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Who loves this child?

This needs to be the starting point of everything we do in children’s services. I don’t want to see love defined, pulled apart or being put in legislation. We instinctively know what love is. Since the Munro report of 2011, we have been revolutionising how we approach working with children and families. I can see the similarity of approaches emerging, they share commonality of ethos and culture - strengths based, with families - not to them, all based in systemic and relational practice. Of course, safeguarding needs to be sharp and focused, but we need to ask questions about how “risk” drives our national system and remember the lessons of Munro, Mason and others about safe certainty/ safe uncertainty.

We need to change the system from always focusing on risk and assessment to one of family seeing, supporting and building, maintaining and repairing relationships. More and more, it feels like we are trying to do this despite the system. A system that obsesses on process and measuring it, rather than anything of importance to children and families - more emphasis on doing things right, rather on doing the right things. For example, the Care Experienced Conference highlights its top three messages as needing more love in the care system, being seen as individuals worthy of respect, and that relationships are critically important. Yet our system of rules and Regulation fails to take account of these. Regulation needs fundamental reform. We need a system, underpinned by real ambition, to provide love, support and relationships for as long as young adults need it. We need to go further and the Care Review may provide this opportunity

We have to understand the whole system at play here and how it cuts across policy and service boundaries. Ofsted, Cafcass, the judiciary, health, schools, police and others - all have an important role to play, they are part of a system that inadvertently drives behaviours that can be counter to what is best for children and families. No one intends it, but unconnected decision making taken outside of the evidence base of long term outcomes (that go far beyond childhood), is driving more and more children into care, and more and more into residential care. We need to face the uncomfortable truths of the real impact if we fail to provide young people with the opportunity for healing through relational networks (as opposed to services) that mature throughout adult life.

Of course, we need to hold a magnifying lens on immediate risk but doing so without the same lens on long term risk (just because we won’t have the same level of responsibility 20 and 30 years on) is not acceptable for any part of the system. A system that doesn’t reflect on the lessons of many serious incidents and early mortality of adults who have experienced care, makes us no less responsible for doing the right things now.

The numbers of children in care continue to rise and these children are predominantly from families in deprived areas. 98% of children in care are there because of their parents’ needs. Are we punishing parents for being poor?

At the same time, the number of children and young people in residential care continues to grow. Let’s be clear. I spent 10 years myself working in residential care. Here in North Yorkshire, we have the most amazing No Wrong Door Hubs and the team’s commitment and ethos is brilliant. But I want them empty and I don’t want children in residential care, the long term outcomes as evidenced support my position. Adults who lived in foster and residential care during childhood had a 40% chance of very poor health 10 years later. This rose to 85% over the following two decades. Those who grew up with a relative saw their chances of reporting very ill health range from 21% to 43% over the same 30 year period.

The independent nature of the ‘care market’ does not care about long term outcomes of children, they are there to make a profit. How can it grasp the ethical importance of nurturing relationships and networks that provide the therapeutic building blocks for adult life? How can it prioritise reunification as a central pillar, when doing so directly challenges the business model it is built on? These are all uncomfortable truths but we must face them. Nationally, I personally don’t believe we have a ‘placement’ crisis, but we do have a family engagement crisis. Metaphorically, it’s like having a crisis at a cliff edge. We seem never to move from a focus on buying more and more ambulances to be stationed at the bottom of the cliff. We need to focus relentlessly on putting a fence up at the top.

It’s time for change. We need to support family and networks, to care for children in well supported and properly funded kinship arrangements when that is appropriate and necessary.

A recent report from the Centre for Social Justice sums up well my thoughts on this subject - “a consistent, trusting, long-term relationship protects a child against even the most adverse of circumstances.”

As a good friend to North Yorkshire, Kevin Campbell from Family Finders often says to me, “safety is only temporary without healing.” We obsess with assessment and risk, but we need to obsess with support to families and networks, relationships, connection and healing.

So, let’s build the network of support children and families deserve. I hope the Care Review is an opportunity to realise that ambition and develop a system that can truly answer for every young person – “who loves this child?”

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