Lime Legal

Children in need

Published 10 March 2024

There is overwhelming evidence that, far from helping children, the care system is inflicting long-lasting damage. Phil Frampton argues that family style care homes are the best option for vulnerable kids

In the wake of the Baby P tragedy, it became evident that social workers have little time for residential care homes and seem convinced that young people aren’t safe in them. They go to great lengths, as with Baby P, to keep children with their families – and the overwhelming majority of children taken into care are fostered.

However, the Commons children, schools and families select committee was shocked by evidence of the damage inflicted on many young people in care, which is 90 per cent reliant on fostering. MPs were impressed by the hugely positive outcomes using residential homes on the continent.

‘The potential of the residential sector to offer high quality, stable placements for a minority of young people is too often dismissed,’ the MPs said. ‘With higher standards, greater investment in skills, and a reconsideration of the theoretical basis for residential care, we believe that it could make a significant contribution to good quality placement choice for young people.’

The report came as a huge relief. In 2000-01, I sat on a Cabinet Social Exclusion Unit committee on children in care and argued that the failure to halt the rundown of long-term residential care would result in the system continuing to fail tens of thousands of children. I was told the Treasury would oppose the change – and only approve of recommendations that could show a financial return within five years.

Two years ago, I presented a Channel 4 programme Bring Back the Orphanages. In it I outlined the situation facing children in care and the horrendous outcomes including homelessness, mental health problems and imprisonment. England is 16,000 short of the foster placements it needs to offer stability to all the children in care. No amount of advertising and bribes has reduced the shortage, so the care system will continue to inflict damage on young people.

I called for the recreation of large group family residential homes and pointed to the huge success of the German system, where most care placements are residential.

Cost of failure

I pointed out that one third of all UK prisoners are care experienced. A young person, failed by the care system, who goes on to spend a lifetime in the criminal justice system will cost the taxpayer £1 million in accommodation costs alone.

The costs of today’s care failures and cost cutting are passed on to future taxpayers by a grotesque slight of hand. Nowhere has this been more spectacularly the case than in the wholesale selling off of large properties such as David and Victoria’s ‘Beckingham Palace’ in Hertfordshire that once served as a children’s home.

During the 1980s and 1990s, using the bogus argument that large children’s homes created abuse, hundreds of local authorities responded to Conservative government cuts in council spending by closing down and selling off their residential homes. Property worth billions of pounds – the family silver – was sold off.

Media coverage of the select committee’s report highlighted visits to the Continent where MPs saw at first hand the success of large residential care homes in providing stability and good outcomes for children.

The report called for an end to the use of residential homes as a place of last resort and emphasised that residential care was a placement of choice for many young people in the care system.

After visiting Denmark, the committee declared: ‘Confidence in residential care in Denmark appears well-founded. Residents are considerably less likely to be out of education or employment, and are at less risk of teenage pregnancy or engagement in criminal activity than their counterparts in England. There is also a marked difference in the reported quality of life of children in institutions in Denmark.’

The committee also highlighted the investment in training care staff: ‘Almost all residential care staff in Denmark —the majority of staff who work directly with children are qualified through a three-and-a-half year degree-level course.’

Kinderhaus in East Berlin also demonstrates how existing properties can be used without huge expense to create children’s homes in which children can thrive. Set in a working class district of the city, the core of Kinderhaus is a large apartment block similar to ones on British council estates. Its façade is painted with huge chrysanthemums.

Kinderhaus has 240 children, though half live in satellite buildings on nearby sites. Its flats have been restructured to create warm and friendly ‘family’ units for eight to 10 children.

Family ties

It is inspiring to see sibling groups enjoying ‘their’ home, playing games or studying in the computer room, eating in the large kitchen/diner. They are unlikely to be separated – in contrast to the 75 per cent of siblings that are separated in our system.

The size of Kinderhaus offers huge benefits of scale. Its magnitude means that it can accommodate most of the children taken into care from the surrounding district.
As Kinderhaus board member Professor Reinhart Wolff explained to me: ‘It’s important that you do not sever children’s links to their local environment. More than 80 per cent living here come from the area. And they still keep their links to their schools or their friends.’

Young people going into care in Germany do not have to suffer changes in schools, loss of education and contact with their siblings and parents. As one teenage girl said: ‘When I got here my marks weren’t good. Now I’m doing much better. That’s something I’m proud of, because only two years ago it seemed impossible.’

Of those entering Kinderhaus, 40 per cent arrive designated as ‘delinquents’ and 35 per cent come with severe learning disabilities. However, with stability and the actions of trained carers, 75 per cent of its adolescents secure the General Certificate of Education, which compares favourably with the German working class average and much better than the 11 per cent of England’s looked after children who manage to get our equivalent five A to C GCSEs.

The select committee’s report came too late to influence the 2018 Children & Young Persons’ Bill. This raises major questions regarding the government’s agenda for looked after children.

Social Exclusion Minister, Hilary Armstrong, and officials from the Department for Education and Skills had visited Kinderhaus just prior to the publication of the Green Paper and ignored the fact that this was a large residential home offering stability and positive outcomes. Instead the ministerial team concentrated on the success of ‘social pedagogy’ (occupational therapy for young people). However, effective social pedagogy is inoperable in the conditions of chronic instability that pervades our care system.

Think big

Government priorities are centred on short-term budgeting and short-term costs – the long-term benefits of the North European approach to care far outweigh the costs, but these benefits have been ignored.

To create larger children’s homes, council blocks could be used and refurbished in Kinderhaus fashion as part of an area’s rejuvenation.

Recently I visited a newly built care home in Worcester. Beautifully designed and tailored to care needs it was a place that I would have marvelled at when I was in care. But it is very much the exception. It cost £3 million and it accommodates eight children.

The young people are not expected to stay for more than 18 months by which time a suitable ‘more permanent’ placement must be found.

Economies of scale would suggest that the £375,000 spent to accommodate one young person could have been hugely reduced by doubling the size of the home.
Placements that last for the duration of a young person’s time in care are remote and the disruption is huge and damaging because each child is continually forced to deal with loss. Such entry to exit placements once existed in Britain.

The public outrage over Baby P is an indication that the people do care about children and, if the options and a vision are boldly spelt out then they will welcome the investments that central government must undertake.