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Page last updated at 09:03 GMT, Tuesday, 5 October 2010 10:03 UK
The Big Society's big challenge: Kids in care

Conner - 14 year old boy in care
Conner has been in care since he was three

In the UK today, there are 70,000 children in care of the state. Since the tragic death of Peter Connelly - known as Baby P - the number of children taken into care has risen by 40%.

The need to protect children at risk - and the costs associated with that responsibility - comes at a time when social services are stretched and the coalition government is talking about individuals and volunteers doing their part in helping to provide for the "big society".

Film maker and criminologist Roger Graef examines the pressures facing the care system.

This is a tale of two boys - a Conner and a Conor.

They are just two of those 70,000 children removed from their families. For those children, a place in a foster home can cost £1,000 a week while a care home place can be between £2,000-5,000 a week. In Coventry, as in other cities and towns across the UK, both options are in short supply.

Behind each of those numbers is a poignant human story that is never easily told.

Each poses a unique challenge to the notion of "big society".

I can remember what it's like to be in a foster family. I can't remember what it's like to be in my own
Conner, 14

If social services are squeezed in the name of Britain's austerity measures, who will look after these children? And what of the tens of thousands more who, like Baby P at the time of his death, are already on the Child Protection Register?

Little Conor, just three-years-old, has already had two foster placements and a failed adoption.

He is now with a loving foster family now, the Wincotts. But he is so anxious he tries to stop everyone in the family from leaving the house, even to take out the rubbish. To little Conor, everyone gets called "Mum" - including teachers at his playgroup.

'Start again'

If Coventry Social Services do find a family to adopt him then Saraina Wincott, his doting foster mother whom Conor adores, will have to explain to the little boy that he was right to be anxious.

She will have to tell him that she is not his real mother, and he will have to say good-bye to his loving big foster sisters and foster father. He will have to start again.

Saraina said she worries that he will not get adopted and will end up in long term state care, risking the investment in love, time and support that she and her family have made for little Conor.

"We haven't done everything that we've done and loved him so much for him to go into long term foster placement," she said.

For our second Conner in Coventry, who is now 14, that scenario of starting again has played out 13 times.

Panorama, BBC One
Kids in Care
Tuesday, 9pm

After foster care, Conner went through four children's homes, often kicked out for bad behaviour and assaulting the staff. His fifth placement at the Grange, costs £2,500 a week.

Jackie Malet, a care worker at the Grange, said there is no way to make the care system a satisfactory substitute for a loving family.

"It can provide a roof over that youngster's head, it can give that youngster alternatives to look to. So in that sense it can do a lot. What it can never, ever do is the love you deeply feel for a child, it cannot give that to a child."

Social workers and family court judges are increasingly reluctant to risk leaving a child at risk with a dysfunctional family, often destabilised by drink, drug abuse and a history of offending.

Foyer Christmas

That is the story of big Conner's mother, Kerrie.

She was on drugs and drink and has been in prison several times, which is why her son was taken into care when he was three.

When Conner was eight, Kerrie ran away with him. Since then he is only allowed to see her six times a year under the supervision of two social workers in case they try to run away again.

At Christmas, that meant exchanging presents for an awkward 20 minutes in the foyer of social services.

"I can remember what it's like to be in a foster family. I can't remember what it's like to be in my own," said Conner of his situation.

Conor, 3, with foster family
Conor, 3, is fostered by the Wincotts who worry what will happen to him

Kerrie says she is now clean, has cleaned her house and has a new baby and she is married to her new partner.

As a result, social workers are increasing Conner's access. But he is so desperate to spend more time with his family that his anger boils over at those who prevent him from doing so. His volatility costs him the very thing he most wants - to go home, on his own.

Conner's family, including an older sister who is also in care and lives in a social services hostel, worry what will happen to the family if Kerrie and her husband cannot get by should the government reduce benefit payments.

Social worker Jackie Malet from the Grange said despite the grim circumstances for many of the children she encounters she has seen young people triumph against all odds if given the right amount of attention.

"It's going to be their choice but if we really show a youngster that we really do care, it's not just all for the job, and we don't give up, then the youngster might think, 'what am I doing?'"

That care and attention ultimately costs money. But the payback for the "big society" of investing in kids in care is not just community well being - it is also the future savings on the costs of treating addiction and mental illness along with the price of deprivation, crime and, at its worst, prison.

Kids in Care: A Panorama Special, BBC One, Tuesday, 5 October at 2100BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer.

Kids in Care - useful websites
Friday, 1 October 2010, 14:29 GMT |  Panorama
Timeline: Key events in baby case
Monday, 10 August 2009, 22:04 GMT |  London


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