In the cases that have hit the headlines – Victoria Climbié and Ainlee Labonte, as well as Baby Peter – those children should have been removed much sooner, but these cases are the extreme rather than the norm. After the event, the warning signs for these children look blinding.
This is why this debate is so difficult. In writing this article, I made phone calls to old care friends to gain a wider viewpoint. One of them, Michelle, was in a children’s home with me and had been taken into care as a baby.
As an adult, Michelle wished better steps could have been taken to keep her with her mum, whose long-standing problem with alcohol was never identified as a big issue until she bore children. The consensus then was that her children be put on care orders. She was left with her addiction, and deteriorating mental health. This woman was a care leaver herself, just as Michelle became. She gravitated towards violent relationships, and her mental health was poor. It is an all too familiar cycle.
Michelle said that once she left care, she rebuilt the relationship with her mother as soon as she possibly could. Even a whole childhood in care doesn’t stop a child wanting their biological parents; that emotional connection is always there.
I think we need to be careful about making statements such as the one Narey made. Our care system isn’t good enough. Many children who are taken into care don’t experience the stability that a baby needs. Instead, they are moved around throughout their whole childhood, and many end up homeless, or become young, unequipped parents themselves. We have to be very wary about removing children from their parents, as it is something that affects children for the rest of their lives. We should be trying to keep families together, unless we are seeing physical and sexual abuse.
I believe that many families could be kept together if parents were supported better to handle the task – in effect, perhaps, taking certain families “into care”. These parents are the adults who spent their own childhood in the care system. They are not evil, but perhaps they need help to raise their children.
Take the example of a mother suffering from depression. She may not pay her children enough attention, but she isn’t intentionally harming them. Are we going to impose the ultimate punishment – removing a baby – when, with foresight and pioneering work, we could strengthen and repair broken families?
We have to toughen up about the sort of parents who have drug or alcohol problems, and not give them as many chances. But how can we try to break the cycle if we just remove a newborn baby from parents?
We need more centres that do the kind of work I’ve witnessed at organisations such as Kids Company. Care provision at street level means children have substitute care workers, while other workers take on the task of trying to better support the biological carer. This way, we see children returning to secure homes, with adults agreeing to contracts that change their behaviour.
I’ll just make it clear again that the Peters, Victorias and Ainlees should be removed at a much earlier stage, but they are the babies with much greater needs. There is another, whole generation of kids who have parents in need of our help. We need a child protection system that ends cases such as that of Baby Peter, but doesn’t separate unnecessarily.
• Dawn Howley, who was in care from 14-18, is involved with Kids Company and mental health organisation Stand To Reason.