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Sun, 14 April 2024

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Children in care are not a priority for this government

(Alamy)

3 min read

As someone committed to the protection and care of children, I am sickened and devastated to learn of the abuse that occurred within residential services provided by Hesley Group. It has been decades since we last confronted such heinous abuse.

The Department for Education’s response has been simply to increase regulations, when children’s social care is arguably the most regulated sector in existence.  Ofsted already has adequate regulation to inspect against and enforce. The abuse at Hesley Group was not due to insufficient regulation, more that the information Ofsted and local authorities had in their possession, was overlooked. I personally believe these failings were a result of insufficient resource.

The panel report following the investigation of the abuse identified clear failings by local authorities and the regulator, but also highlighted significant workforce challenges in residential settings. Government and Members of the House must recognise that achieving exemplary childcare across the sector requires sufficient professionals. But as in many other public services, residential childcare is experiencing a workforce crisis. 

Discussions are not about if there will be another serious incident, but when and where

Record numbers of children are in care. As history demonstrates, increased deprivation in society directly increases demands on the care system. Following years of austerity, local authorities are in a position where all resources are spent on “firefighting”, with nothing left for “fire prevention”. So it is inevitable that the number of children coming into care will continue to increase.

With such financial pressures, it is also inevitable that things will go wrong. I am extremely concerned that local authorities and the regulator are continuously expected to undertake inadequately funded, additional statutory duties. Whilst today we are focusing on the events at Hesley Group, acute risks of serious incidents permeate the entirety of children’s social care.  In the professional community, discussions are not about if there will be another serious incident, but when and where. 

For the past year, my colleagues and I have been working on short- and long-term solutions to address the workforce crisis. It must be noted that adult social care has received over £1bn to address workforce issues, while children’s residential care - to date - has received no direct support. Requests to government have been made for solutions such as visas for international staff and for financial support for a sector-led national recruitment campaign and training programmes. Whilst current discussions with government are constructive, they must urgently deliver tangible support for the sector.

Whilst financial support is important, other significant issues must be addressed.  As a portfolio, children in care have repeatedly been passed between government departments including the Home Office, Department of Health, Department for Children’s Schools and Families and finally the Department for Education. This reflects that as a population they are classified a “wicked problem” due to the inherent complexity of meeting their needs and managing their risk. Further, as a population of approximately 80,000, children in care are not a priority for government or Members of the House. But they should be. Children in care cost local authorities approximately £7bn a year, leading to reductions in other budgets in constituencies.  Further, current system failures are cost-shunting a multi-billion-pound problem into society every year.  

We welcome the government’s announcement to improving safeguarding of children and young people. I along with colleagues are working with the Department for Education to review care standards and improve them where necessary.  However, I have grave concerns that the direction of policy and the recent Independent Review of Children’s Social Care will not reduce the risk to our most vulnerable children, but tragically, increase it. 

 

Mark Kerr, deputy CEO at The Children's Homes Association.

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