Hot on the heels of the missing child abuse files which possibly incriminate senior Government figures from recent decades and with today’s Government falling over itself to ‘reassure’ the public that it will launch an ‘inquiry’ into the scandal, in today’s Independent, we now learn that:
One in every hundred children living in care is abused every year in Britain, according to the most comprehensive study conducted into the issue. The research by York University and the NSPCC is the first of its kind to uncover and analyse local authority records on abuse in foster and residential care.
Academics tracked abuse allegations, and their outcomes, between 2009 and 2012. They found that on average there are between 450 and 550 cases of proven abuse every year in foster care and between 250 and 300 cases of confirmed abuse a year in residential care.
Steve McCabe, the shadow minister for Children and Families called the findings ‘shocking’, saying that the conclusions of the report ‘suggests that the current level of supervision, scrutiny and inspection is woefully inadequate’.
While the vast majority of foster carers do an excellent job in difficult circumstances, academics found that most abuse or neglect in foster care, more than 88 per cent, is perpetrated by carers. In more than a third of these cases the child was physically harmed and a further 11 per cent were sexually abused.
The examples detailed in the report include two cases where the sexual abuse of a fostered child was only discovered after the abuse of other children in the foster family prompted an investigation. One girl told how her regular foster carer had touched her inappropriately and tried to have sex with her.
In another case, a male foster carer sexually abused two girls, claiming to be in a relationship with one of them. Four cases involved the adult birth son of a foster family who was living in the home and abused young girls; three of these cases were sexual abuse over ‘a long period of time’, some several years.
As regular readers of my blog will know, I have worked in the field of foster carer recruitment for several years, firstly as a recruitment communications agency consultant to local authorities, before then jumping ship, and working inside a central London local authority to directly attract and recruit new foster carers for four and a half years.
I now work as a self employed foster carer recruitment specialist, advising both local authorities and independent fostering agencies to help them become more effective at targeting and recruiting new carers so that all can achieve what is termed ‘care placement sufficiency’, that is, a substantial enough pool of foster carers of requisite diversity that can be drawn upon to match against incoming referrals for children in need to loving homes which can best meet their needs. This is a key criterion of Ofsted inspections, which have recently become more robust, and rightly so.
That’s my professional background. But rewind some 30 years, back to 1986, when, after eleven years of abuse at the hands of family members and my father’s girlfriend, who eventually posed as his wife and signed me into care, falsely using his surname, a fact which was never checked by social workers, I was abruptly removed from the putrid bedroom in which I was locked at all times except to go to school, with only a bucket for a toilet, a bucket which was never emptied, and whisked off to live in a local children’s home, known as ‘Brick House’, in Radcliffe on Trent, Nottingham.
With stunted growth through lack of nutrition, I was small, puny, and almost transparently pale and weak, and a very easy target for bullying by older boys in particular, who also lived in the children’s home. Not infrequently, small groups of those boys would set upon me, grabbing me, and as I squirmed and tried to escape, they dragged me to the end of a long garden, out of sight of the house, where they would repeatedly try to tear off my trousers and underpants.
Crying in desperation and panic, and clinging to my waist band, I somehow managed to prevent whatever the boys wanted to do to me to actually happen, but those moments filled me with utter terror. I dared not report a single incident. For one thing, I was afraid of retribution, which was a reason I hadn’t spoken up for years whilst suffering years of abuse before going into care.
But the other reason was equally sinister. My ‘key worker’, a residential social worker, who was, I think, supposed to be the person who supported me during my time in the home, was a violent and explosive man. I remember little about him, except he was tall, and a Sunderland FC supporter, but it wasn’t long before I saw him grab another boy by his throat, ram him up against the living room wall, and shout in his face with such ferocity that spittle flew from his mouth. I was, again, trapped, with abusers.
The boys’ attempts to sexually assault me (well, when a person forcibly tries to tear down someone else’s underpants, that is, I think, sexual assault) could not be reported because I feared that I would not believed and that I might even get the same treatment from my key worker as I had seen him dish out to others.
Years later, in 2011, I made an application to Nottinghamshire County Council to be sent a copy of my ‘files’, which contained information about my time in local authority care. They arrived weeks later than current FOI timescale requests stipulate and anyway I have a right to see those regardless of that legislation. It took constant hassling by me to eventually be sent a package of some 250 pages of photocopied documents that were so heavily redacted they were almost worthless reading.
But what I did glean were three major points, and all were disturbing to me:
As aforementioned, was that I discovered a woman, one of the main perpetrators of my childhood abuse, had signed me into care in a fraudulent way, for she did not actually have the legal parental responsibility to do so. She was my father’s girlfriend. They were not married.
