"I WAS officially taken from my birth mother when I was six,"
Sam Ursell says. She is now 23. "Before that, I'd been in and out
of care quite a lot. We'd go to different children's homes, then
back with our birth mum, because I think social workers were trying
to help her.
"On the day we were finally split up, I came home from school,
and my birth mum was gone, and my two youngest brothers were gone.
They were adopted together, and I never got to say goodbye.
"I remember being given a strawberry yogurt, which I haven't
liked since. I was put in a car with my next-youngest brother, and
then I was dropped off. We were told we might be allowed to stay
together, but we weren't. They gave us false hope.
"I just didn't know what was going on. I was sad about my
brothers and my mum: I didn't know whether I'd ever see them again.
But I don't remember crying. I just felt lost. For many years, that
was an issue: that we were never told why things happened. I
haven't seen [my brothers] to this day.
"I stayed with a foster family for nearly three years. I
wouldn't say I was unhappy, but there was the odd moment that
something was said. I remember once someone saying: 'Well, if you
behave that badly, no wonder no one wants you.'
"When I was nine, a family came along. They had a little boy,
but were told that they couldn't conceive any more. They wanted to
adopt me, and I moved in with them; but I wasn't happy. Their
expectations of me were always too high, and I could never meet
them.I don't think they knew what to do with me as a damaged child;
they didn't have a clue.
"One Saturday morning, their bags were packed for a holiday, and
mine wasn't. Instead, a social worker came to take me to another
foster home. I knew that no one really wanted me this time. This
was supposed to be my forever family, but they didn't want me.
"I moved into a home with Christian foster carers, who took me
along to church with them. At church, a family fell in love with
me, and said: 'We'll have you. They fostered me to begin with, then
adopted me. I was officially adopted by them, aged 12."
MS URSELL is speaking out about her experience of residential and
foster care, and also of beingadopted, as part of the church-led
initiative Home for Good.
The campaign was launched last year by the charity Care for the
Family, the Churches' Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS),
and the Evangelical Alliance, after a year of consultation with
foster carers, adoptive parents, church leaders, social-work
professionals, and fostering and adoption agencies.
It seeks to make fostering and adoption a significant part of
thelife and ministry of the Church,and was launched in response
tothe numbers of children whoneed foster carers and adoptive
Child-protection levels in the UK have been rising steadily
since the death of 17-month-old Peter Connelly (Baby P), in
Haringey in 2007. Two years ago, the number of applications for
children to be taken into care hit a record high. The Children and
Family Court Advisory and Support Service says that social workers
were acting more quickly in cases of neglect rather than run the
risk of putting more children at risk of physical violence or
In 2013, more than 15,000 young people were waiting to be
adopted or fostered - twice as many asin 2008. And the Government's
adoption-information service, First4Adoption, says that, on
average, a child is taken into care every 20 minutes in
The outcome for children who have been through the care system
is troubling. The most recent figures from the Who Cares? Trust
state that 23 per cent of the adult prison population, and about a
quarter of those living on the streets, have spent time in care.
Care-leavers are more than four times more likely to commit suicide
The number of 19-year-olds formerly "looked after" in care and
who are not in education, employment, or training (NEET) is 36 per
cent - double the number of their non-care contemporaries. And,
while educational outcomes have improved slightly for looked-after
children in recent years - the latest statistics show that 15 per
cent of children in care obtained five good GCSEs, including
English and maths, up from 11 per cent in 2009 - this still
compares woefully with 58 per cent for other children.
When the present Government came into power, in 2010, it pledged
to improve prospects for children in care, and consulted on a
number of reforms. The Children and Families Act gained royal
assent in March this year.
A significant concern for the incoming government was the
average length of the adoption process from when a child first
comes into care, says the Children's Minister, Edward Timpson MP
(whose own parents fostered nearly 90 children and adopted two):
"For those under the age of one, it took two years and three
months, and [for] those who came into care at the age of six, it
took up to three years and nine months; so there were some serious
delays, unnecessary delays, that were damaging those children's
prospects of having a fulfilling childhood.
"That was exacerbated by the fact that there was a growing group
of children in care whose plan was for adoption, who weren't being
able to find forever families, and that's now more than 6000. So
there was a good reason to try and make adoption quicker, to look
at the system to find whether there were bureaucratic barriers that
we could move out of the way; how we could better support adoptive
"That was one principal reason; the other is a heart reason,
which is to reflect the determination to make sure that every
child, whatever their start in life, has an equal chance of making
the best of themselves; and to . . . transform the experience that
they have, particularly when they're taken into care."
