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Tuesday, 15 February, 2000, 01:55 GMT
Children in care: Now and then

Experts say there is now a culture of listening
By BBC News Online's Jenny Matthews

The situation for children looked after by local authorities has changed significantly in the last three decades.

The biggest shift has been away form institutionalised, residential care towards foster care - and efforts to keep families together in the first place.

Now, at least two-thirds of children being looked after by local authorities are in foster families rather than residential homes, and the trend away from institutions is continuing.
Children in care in England and Wales
Foster placements 37,340
Community homes 5,100
Others inc voluntary children's homes 13,960
source: DoH 31 March 1998
The few thousand who remain in homes now typically share with four or five children, as opposed to the dozens of the large institutions of the past.

Their care has become more "holistic", with efforts to ensure they gain academic qualifications, life skills such as looking after their own health, and the confidence to discuss problems with those in authority.

England and Wales are now half-way through a one-month, 375m government package - called Quality Protects in England and Children First in Wales - of practical improvements.

And a Care Standards Bill aimed at boosting the legal rights of looked-after children is currently on its journey through Parliament.

But the problems are by no means over. Only three years ago, then health secretary Frank Dobson said the story of care for children in the UK was a "woeful tale of failures".

And the Waterhouse inquiry prompted serious questions from charities about ongoing standards of care in North Wales and across the UK.

Scandals led to change

The cultural changes have been enshrined in law, with the biggest watersheds being the Children Act of 1989 and the Utting Report of 1997.

These in turn followed a series of child abuse scandals, such as the Pin Down Inquiry in Staffordshire, the Frank Beck case in Leicestershire and the recent Waterhouse inquiry in North Wales.

Children's Society spokesman Tim Linehan said the scandals made people realise that the area of residential care had been "completely neglected" - making it fertile ground for predatory paedophiles.

Residential homes, like the notorious Bryn Estyn, are now fewer, and smaller
He said the most important change had been to open up the management of care homes and make them more transparent.

"In the 1970s and 80s residential homes, although not independent, were run like closed institutions," he said. "You didn't have the flow of people coming and going that you have today.

"You did have inspections, but if a charismatic, controlling individual was running the home he could get round inspectors."

The second important realisation, he said, was that the looked-after child must be listened to - on issues ranging from not liking the food, through bullying, to serious abuse allegations.

"Children's views must be heard," Mr Linehan said. "If you don't do that you start undervaluing them. If you do that they'll start to undervalue themselves."

And that lack of confidence again leads to vulnerability that draws predators, he said.

Charities such as the NSPCC are now calling for this culture of listening to be taken to governmental level, with a national Children's Commissioner.

'Age of innocence'

The Association of Directors of Social Services (ADSS) says that one of the reasons child abuse has been so rife in the past was a lack of public awareness of paedophilia.
Main Care Standards Bill aims
Improve social worker training
Increase support for care leavers
Monitor social services performance
Set up independent inspection body
This "age of innocence" is past, said director Jo Williams.

That means children are more likely to be believed when they complain - and has also led to more rigorous vetting procedures for staff.

Local authorities now have stringent recruitment guidelines including approaching present employers; demanding written references covering several years; and carrying out police checks.

The ADSS says such vetting means organised abuse on a scale like that in North Wales is now "extremely unlikely".

The Sex Offender's Register also makes it easier to monitor anyone with a conviction for a sexual offence.

However, the ADSS and several other leading charities warned this must not lead to complacence, as paedophiles are devious and cunning, and spend time and energy reaching their target.

Recruitment crisis

In the past, many workers in residential homes were completely unqualified. This is said to have exacerbated abuse - they were less likely to notice tell-tale signs, or tackle it.

The government has since brought in guidelines that all home managers should have a diploma, and all support staff at least a grade 3 NVQ.

Latest figures from the Improvement and Development Agency (Idea) suggest there is still some way to go, however - of the 10,603 workers in local authority homes in England, more than 5,505 were unqualified.

Worse, media reports of bad practice and abuse continue to deter people from entering the profession. Across the board, social work applications have dropped 50% in three years.

Drew Clode of the ADSS said the government could tackle the crisis by tackling the "chronic underpayment" of residential staff.

'A lot of learning to do'

The fact that so many children are in foster care brings potential difficulties of its own, despite the stringent checks on carers.

The NSPCC says that although is it "generally an improvement", the children are "more isolated".

Families are notoriously difficult to inspect, and children in small foster families are less likely to complain than they are in homes. It is also harder to ensure that their voices are being heard.

Jane Stacey, director of children's services for Barnardo's Cymru, said we "cannot be complacent".

"There is still a lot of learning to do," she said. "We must recognise that children in foster care are potentially very vulnerable".

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