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A pressing need for parents

09 May 2014

Every 20 minutes, a child is taken into care. Sarah Lothian investigates how Christian agencies are providing for their needs


"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 families.

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 sexual abuse.

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 Britain.

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 in adulthood.

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 families.

"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 child.

"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 system."

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 better qualifications.

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 situations.

"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 in care.

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 authority.

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 worker.

"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 children-in-care population.

"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 past.

"We've set up the Adoption Support Fund, which is being trialled at the moment, which is just shy of £20 million," Mr Timpson says.

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 six-month-old children.

"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 goes on.

"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 adopted."

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 support.

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 West, says.

"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 overwhelming."

The centre offers therapy and counselling services for adults and children, and provides a support service for parents who are struggling.

"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 depressed.

"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 kids.

 "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, says.

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.


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