The social-policy specialist Professor Eileen Munro was
commissioned to conduct a review of the child-protection system,
and produced her report in 2011. It identified the need to
transform a defensive, risk-averse, and bureaucratic culture.
One social worker (who asked not to be identified) says:
"Everybody's frightened, and wants to cover their backs.
Computerisation is the bane of our lives - that, and the inspection
culture. If ever anything happens, it's 'Let's invent a new
process.' Nobody ever takes into account how many processes
child-care social workers are involved in, and the fact that they
can never actually complete them all."
The director of a foster-care agency, again speaking
anonymously, says that "Social workers are on a hiding to nothing;
they're damned if they do, and they're dammed if they don't.
However, because of what has happened, they are more concerned
about protecting their back, and career progress, than about
protecting the children, or acting in their best interests. The
child ends up paying the cost of the social worker's career.
"This means that it's the social workers who take 'risks' who
are the best, because they care about the child. For example, kids
at school, they get invited to a sleepover, but the foster child
can't go because the parents of the child that's invited them
haven't had a Disclosure and Barring Service check [formerly CRB
check]. Other parents think: 'Do I trust these parents and this
kid? Would I let my child stay there the night? Well, yes, I
would.' But because your child is a foster child, you're not
allowed to do that; so the child is disadvantaged.
"Recently, I had a child who wanted to go on holiday with her
foster parents to meet her real family in a different country. The
foster parents were prepared to pay all the expenses, but the only
time they could go was during school time.
"The school was happy for herto go - it would benefit her
educationally, and her well-being. The social worker looked at the
case, and decided it would do this child the world of good; but the
social-work manager said: 'Our targets are that every foster child
is at school for every day of the year. So she can't go.'
"Now, what is going on there is that the social worker is
looking at her record, her career; she wants that box ticked. That
kind of thing happens all the time."
"For too long, there's been a risk-averse approach to social
work,"Mr Timpson says. "We know that they've had to spend far too
much time strapped to their desks, staring at a computer, tapping
in data rather than actually doing what they went into the job to
do, which was working with families out there.
"This was exactly why - and we spoke a lot about this in
opposition - Professor Eileen Munro carried out her review. The
very fact that the final report was called A Child-Centred
System suggests what her recommendations were: to shift from
an overly bureaucratic system to one that actually focuses on the
"So much of the involvement of social work has got wrapped up in
process, reinforced by the way that these services were inspected,
that a lot of the professional judgement, the ability to spend time
with families, was lost to an overly burdensome, bureaucratic
CRITICISM that the care system was failing children had already
been made. The Munro report followed Lord Laming's report on the
system, in 2003, after the death of eight-year-old Victoria
Climbié, and the previous government's white paper Care
Matters: Time for change, published by the then Department for
Education and Skills (DfES) in June 2007.
In considering reform of the care system, the White Paper had
raised the profile of the academic discipline, profession, and the
practicesof countries such as Denmark, Germany, and Norway, where
children in care are more likely to stay on at school and get
Social pedagogy draws on theories from education, sociology,
philosophy, psychology, and anthropology, and focuses on working
creatively to meet children's emotional needs, and help them
develop and flourish.
From 2008 to 2011, a government-funded pilot project took place;
social pedagogues were recruited from abroad to work alongside
staff in 30 residential children's homes in England as a trial.
Jonathan Stanley, who managed the former government-funded
National Centre for Excellence in Residential Child Care (NCERCC),
says that the results delivered by social pedagogues in Europe mean
that "there are more children in residential care than there are in
adoption and fostering; it's seen as a completely positive thing.
And an important difference is that, in that system, the social
worker looks after the legalities and the paperwork, and the social
pedagogue looks after the child."
Social pedagogy was found to be helpful in the pilot, Mr Stanley
says, "in that it did enable people to establish relationships with
children; but the difficulties with it were working within our
inspectorial regime, which created all sorts of risk-averse
"The social pedagogues found that it was incredibly difficult,
because we don't have the same approach to working with children.
We're talking about the ability to work in a positive environment
with positive relationships, supported with lots of activities,
lots of well-qualified staff. In this country, we wouldn't see
children's homes in that positive way."
Nevertheless, some councils are convinced about the
possibilities that social pedagogy presents. Essex County Council
has implemented the approach in all 12 of its children's homes;
Derbyshire County Council has just introduced a new social-pedagogy
course for carers, foster parents, and managers; and Hackney
Borough Council is currently involved in a social-pedagogy pilot
with foster carers.
