Take more babies away from bad parents, says Barnardo’s chief
Many more children need to be taken into care at birth to stop them being damaged beyond repair by inadequate parents, the chief executive of the children’s charity Barnardo’s has told the Observer.
Martin Narey called for less effort to be directed at “fixing families that can’t be fixed” and for social workers to be braver about removing children at risk .
After revelations about the neglect and dysfunctional background of two young brothers from Doncaster who viciously attacked an 11-year-old boy and his nine-year-old nephew, social workers have once again come under fire for failing to intervene at an early stage.
The brothers, aged 11 and 10, had been known to social services and police for several years. Their mother had allegedly given them cannabis as toddlers and forced them to forage for food in bins, while their father was allegedly a violent alcoholic. Despite this, the pair had been taken into care just three weeks before the attacks. The case has led to Doncaster social services opening an inquiry, its seventh serious case review since 2004.
Calling for more children to be in care from the moment they are born, Narey, a former director general of the Prison Service and previously a permanent secretary at the Home Office, made clear he was not reacting to this case in particular, but to issues with Britain’s child protection services that needed urgent attention to avoid failing many more troubled young people.
“If you can take a baby very young and get them quickly into a permanent adoptive home, then we know that is where we have success,” he said. “That’s a view that is seen as a heresy among social services, where the thinking is that if someone, a parent, has failed, they deserve another chance. My own view is that we just need to take more children into care if we really want to put the interests of the child first.
“We can’t keep trying to fix families that are completely broken. It sounds terrible, but I think we try too hard with birth parents. I have seen children sent back to homes that I certainly wouldn’t have sent them back to. I have been extremely surprised at decisions taken. If we really cared about the interests of the child, we would take children away as babies and put them into permanent adoptive families, where we know they will have the best possible outcome.”
He said he understood his views would be seen as “illiberal heresy”: “I think if social workers were courageous and sought to intervene quickly, and were supported properly in that, we would see far fewer problems.”
While foster care was on paper a good option for older children who had to be taken into care, he said, a shortage of suitable placements meant that children were suffering from a lack of stability. “What troubles me is the number of children I meet who have had vast numbers of placements. Last week, I met a 15-year-old girl and her foster mum. It was her 46th placement. The woman said that whenever there was a row or disagreement, the girl went to pack her bags. She expected to be sent on.
“It is undoubtedly a good option when children have been taken into care to replicate the family in foster care placements, but I have spent the past four years meeting a lot of children in care and I can tell you that it is by no means anything out of the ordinary to meet a child whose foster placements run into double figures. There comes a point where we have to accept that it is not working.”
Philippa Stroud of the thinktank Centre for Social Justice reacted cautiously to Narey’s comments. “If the model is to move children very quickly to adoption, not necessarily from birth but certainly under a year, then that is something we would support,” she said. “We need far more early intervention to try to stop this disintegration of the family we are seeing, but we would like to see more working with these families. What we recommend is the model of the mother and baby going into care, filling that hole and giving the whole family a chance. “With child protection, all the legislation is actually in place: it’s the implementation that is the issue.”
The numbers of children taken into care rose slightly following the death of Baby P, the 17-month-old boy later named as Peter Connelly, who died in London in 2007 of injuries inflicted by his mother and her boyfriend, despite being seen repeatedly by doctors and social workers. But Narey says it was only a temporary increase.
“As soon as these cases recede from the memory, everyone will get reluctant to move these children all over again. Only 4% of children adopted from care in England are under the age of one and the figure is even smaller in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“Less than 5% of the children taken into care in England last year were aged under a year old. Some 3,500 children were adopted in Britain from care, at an average age of four.”