare understand is that these institutions - which are providing some of the most expensive child care in the country (several times the cost of Eton) - can struggle to attempt to contain the children with any degree of parental authority.
If a child becomes so disruptive and uncontrollably at risk, one moves to yet another level of institution (and expense) within 'Secure Accommodation'. Only here the doors are locked. Getting a child behind a locked door - the better to keep him or her safe - is not easy. It requires a court order and an expensive legal process which is regularly reviewed. Local authorities under financial pressure regard this as a last resort.
This raises the question of why all our institutional children’s homes not 'secure'?
The shameful answer is 'Children’s Rights'.
In the same way that the high-minded principles of data protection permitted the obstruction of the Secretary of State's ability to identify the risky areas and plan accordingly, so the consequences of human rights activism has its unacknowledged dark and dirty side in the neglect and exploitation of the poor.
Nobody wants to own responsibility for this consequence of the human rights culture.
While the costs of residential care may be astronomically high, the residential social worker is a lowly-paid and much undervalued cog in the wheel. Having been given the responsibility to live with and manage difficult children, they have been given no power to impede the coming and going of young adolescents, and in the high profile cases of organised abuse, they have spoken of their anger and frustration as they watched young girls getting into taxis, knowing what was happening, and impotent to interfere. Some sense that managers of budgets have effectively given up trying to contain such youngsters.
We live in a rights culture. That should in no way be confused with a protective culture, a nurturing culture, or a responsible one.
It is not only the organised older men who exploit these troubled adolescents. They form sexual relationships with those of their own age which often lack affirming love. Often this begins under the statutory age of consent, but who cares about that anymore?
Brother Ivo does, for he has encountered one such young woman who described how her multiple sexual partners delivered no sense of exclusive intimacy or self esteem. It was only when a boyfriend became jealous and hit her that she felt any sense of being 'special'.
Few will articulate the problem so clearly, but it may offer a clue as to why the average woman who suffers domestic abuse tolerates 27 assaults before concluding that something needs to be done to stop it.
Why is this problem seemingly growing?
Brother Ivo suggests that it started to go seriously wrong when the courts decided to reject Victoria Gillick’s attempts to protect her children from unlawful under-age sexual intercourse, with the result that parents are no longer alerted when their children seek to be prescribed contraception. The arrival of the non-judgmental school counsellor further reduced parental controls, as did the virtual abandonment of enforcing the age of consent.
The Gillick legal decision thought in terms of a minority of cases where a young person was responsible enough to make such a medical decision for herself, but, as with abortion, a free-for-all followed. Who now seriously bothers to challenge the wishes and feelings of any middle adolescent in these matters? The school? The social worker? Our culture?
Brother Ivo knows a primary school teacher who watched a nine-year-old storm out of school when the headmaster refused to allow her to come to the classroom dressed as jail-bait. On the way out she asserted her 'human right' to dress as she pleased.
There are two telling sentences in the summary of the Gillick story:
“The House of Lords focused on the issue of consent rather than a notion of 'parental rights' or parental powers.”One Judge explained:
“..the authority of parents to make decisions for their minor children is not absolute, but diminishes with the child's evolving maturity; except in situations that are regulated otherwise by statute, the right to make a decision on any particular matter concerning the child shifts from the parent to the child when the child reaches sufficient maturity to be capable of making up his or her own mind on the matter requiring decision.”We saw there the crippling of traditional parental authority which was replaced by the judgments of the State. What could possibly go wrong?
Doubtless mature, informed decision-making by intelligent, articulate young women all plays out very well in Primrose Hill, but we now see the consequences of such liberal reasoning in the inner city estates where multiple deprivations might have been survivable if strong families subsisted. With family breakdown and dissolved parental authority, we see the children of the poor betrayed. A stroppy youngster with human-rights rhetoric on his or her side is beyond the containment of many a struggling single parent.
Families used to be able to point to a societal 'line in the sand', confident that if they asserted a prohibition, society would support them. That age of consent, that right to know if a child was becoming sexually active, that right to enforce a curfew time, each was a useful weapon in the arsenal of the parent, helping them to discharge their responsibility to protect their child, sometimes from themselves, often within a dangerous environment.
Yet if biological parents no longer have knowledge or control over risks to their under-age children, why should we expect any different from the State when it acquires the role of 'Parental Responsibility'?
Many of the youngsters who are being drugged and gang raped have little self esteem, which is why they are so vulnerable to the slightest show of affection and interest. Often this begins with absent parents, usually fathers, but throughout the culture from their earliest years there has been a “Do what you like” message, and the endowment of 14-year-olds with a false sense of maturity.
This sounds liberal and liberating, but when it has been the underlying theme throughout your childhood, it has a profoundly depressing outcome.
An infant finds the world a very scary place. From the outset it looks to its family for nurture and protection. Above all, it wants boundaries, for within the boundaries, love, safeguarding and a sense of worth can grow. If you are constantly extending your hand towards a boundary that gives way, you begin to realise that not only are you not able to keep yourself safe, nobody is taking that responsibility.
The young adolescent, egged on by media and peers, may act confident, but the insecurities remain: human rights and legal rights are no substitute for what has been lost.
This is especially the tragedy of the child of the underclass within state care; they are overwhelmingly the victims of those who sneered at Victoria Gillick.
Our society thinks the dispensing of money shows how much we care. We are spending huge sums at present for poor value to all concerned, and doubtless some will advocate for more. Paying money while witholding what these children really need is actually the intellectually cheap and uncaring alternative.
However much Brother Ivo may sound like a dinosaur to Nick Clegg, our current uncaring cold-as-charity abuse of our young people will look every bit as bad to future generations as the abuse of the Magdalene Laundries.
The double tragedy for these young people is that when they have reached adulthood and leave public care, their expensive 'education' will disproportionately lead them to populate the cohorts of the alcoholic, the prisoner, the unemployed, the drug addicted, the homeless and the mentally ill. They will also be more likely to suffer the heartache of their children being removed as the whole cycle repeats itself.
The disturbing picture at the top of the page graphically portrays what our publicly declared 'compassionate liberal' society actually delivers through its values and the expensive care system to the children of the poor.
If any commercial organisation consistently delivered damaged goods at such prices, we would prosecute them under Consumer Protection legislation.
Mr Gove has his work cut out.
Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of Lawyers.