The final report of the social-pedagogy pilot concluded that the
longer-term project was to develop the educational, organisational,
and policy conditions for social pedagogy to flourish in England.
It stated: "This probably means a combination of investment in
higher-education-level training, workplace-based training, scrutiny
of organisational practices and quality assurance procedures, and,
quite critically, stepping into the shoes of young people, and
taking their perspectives into account."
THAT reform of residential care is needed has been highlighted in
recent court cases concerning the sexual exploitation of children
The Children's Society worked with the All-Party Parliamentary
Group (APPG) for Runaway and Missing Children and Adults and the
APPG for Looked After Children and Care Leavers, to prepare its
2012 report on children missing from care.
The Children's Society's policy adviser, Iryna Pona, says that
the inquiry highlighted a range of issues about the system that
were putting children at risk, including professionals' attitudes
to children who go missing, i.e. that they are troublesome rather
than troubled; local authorities' not knowing how many children are
missing from care; and councils' sending children to residential
homes outside their area, but not informing the relevant local
For suspected child victims of trafficking from overseas into
the UK, the APPG inquiry estimated that 60 per cent in
local-authority care were going missing. And almost two thirds of
trafficked children are never found.
Another issue highlighted by the inquiry concerned the
qualifications of those working in children's homes, of which an
estimated three-quarters are run by the voluntary or private
sector. "Currently," Ms Pona says, "if you work with children, most
people don't need any qualifications, and this was looked at as
part of the reform.
"In the future, there will be typical required qualifications
for people working in children's homes and managers."
Other reforms include better monitoring of data about children
who go missing, and the ability to report the absence of a child in
care straight away rather than wait 24 hours. Children's homes will
also now have to have strategies in place regarding how they will
respond to children who run away. Another change is to ensure
children are not placed out of their local authority unnecessarily,
and that local authorities look at the safety of the area where a
children's home is located.
"In the past, local police didn't always know where children's
homes were located, so if a child went missing from a particular
address, they didn't know whether it was a children's home or not,
and so the child was vulnerable. This has now changed, and police
now have that information," Ms Pona says.
For the Children's Society, however, one of the biggest issues
facing the entire sector is ensuring that children and young people
are listened to. "We know from our practice that looked-after
children are very often not really consulted about decisions about
their lives, or informed about those decisions," Ms Pona says.
"In our work with young runaways, they say they very often
encounter punitive responses when they run away. One young person
told us: 'They would take away your pocket money and take away your
phone, which wouldn't stop me running away anyway, it would just
make it more dangerous, as I don't have any money, or I don't have
any phone to call anyone if I do it. Why doesn't anyone speak to
me, and ask me why I'm so unhappy, and why I'm running away?'
"The Munro report advocated a child-centred system; but the
reality is that the opinions of children in foster care, and of
foster parents and agencies, are also often ignored," the unnamed
foster-agency director said.
REFORMS encased in the Children and Families Act are providing
children with longer-term support: children are now able to stay
with foster carers until they are 21, instead of 18.
The chief executive of the charity Fostering Network, Robert
Tapsfield, says that there have also been developments over the
past four years around "delegated authority" - so far not secured
in law - so that carers can be more responsible for day-to-day
decisions on activities such as sending a foster child on a school
trip, without having to gain the approval of the child's social
"We've been campaigning for this," Mr Tapsfield says. "The
Children's Minister has made very clear that authority should be
delegated to foster carers as much as possible. He's gone so far as
to say that there should be a presumption that the authority to
make day-to-day decisions should be delegatedto foster carers,
unless otherwise stated."
After the pilot on social pedagogy in residential-care settings,
the charity Fostering Network has launched its own four-year pilot
to examine the impact that social pedagogy could have on foster
care. Its "Head, Heart, Hands" study introduces the concept into
seven pilot areas in England and Scotland.
One independent agency, Capstone Foster Care - whose founders,
directors, and shareholders "share Christian values", its chief
executive, Richard Compton-Burnett, says - is one of the
foster-service providers involved in "Head, Heart, Hands".
"We're 18 months into the pilot now, and most of the carers have
enjoyed it," the managing director of Capstone, Steve Hunt, says.
"Over the years, social work has changed; it's become very
risk-averse, butthis is going back to relationship-building.
"It's also about ensuring that young people have a voice; making
sure that at every opportunity young people give a view."