Over the course of several hours, I read page, after page, after page, of my childhood abusers’ highly creative account of the circumstances leading up to my placement into ‘care’ (if you could call it that) and with tears rolling down my cheeks as I recalled incident after incident of beatings, bruises and worse, much worse, I read them all explained away in the blithest terms, and accepted at face value by social workers involved in my case. I do not recall any social worker, ever, asking me what life was like at home, and indeed, the paperwork I have been sent does not record such discussions either.
I was appalled by the sheer lack of intuitive analysis applied to me and my situation as a child who had come into care having suffered the full spectrum of abuse (physical, emotional, sexual, and total neglect), the total absence of therapeutic help, and the callous and cruel observational remarks which were written about me as a pre-teenage boy, by staff in that children’s home. Here are examples:
Extract 1 reads: ’18th March 1987. Up bright and ready for school. Home and had a quiet tea time. Played on the computer. Complained of indigestion and had a very strong glass of Andrews. 25 minutes later he stormed into the kitchen and demanded that I give him some paracetamol ‘now’. I refused and attempted to explain that he should give the Andrews a chance but he wouldn’t listen and had a mega-tantrum. Calmed down for bed. I checked him several times (despite the fact that I don’t care whether he lives or dies) but he said he was alright now and was soon fast asleep.’
Extract 2 reads: ‘3rd December 1987. Up on time. Requesting clothes and football boots—told ‘no way’, he won’t be here very long, not to get too comfortable.’
Extract 3 reads: ‘I had to point out to Sean that he was not as bright as he seem (sic) to like us to believe.’
Extract 4 reads: ‘His normal whining self this afternoon. Nothing is ever good enough for him. Demanding a lot of attention of late.’
Before I saw my files, I had begun working for a south London borough, recruiting foster carers, and helping their adoption social workers with their work to find families for children for whom legal permanence was the care plan.
During my first week into the role, I was advised by my manager, a man for whom I hold the deepest respect, and who held a solid reputation for his commitment to the cause of children and looked after young people, to, ‘always ensure that whatever records you make of conversations with prospective foster carers, or others who are involved in the care system, and especially children in care, that no matter what the incident, no matter what your personal feelings may be, that you always preserve the dignity of the person that you are writing about.’
That is not to say he was suggesting I omit offensive but factual evidence or words on the basis that they might be unpalatable reading in years to come, but rather he was cautioning me that most looked after children, after growing up into adults, will come to a point in their lives where they make an application to read their files as a natural part of attempting to fully understand their background, and what set of circumstances led them to come into care.
Of course, I understood perfectly what he meant. And I also knew, that should I transgress such a boundary, that in spite of our solid and mutually respectful working relationship (which is now an equally solid and mutually respectful friendship), he would, nonetheless, have fired me. His ethos, which travelled around with him like a positive aura, was one of ‘kids first, and always’. He taught me much and I am in his debt for that.
Needless to say, I never did breach his advice, and I wouldn’t have done anyway, and I suspect he knows that, too. But, in his role, he had the managerial imperative to tell me so. Such advice was devastatingly reinforced when I came to read my own case files, examples of which I have given above. To me, they were so disturbing that I wept, and I said to my partner at that time that I honestly didn’t recognise the young boy all these people were writing about.
It culmilated in me embarking on a new journey of self discovery and healing that I have shared elsewhere on this blog, and whilst both of my child-trauma specialist psychotherapists gave much of their time gratis to me, coupled with invaluable financial support from the Yellow Heart Trust (a charity that provides grants for people suffering from trauma) I still found myself paying around two and a half thousand pounds towards my own private treatment, not available on the NHS.
Tom Rahilly, of the NSPCC, said:
“What this report shows is that while for the vast majority of children care offers a safe and loving environment, for a small minority we must do much better. The damage to children of being taken into care only to be mistreated by those entrusted by the state to protect them is immense.’
“More needs to be done to ensure that all children and young people in care are given a strong voice to share their experiences and provided with the help they need. Children must be allowed to see their social worker alone so they feel they have a safe environment to disclose concerns.”
However, even back in the eighties, I was often able to see my social worker alone. But there were two significant barriers to that being an effective outlet for sharing my continued abuse.
The first is that, I was too afraid that my social worker would speak to my key worker about the abuse I was suffering at the hands of other boys in the home, and that might mark me out as a ‘bad one’, I was frightened that he might ram me up against a wall, too. So fear kept me silenced.
The second is that my social workers changed so often that I could never develop enough trust in any one individual to reach a point where I felt safe enough to open up to one of them. And of course, whilst the social workers played pass-the-parcel with me, there were some I clicked with more than others.
