The English healthcare system fails children. This new overhaul is based on a bourgeois fantasy | Rebecca Pierre
Ls a protective sibling, I am the first to both criticize and defend the healthcare system. He failed and saved me in equal measure. As an adult, I went back there as a social worker. I know its flaws and its potential to change lives. The sector is overburdened and underfunded. People working in the care system welcomed promise of a reviewbut our hopes were short-lived.
The historical review of child welfare in England, published today, has been called a “once in a generation” opportunity to transform the system. To anyone who lived or worked there, it may have sounded more like a threat than a promise. Any harmful recommendation could persist for decades – a terrifying prospect. Children in care are among the most vulnerable in society: they run twice the risk of dying prematurely and only 6% finish at university.
There are a few positives here: the exam aims to increase life expectancy for children in care, double college entrance, and make childcare experience a protected feature. But many have long called into question the independence of the journal. Its president, Josh MacAlister, a high school teacher turned CEO of Frontline (an accelerated social work program) received £45m from the Department for Education train only 900 social workers in 2019. Frontline retention rate does not justify this exorbitant cost.
Remarkably, the government did not want to invest a penny in the recommendations of the review, according to a disclosed contract. Additional funds, such as £2.6bn requested by MacAlister (who doesn’t even begin to plug in the £4bn fiscal black hole) will be levied on other public services. Perhaps that’s why the review focuses so much on reduction. The first role to play is the Independent Review Officer role, designed to give children a voice and review care plans.
One group, however, is exempt from pinching. Private providers who bill local authorities up to £10,000 per week caring for a child will not be subject to profit caps, despite calls from people who work in the sector for limits on how much they can charge.
Other cuts are better disguised. The review emphasizes that communities (an indefinite and homogeneous group) can provide “organic and responsive help that services simply cannot”. He elaborates: A classmate’s parent, or a friend or family member, can step in to “care for a child after school to give parents some space.” This is neither fair nor sustainable.
To state the obvious, communities are not always safe spaces. The Homes for Ukraine campaign is a great example. While most of the hosts were genuine, that didn’t stop a minority attempt to exploit vulnerable people leave a war-torn country. Children in care are easy targets county line operation. Will gangs be exempt from volunteering?
Law-abiding citizens who demonstrated against children’s homes are built in their streets pose an equal threat. What will persuade them to suddenly tolerate, let alone mentor, the very children they want to get rid of? Not everyone lives in quaint cul-de-sacs where retired therapists can offer parenting advice over dinner. This middle-class fantasy won’t work for people living in unsafe housing or suffering from intra-community violence.
We live in an era of unprecedented inflation, with one in five people in the UK living in poverty. People struggle to provide for themselves, let alone others. This is particularly the case for underpaid and overworked teachers, who, among other ‘trusted adults’, are presented in this review as the panacea to the shortage of foster families. The review says that “if only 1% of teachers showed up to take in a specific child, there would be 4,610 new homes available.”
The ethical implications of this are enormous. Professional boundaries between teachers and students exist to keep children safe. It is unfair to expect teachers to provide intimate care for one child, social-emotional support and potentially correct their homework while balancing the needs of 29 other children in their class. In recruiting a foster family, we should not expect children to, in essence, forego a “normal” educational experience.
The review indicates that we need more foster families. This may be true, but they also need time, training and experience to provide care. I was greeted informally by a ‘trusted adult’ – a young professional from the community who seriously thought he could help. I waited patiently for the guest bedroom to be set up, but as fall turned into winter, I still slept on a sofa bed in the freezing living room. I now realize this was a sign that they were completely overwhelmed, perhaps not sure they could commit to caring for a traumatized 16 year old. One day after school, I found a note on the kitchen table. He said I had four days to find another place to live – a particularly cruel deadline, given that it was December 20.
I never really got over it. This rejection, at such a crucial time in my life, damaged my ability to form trusting relationships for years. I found myself in an unregulated household among adults known to the police (22 children died in such contexts between 2018 and 2020, but the review did not condemn the use of unregulated hostels in the past).
In times of crisis, children need the best expertise available. To rely on a vague idea of “community” to complement social care is a flagrant abdication of government responsibility. Communities can be a wonderful thing: at the hostel, a family I’ve known all my life provided invaluable care. They slowly taught me to trust people again. But to assume that parents and social workers have not already exhausted these avenues is naïve. practices such as family group conferencewhich draws on Maori culture and involves family and friends making their own plans, has long been used in child welfare.
Meaningful change must be achieved by properly funding services and protecting the hard-won rights of children. Passing the ball to the public is a cop. Even a child could see that.
Rebekah Pierre is an author, journalist and social worker
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