Although outcomes so far have been positive, Mr Hunt says, he is
concerned whether local authorities will take a new training
approachon board. "A lot of what's goingon within children's
services is financial; and with local authorities being so starved
of resources, it's difficult to see how developing this would be a
priority for local authorities."
Mr Timpson says that there is no direct link between the amount
that councils are spending on children's services and the quality,
and outcome, of those services.
"Some of the lowest-spending councils per child have some of the
best results for children, in terms of what their outcomes are; and
some of the highest-spending have some of the least impressive
outcomes," he says.
"But what you also find is that those councils that are prepared
to be more innovative and creative can not only still comply with
the inspection requirements, but, by the same token, find new ways
of providing services which better the needs of their local
"It's why we've set up the Innovation Programme, which started
this year and is running into next year. So we've made £30 million
available this financial year for anyone who wants to try and do
things differently in the delivery of children's services."
ADOPTION reform is also under way. The Government has introduced
new legislation to ensure that the court process on children incare
lasts no longer than 26 weeks, except in exceptional circumstances.
Currently, there is also a push to increase the numbers and
experience of foster carers and adopters.
"We're doing a lot to try and improve support for adopters, both
during the adoption process, streamlining the assessment so that it
takes no more than six months, and also [to] make sure that
post-adoption support is much better than it's been in the
"We've set up the Adoption Support Fund, which is being trialled
at the moment, which is just shy of £20 million," Mr Timpson
The law has also changed on adoption pay and leave, to promote
early bonding: "so that," he says, "as if you were having your own
children, you now get, from day one, time off from work in order to
form those bonds and attachments with the child, or children, who
have come into your family."
School admissions now also prioritise looked-after children, as
does the Pupil Premium - extra funding of £1900 a year to help
support a looked-after child in his or her learning.
One new initiative is being pioneered in the north-west of
England by two former church agencies. Caritas Care (formerlythe
Lancaster Diocesan Catholic Children's Society) is working with
Adoption Matters North West (previously the adoption society for
Chester and Blackburn dioceses) on a new way of looking at
adoption, "Concurrent Planning", which recruits potential adopters
for children under the age of two.
The project manager of the Concurrent Planning service, Mike
Hall, says: "We recruit carers who want to be adopters, but who are
willing to act as foster carers until the future of the child has
been determined by the courts. It's about putting the needs of the
child first in the process. We consider that adults are better
prepared to take any risk of uncertainty than three-month-old or
"We have to say to carers: 'You are going to need to be pretty
robust.' We are asking them to care like they're going to be the
parents, but no one can say, with 100-per-cent certainty, that you
are going to be able to adopt that child.
"Plan A is that the child returns home [to his or her birth
parent]; but plan B, which runs concurrently, is for the child to
be adopted; so the carers look after the child while the court case
"The good news is that that process takes a lot less time - but
the even better news is that the child hasn't had to move at all;
so, right from the beginning, or [from] being removed from
hospital, the child has only known one set of carers."
Mr Tapsfield says that Concurrent Planning is similar, but
subtly different, from the Government's own initiative, Fostering
for Adoption. "Concurrent Planning is used when no final decision
has been taken. In reality, concurrent planning tends to be used in
situations where the local authority thinks it unlikely that the
child will return home. Nevertheless, there is still work taking
place to pursue a different option."
With Fostering for Adoption, he says, "the way that the
legislation is framed suggests that this can only be used when the
local authority takes a view that the child will need to be
CARITAS CARE and Adoption Matters Northwest are also involved in a
Department for Education two-year project, Centre for Adoption
Support, to develop a "centre of excellence" in post-adoption
The intention is that the centre will showcase best practice in
how to support families after they have adopted. The project
manager atthe centre, Delyth Evans, is already looking at ways of
working in partnership with local authorities and relevant
businesses, to ensure funding for post-adoption support services,
once the government money stops.
"The general public's perception is that, if you take a child
out of a poor home and put them in a great home, and put boundaries
in and do all the stuff that you are told to do, as a parent you'll
be fine; but, actually, quite a lot of the children have what we
call 'attachment' issues," Rachel Walker, of Adoption Matters North
"Children who come from very neglected backgrounds quite
literally have a different brain-structure. They are hard-wired for
the flight-or-fight response. For example, Christmas or birthdays
might seem like a wonderful idea, lots of noise and fuss going on,
but for a child with a neglected background, that could be very
The centre offers therapy and counselling services for adults
and children, and provides a support service for parents who are
"These children, because their children have experienced
significant trauma in their very early lives. So we spend quite a
lot of time, when we meet families, talking to them about the need
to thera-peutically parent their children, and to try and help them
understand why children do some of the things they do."
