Thursday, February 14, 2008

Focusing on the most vulnerable

I had been hoping to line up a star speaker for a session that I organised today on “severely disadvantaged children”, but both of the intended “stars” couldn’t make it, so I ended up putting together some material myself, and asked (at very short notice, Cllr Romayne Phoenix from Lewisham thanks!) to speak about her experiences.

This did, if I say so myself, produce some interesting discussion and debate, and bring forth from a number of Green councillors who attended some horrifying but illuminating tales of just what it is like to be trying to deal with desperate people – usually women with children – at your surgery.

I focused on three areas: children in detention, children in care (or “looked after” children in the all too ironic current parlance), and unaccompanied children asylum-seekers.
These were the short range of horrifying figures that I presented:
  • Since January 2002, six children have died in penal custody

  • Children in detention are 18 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population

  • Between 2004 and 2006 27% of boys and 19% of girls in detention had been physically restrained by staff
  • Between January 2005 and October 2006 100 boys were forcibly strip searched in five institutions

(Source, Howard League for Penal Reform)

And I pointed to just a few of the points made by Lord Carlisle in 2006 in his major report on children in detention:
• Physical force should never be used to secure compliance or as punishment
• Stripping children during searches should end

Of course some children in detention may be a danger to themselves or others and need to be restrained, but that it should even have to be said that they shouldn’t be subjected to violence as a punishment, in 2008, is horrifying.

Lord Carlisle added: “I am concerned that we did not see appropriate facilities or playing fields for outdoor exercise in any of the institutions we visited. The lack of exercise and daylight would seem to me to contribute to depression and conflict among adolescents.”

Children in care

Fewer children are entering care now than in 1994, but fewer are leaving care. A significant proportion of children entering care have serious and enduring family problems. The majority (62% of children in care) are there for abuse or neglect, a further 10% deemed to have been living in dysfunctional families – a complex interplay.

There has been a 100% increase in real terms in total expenditure of children in care from 1994-2005. Growing numbers of young people needing more expensive care support packages, higher staff ratios in specialist homes, and that might have something to do with how the money is spent...

Local authorities spent £2bn on looked after children in 2005-6, compared with £687m on family support services, a ratio of 3:1. Local authorities with generally low care populations such as Merton, Kent, Kirklees, Redbridge and Tower Hamlets, have a spending ratio nearer to 2:1, some with hig care ratios go up to 10:1. I suggested that councillors might like to ask the question of their officers – followed by why?

Quoting from a teenager quoted by the Care Population Working Group Report
“My mum waited almost two years for help with her problems so ‘I waited around in care.’ She’s better now and I am back with her but no one helped me or her much to access services that would have made my time in care shorter.”

Treatment of asylum-seekers

Until very recently they could expect to be granted discretionary leave to remain until 18, the government is now looking at stopping that and returning them to countries such as Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Vietnam, which of course can, I say with heavy irony, perfectly meet their needs and ensure their safety and security.

It would be able to do this because the UK has entered into a reservation on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, so that any element of it may not apply to non-citizen children.

Margaret Hodge, when in Department for Education and Skills said: “We had to be absolutely clear that the primacy in this issue has to be immigration control and immigration policy. ... the primacy is on maintaining a fair and just immigration system but, within that, we have always to have regard to the wellbeing and safety of children.” (Well nice to know that safety is in there somewhere.)
(Scottish legislation more closely reflects the Convention on the Rights of the Child.)

Contrary to the received wisdom, these aren’t children being sent to to the UK to benefit from higher education and employment opportunities. A very significant number are very young, on average each year more than 10% being under 14, and 30% aged 14 and 15.

Reading around the experiences of these children, it is clear that there are local council good practice that are at least ameliorating the moral vacuum at the heart of central government.
• Sheffield council has instituted a protocol to check if children in a private fostering arrangement has been trafficked into the UK.
• London Borough of Hillingdon has arranged to send two social workers to undertake the assessment of age of age-disputed child asylum-seekers – explaining the system to the child, using its own trained and independent interpreters.
• Kent has a particularly good procedure whereby up to one month is allowed to evaluate an asylum seeker where the age is disputed. They are not placed in adult accommodation or detention (in both of which a child – and sometimes children of age 14 subsequently prove that fact, when the Immigration Department has tried to deny that fact).
• West Sussex County Council provides key workers to accompany them to court and to appointment with legal representatives, their doctors or the Home Office. Under 16s are placed with with foster carers, those 16-18 in supported lodgings. (Not just dumped in B&Bs as many are in other places.)
• Some local authorities are now questioning the legality of sharing confidential information about an unaccompanied or separated child with the Immigration Service or the Immigration and Nationality Directorare when they were under a duty to act in the child’s best interest.
• In North Shields the Immigration Service does not screen a child unless a social workers is present. Other departments say they don’t have the staff.

I concluded with this quite amazing letter sent to a 14-year-old boy... a 14-year-old!!!
“The Secretary of State for the Home Department is of the view that you were aware of this plot to overthrow the legitimate and democratic government of [your] country [and should not have participated in this unlawful activity]... He is [also] of the view that you did not stop to think that as a child you should not take part in such activities and neither should you be handling a gun.”

It is really clear that – while there are instances of good practice, and an awful lot of well-intentioned and incredibly hardworking people in the system – the government just doesn’t get it on asylum-seeking children – they ARE CHILDREN. VULNERABLE. AND THEY NEED PROTECTION.

On the broader issues here, the message I took was that because of a refusal to spend money or run programmes until the situation of children and families is desperate, in the end a lot of money is forced to be spent, with often very little result in terms of healthy children ready to take a place in society, because the interventions just come too late.

(NB There was lots of great contributions from Romayne, from Elise Benjamin, and from others at the session, but since I was speaking and chairing I’m afraid I didn’t take any notes. If you’d like to share the accounts here, please see Jim Jepps.)

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