I wring my hands in despair at such comments, which I feel are too weak, too short-sighted, too much about damage limitation, too much about not upsetting ministers, rather than demonstrating some teeth in embarking upon real, radical, robust and intrusive change within the children’s services sector, so that when traumatised children are taken into care none of them ever get abused again.
Robert Tapsfield, the chief executive of the Fostering Network, said:
‘We’ve supported the NSPCC to look at this important area of work. It is crucial to be clear about the difference between instances of abuse, instances of poor practice and accidents, and not simply to define them all as abuse as this report does. The report does highlight the importance of foster carers being well trained and supported and it emphasises the need to do more to identify those exceptional situations where children are ill-treated.’
Alan Wood, the president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, said:
‘The process for being approved as a foster carer is rigorous – but no system can realistically be fail-safe. We must continually keep processes under review and ensure we have good and open dialogue between children and their social workers. We must do as much as is possible to ensure that foster carers receive high-quality training and support to ensure they can meet the needs of the children they are caring for.’
More rhetoric here. We need less of that and more intrusive assessments to ensure that no one who wishes to harm a child ever enters any state or private child care system. The statement above that, ‘no system can realistically be fail-safe.’ just feels so defeatist, and I challenge it—because now, as a 40-year-old man, I must stand up for children in care, and those who are suffering abuse right in this very moment who have yet to be rescued by social workers. If I don’t, who will?
I will share with you, readers, that I am so very tired of these newspaper commentaries rolling out quotes from the great and the good within these well-meaning organisations, as they proffer their sound bites, none of which effect any lasting change. It is boring to me, as a care leaver, that all these stories rely upon banal quotes from heads of organisations which appear to do so very little.
Edward Timpson, the minister for Children and Families, said:
‘The report shows the majority of children in care are in stable, secure homes, but any incident of abuse or neglect is unacceptable. Where there is abuse or neglect, we are clear action must immediately be taken. We’ve introduced important safeguards to ensure children are protected, including improving the skills of social workers and toughening up the rules so councils and other agencies must have robust policies for protecting children. We have and we will take serious action where there is evidence to suggest they are failing in this.’
Well, to Mr. Timpson, I ask you this: what are these important safeguards you have introduced? How have you improved the skills of social workers, whom you drown in bureaucracy and who are currently leaving local authorities in droves to go locum because your Government has cut funding to such an extent that local authority social work is now some of the most hellishly under resourced and exasperating work that can be undertaken today? And to which ‘toughened up rules’ and ‘robust policies’ are you referring? Because, no less than a few weeks ago, I left one of the Tory ‘flagship local authorities in southwest London after a four-and-a-half-year tenure, and I recognise nothing of which you speak. So please, as a public servant, enlighten me?
Back in 2010, when I joined this local authority, it had at the helm of its children’s service, one of the most committed, professional, and charismatic leaders I have ever met in my life. He was not one to suffer fools, but whether you liked, loved or hated him, everyone, without exception, respected him. He, like most of his management team, had joined the social work profession when it emerged as a part of the welfare state in the early seventies.
By chance, or providence, I know not which, I had the great privilege to join his service and work with some of the most inspirational people I have known. They have all since left, for their own reasons, but I then witnessed a spectacular collapse in morale and direction, the creation of a power vacuum and middle management power struggles, all of which drastically undermined the work of those on the front line. It was awful. Leadership is what matters. So when Edward Timpson, Alan Wood and others dish out their sanitised quotes to the media, I say that those words are empty. They are meaningless. They effect precisely no change whatever.
Before joining the council, I worked for almost a decade in a division of a private sector public services firm, where I helped clients of all types to attract and recruit talented staff into their organisations. Frequently, I accompanied our executive search and selection consultants and met with chief executives and others to discuss recruitment exercises that involved quite intrusive explorations of an applicant’s background, all for the purpose of establishing whether or not they held any skeletons in their closets that might emerge and damage the reputation of the business they were seeking to lead. These would involve, quite often, psychometric testing, alongside a variety of other assessment and selection exercises and activities.
When I began recruiting foster carers, I was more than surprised to discover that (a) human resources played no role whatever in the process, apparently because foster carers are not, technically, local authority employees, and therefore there lacked professionally trained rigour, and (b) whilst ongoing assessments were made of all applicants through a fairly lengthy process, none of it was of the formal, psychometric testing type.
I am not suggesting that psychometric testing is the total answer to weeding out foster carers or workers within children’s homes who might have more pernicious motivations in mind as they seek access to children and young people, but I am saying that the total absence of it, and any involvement by corporate human resources struck me as a quite glaring omission.
