‘Turning parents into lost causes is one of the oldest and most damaging ideas in public child care policies…’
The Independent Care Review in Scotland was set up with the aim of transforming the wellbeing of infants, children and young people in the public child care system. The final report signals a new approach in the public care of children.
It sets an impressive ambition, expressed in the form of a promise: Scotland will ‘love its most vulnerable children to give them the childhood they deserve’. This new approach proposes a shift in Scotland’s child care system ‘from protecting against harm to protecting all safe, loving respectful relationships’. This is summed up in the Promise, the principal publication of the Review’s conclusions. The Promise addresses itself to Scotland – #KeepThePromise. Scotland is to learn, to listen, and to act.
Impressive language. However, the Promise skates around three critical issues:
First – when choosing not to consider the historical abuse and exploitation of children in Scottish public care.
Second – when cutting short consideration of the association between social and economic inequalities and childhood admissions to public care.
Third – as the Promise progresses – when writing out the place of parents in the lives of their children in public care.
All three work together creating an aesthetic of disappearance that clears the way for the leitmotif that dominates the Promise: the creation of the unloved child as a recipient of state care.
Guardian angels – or wolves in sheep’s clothing?
The Promise is curated to take the reader down this specific path. It seeds the idea of the main problem – the primary loss, the chief harm confronting children in care is a childhood sparse in love. The chief solution to make up for this loss is a love to be made available in and by the public care system.
‘Supporting a capacity to love’ in the workforce is the kernel of the Promise. This workforce is re-imagined to include the paid and unpaid and everyone who spends time with care care-experienced children. In a series of composite stories (fictional in themselves ,written to reflect experiences the Care Review heard) a ministry of guardian angels appear – dinner ladies, guidance teachers, college lecturers, a friend’s dad, sometimes previous foster carers – to watch over the children.
The Promise is enthusiastic in its support for children in public care ‘to develop relationships with people in the workforce and wider community’. Blurring professional boundaries exposes already vulnerable children to the risk of real harms, present and future, within and without the care system. It’s not a secret that predatory tactics frequently make use of claims ‘to love’. Without explicit recognition of the need for a mechanism to identify a wolf in sheep’s clothing this enthusiasm ups the risk quotient for the children. It is not as if the risk of abuse, and sexual and criminal exploitation have gone away. They remain serious threats to children in public care – county lines but one recent example.
The Promise goes on to argue ‘there must be increased trust in the workforce to make meaningful connections based on instinct and judgement…’‘ The focus of staff recruitment is to select those with the ‘right ethos’ and ‘qualities’ (undefined) rather than education and training. In effect expertise is set aside in the re-imagined workforce.
Put bluntly, in a sector where low pay, poor working conditions and limited training have been ever present, we suggest these sentiments pave the way for their continuation.
Children of the (disappearing) poor
Turning to questions of social and economic inequality and the place of parents in the lives of children in public care: The Promise pays insufficient attention to the fact that the children of the poor have always been the majority of children in public care. This is amply demonstrated in child care research where the association between backgrounds of poverty and care admissions is well established. Despite a brief acknowledgement at the outset of the Promise this verity rarely garners further attention.
But just as troubling is the fact that parents themselves fade into the shadows as the Promise progresses. The Promise sidesteps a substantive body of knowledge on the effects of childhood separation from parents. Missing is the profound anxiety for children associated with removal from a parent’s care, so too, the strain of living with other children’s families or a changing staff and resident group.
In the various composite stories multiple moves are catalogued whilst their magnitude for the child is overlooked. All of this serves to diminish the importance of the parent-child bond, even when there are difficulties, leading to a failure in the Promise to address rehabilitation and getting children back home wherever possible.
Turning parents into lost causes
Take the fictional story of Lauren, 27 years old. Lauren is said to have grown up in care and is now profoundly isolated living alone. We are told an ‘occasional cuppa’ with a former college lecturer makes her feel better. Such individuals may be kind-hearted people (or not) but they can never be the mainstay for a child in care or indeed for those like Lauren who spend their childhood in public care. Family bonds of duty and care cannot easily be replaced by ersatz ‘grandads’ or ‘aunties’ or by a host of other tangential people. The importance of rebuilding family relations is rarely considered in the Promise, yet child care research consistently demonstrates children do return home to the care of their parents and families.
Instead the Promise’s refrain of childhoods sparse in love carries an implicit message that parents are wanting, parents are failing, parents are a liability for their children. Turning parents into lost causes is one of the oldest and most damaging ideas in public child care policies where children can be saved, unlike their parents. It speaks to historical prejudices against the socially and economically marginalised.
Saving children from ‘bad environments and bad parents’ has been around since the poor law. It is what allowed past practices of sending children overseas to ‘better lives’. So far, on the evidence the promised ‘new’ approach returns to this long standing refrain in child care policy – rescuing children from their parents for so-called better futures. It is true there is a new offer in the Promise, that is, the promise of love by the public realm. A note of caution. Too often love is invoked when individuals, institutions and governments seek to disguise transactions involving power, in this case children in public care.
The rhetoric of love is not a solution
Fiona Duncan, who chaired the Independent Care Review, also chairs the Promise Oversight Board intended to deliver on the Promise. The big sell in the Promise is that the Care Review listened to care experienced children and adults, families and the paid and unpaid workforce, although these voices are seldom quoted directly in the Promise.
A puzzling consensus is presented absent of any disagreements or conflicts of interest. No doubt these will emerge as work progresses on the Promise. In July 2020 John Swinney updated the Scottish Parliament on progress with next steps, including an initial investment of £4 million to the Promise Fund. August saw a series of short-term posts advertised to begin working on the Promise. October found a series of webinars offered to various organisations. There will have to be specifics of what is to be done, to ensure the Scottish Government and the Oversight Board can be held to account. The Promise’s rhetorical device of calling upon Scotland muddies the waters on exactly where accountability rests and who is to do what.
The Promise and supporting documents do not provide a road map for action. First and foremost, safe passage in the caring of other people’s children must be addressed, both for the sake of the children and their parents. The link between social and economic inequalities and admission to public care means the Scottish Government has to change the circumstances in which parents are raising their children. This is no side issue.
Parents and extended family have a continuing and crucial role in the lives of their children in all but a minority of cases. As history demonstrates for the majority of children in public care marginalising parents is not in their interests. The logic is to focus on rehabilitation and services for children and their families and to abandon the rhetoric of love as the solution, a rhetoric that too often camouflages and smooths out the rough edges of documented harms to children’s development in public care. Otherwise Scotland’s children may yet bear the cost of another wrong turning in state care.