UNTIL recently, the rate of failed adoptions was estimated to be
as high as 20 per cent. But government-funded researchers from
Bristol University announced last month that, having analysed
national data, it was actually much lower, at about three per cent.
But they also found a stark picture of the problems faced by some
families, particularly when dealing with teenage years.
In the case of Ms Ursell, even with a loving family her
difficulties increased as she became a teenager. "I wasn't as
withdrawn as I was before, but I had emotional issues.I would go
and stand in the corner of a room sometimes for hours, to punish
myself before any one else could. Other times, I would go into my
room and trash everything. It was a way of punishing myself,
because you don't deserve to have anything good.
"Eventually, I stopped, as I learnt right boundaries and how to
cope. But, going into my teenage years, nothing made sense. Why was
I moved so many times? Even though I loved my family now, I had a
lot of hurt and questions. I became very rebellious and
"I self-harmed; I starved myself for days; I would binge drink.
AndI was very mean to my adoptive mum: I didn't speak to her. I was
taking out all the anger from my life on her.
"At age 16, I contacted my birth mum, and moved back in with her
for a year. At that point, she'd had four more children. I dropped
out of college, and took on the responsibility of looking after the
"I'd change the baby's nappy, go, and come back again, and find
it hadn't been changed since. No matter what I did to get my birth
mother to say, or show, that she loved me, she just wanted what she
could get out of me. She was addicted to computer games, and did
that all day. I was a child just wanting her mum.
"My adoptive family were very supportive, even though I pushed
them away for a lot of it. Because they were Christians, they were
very loving and accepting.
"At 18, I moved back home, andI gave my life to Christ. I felt
like I had a second chance. I was drawn into church life, and my
faith has grown. God has given me peace about my past; he's given
me healing over the years. Through the church, and through
different people, he's helped me. And I don't feel that I have
suffered long-term damage over it."
Last year, Ms Ursell completed a degree in education, and has
subsequently spent part of a gap-year setting up a school for
children with special needs in India.
Since government-funded research into fostering and adoption
uncovered last year that religious people are the most likely to
adopt or foster, First4Adoption has been working more closely with
Home for Good, setting up a dedicated information phoneline for
people from faith communities.
Lambeth and Southwark councils have also commissioned Home for
Good to recruit an outreach worker to help churches in their
boroughs to identify potential adopters. Contracts have been
signed, and the new employee will start next month. But churches
need to get behind those responding to the ongoing need for
adoptive and foster families, Krish Kandiah, of Home for Good,
Part of the love that eventually won over Ms Ursell was the love
shown to her by people at church: "At church, I felt special. In
other places I went, I was always a care kid, but in church there
wasn't that fear that how I'd behave might be inappropriate. It
was: 'Oh, Sam, lovely to see you.'"
Susan Walker (not her real name) adopted a little boy with
extreme needs, and says that she found she had to fight for support
while receiving little understanding from those around her,
including people at her church.
Ms Walker admits that when she first saw the Home for Good
campaign, she worried that families wouldn't know what they were
getting into. "If you don't know what you're doing, and you go and
adopt a child who has been bounced around, rejected - children that
are really broken and damaged - [you] shouldn't assume that it [is]
going to be easy."
Mrs Walker's son was excluded from Sunday school because of his
behaviour towards other children. "When life was at its hardest,
most of my support came from two non-Christian, wonderful mums that
loved me and my son. We lived in each other's houses - several
times a week met at playgroup, shared lunches and dinners -
frankly, probably what the disciples' wives would have done.
"If you have a church with a supportive structure in place, and
it is committed to help, then it's a wonderful idea, and a
wonderful interpretation of the Bible."
"We're really encouraging Christians to go into this with their
eyes open," Mr Kandiah says. "It isn't going to be simple: the kids
that we're trying to find homes for have serious and on-going
needs, and most of them have experi-enced neglect or abuse. So we
want Christians to know that they need all of God's resources for
this; they need the church to wrap around them to offer that
ongoing sup-port, and professional help, as well. But this is so
important; it's one of the most important things we can do."
A dedicated adoption information line is available to those
from faith communities, run by Home for Good in collaboration with
First4Adoption: phone 0300 222 5950.