To the utter non-surprise of any former colleagues reading this, I, of course, raised this a few times, but the idea irked social workers, who viewed themselves as quite qualified enough to make all of those decisions, and it irked managers who had no wish to increase workloads and budgets at a time of vicious cuts to local authority funding by the Government. From memory, I recall this particular local authority needing to make cost savings of some £70m by 2018!
But whilst I and my social work colleagues delved into the most intimate detail of the lives of fostering and adoption hopefuls, even seeking character references from former partners, and exploring their financial situations, this intrusive level of scrutiny is not applied to social workers and residential workers themselves. One rule for one…
So my response to all of this is that yes, it is possible to iron out almost all of those who would wish to further harm children in care, but that none of those in positions of influence or power named above appear to have the will to do what is needed, and that is to invest significantly into the children’s services sector, and by that I do not mean break it up and privatise the lot, as the recent Ofsted consultation seemed to suggest was about to occur and which sparked a frenzy of debate and a tidal wave of opposition from social work professionals, child psychologists, academics and others besides. It appears that the Government, for now, has softened its’ stance. But I fear it is merely a stay of execution, for everything in the public realm appears to be subject to ‘mouse pushing a bus’ tactics.
Here are my thoughts for tightening up and reforming the children’s services sector so as to significantly reduce, hopefully eradicate the possibility of any child in care ever being abused again:
All professionals and other staff directly involved with the care of children should be security vetted to a much higher standard. DBS (formerly CRB) checks alone are not enough as they only prove that an applicant hasn’t been caught, yet, for an offence, which would preclude them from working with children. We need SC, or even DV vetting.
The vetting process should involve a multidisciplinary team of properly qualified social work and human resources professionals as they assess all workers, prospective foster carers and prospective adopters.
All children’s homes and foster homes should be subject to no notice inspections by properly qualified officials, including child psychologists who should possess the professional expertise to identify when a child or young people may be deploying deflective behaviours to avoid speaking up about incidents of concerns. These inspections should be carried out by peer authorities, and possibly independent reviewing officers from those, too.
Vetting procedures should include lie detector testing, alongside intrusive internet screening that does involve requiring full access to email and social networking accounts, as well as a full examination of character attributes through interviews with former partners, family members, friends, former colleagues, former school friends, former teachers, selected entirely at random to eradicate bias or predictable patterning that could allow would-be predators to undermine such an assessment system.
Such checks will take time. Candidates should be paid when they have reached a specific stage of the assessment process so that they remain committed. Candidates must agree to undergo periodical no notice scrutiny exercises as a pre-requisite for undertaking direct work with vulnerable children.
And those who successfully complete such robust, rigorous selection and assessment criteria should be paid extremely well for their noble valuable work, and in recognition of the transparency that has been demanded of them before becoming officially accredited child care practitioners.
Once accredited. child care practitioners should be regularly checked and moved at intervals in order to prevent complacency from taking hold. This would also keep practitioners at the cutting edge of practice.
Opponents of such measures will most likely cite cost as a prohibitive factor. I have a pretty quick and easy answer for that one. Which is more important, keeping the Windsor family as our undemocratic heads of state at a Sovereign Grant cost of £36.1 million for 2013-14 and £37.9 million for 2014-15, costing, as the simpering press tell us a mere 56p per person per year, or do we abolish that anachronistic institution and spend the money instead of protecting our children from physical, emotional and sexual abuse, and neglect?
I think the sums above should more than cover what I am proposing. But in any case, if we must insist on retaining a feudal system of flagrantly unequal subjugation, then I hereby volunteer an extra 56p per year specifically to protect traumatised kids.
Would anyone else care to join me?
Sean Parry is a time-served, multi-award winning recruitment marketer. He has worked among all sectors, private and commercial, public, health, police, fire and rescue, third sector, and local authorities. Over 20 years, Sean’s affinity with the cause of looked-after children and young people drew him to work ever more closely with children’s services.
Initially this included large scale social work recruitment exercises, later leading towards fostering and adoption attraction and recruitment marketing strategies. Full details of his career, and the core carer recruitment support service that Sean now provides on a retained consultancy basis to fostering agencies can be found on his LinkedIn page.
If your fostering agency is looking for specialist support to recruit new foster carers, please get in touch on 07977 712712 or by email for an exploratory, no-obligation discussion. This will be followed up with a summary of your support needs, along with full details of how he can help, anticipated outcomes, and hourly rates. Testimonials of Sean’s work from former fostering agency clients are also published on this website.
Don’t forget to join us at Do Fostering on Facebook, now the country’s most popular fostering page, achieved in just two and a half years by Sean alone with an exceptionally limited budget—testament that effective, results-producing marketing had less to do with budget and more to do with developing a plan that works… and sticking to it!
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