Should we protect vulnerable children in care? This, essentially, was the question being posed by Michael Gove on Friday 13th September 2013,
‘To intervene or not to intervene? That is the question..When children are suffering, we need to act..there is a direct responsibility to protect vulnerable children.’
For reasons I’ll probably never understand, It took a lot longer than you may expect to reach that conclusion.
Fourteen years ago, in the year 2000 I started a teaching job working in one of the most difficult areas of Birmingham, teaching some of the city’s most challenging young people, many of whom were to be children in local authority care. These children were no longer resident with their families for a variety of reasons – although abuse and neglect were often the root cause. They had been removed from their home environment for their own protection, because it had been deemed unsafe. Therefore, you would hope, they were now in a safer place.
However, as was noted by Mr Gove in September, the reality for many was (and is) somewhat different,
‘Those rescued from neglectful homes, and who have not found stable, loving families to care for them, should find security and support in children’s homes where they can enjoy a fresh start. But not all do. As we have been learning, through a series of horrific court cases, there are young people who were promised security in care who have been terribly exploited.’
Birmingham is the largest authority in the country. Huge and unwieldy, its Social Services department often struggles to cope. Indeed, it has been found wanting on several occasions. It also had – and still has – a huge population of children in care. More often than not, these are a desperate, disparate, displaced population of sad and damaged children. For some, teachers and other education staff are the only consistent figures in their lives. A couple of weeks into starting my new job I was sent less than a mile up the road to a children’s home to teach some children who were new to the area, and had no school place.
The children’s home in question was a Victorian, red-brick, Dickensian throwback of a building, precariously clinging to the edge of the busy ring road. I had no idea what to expect as I drove through the gateway to the car park. But that was the day I learned that the system was wrong. That day I learned that our ‘care system’ was anything but. That was the day that I first learned that children were being exploited under the very noses of authority and the authorities couldn’t – or didn’t – do anything about it.
I was ushered into the ‘Education Room’ of the children’s home. A miserable, cold, octagonal-shaped room with peeling paint and no books. My purpose, ostensibly, was to get some baseline numeracy and literacy assessments on two girls, aged fourteen and fifteen years, respectively. Two girls, who, like many teenagers, wore a look that suggested they were trying to appear older than they were. Made-up, overdressed, perfumed, hair carefully sculpted. They weren’t remotely interested in my carefully photocopied selection of assessment tests.
The girls wanted to distract me and chat. They wanted to tell me about their boyfriends, and how generous they were. They wanted to impress me with stories of how these ‘boyfriends’ had provided them with mobile phones, jewellery, condoms and make-up, how caring they were, how many gifts they showered upon them. Soon my naivety was dispelled, my smile became a bit too fixed. Inside, my blood ran cold. Something wasn’t right. I was right. Upon returning to my place of work, my (then) boss confirmed that both girls were suspected of having participated in pornographic films. The youngest ‘boyfriend’ was thought to have been in his thirties, but there were so many it was difficult to tell. Certainly, the fast-moving, secretive and identity-protecting world of kids in care made it difficult to pin anyone down, and the girls weren’t interested in naming names and pressing charges anyway.
That night I went home and cried. I remembered what being fifteen was like. I thought about how hard-done-by I felt when my Dad told me to go out and earn my pocket money, or when he took all my make-up away as punishment for some misdemeanour or another; or how upset I was when I missed the last bus home. Then I contrasted with what I’d just seen and heard. No comparison. No contest.
Over the next few years the stories just kept on coming. There was the children’s home out in the country, where the kids were meant to be kept safely away from the ‘dangers’ of the city – the place where girls were offering men oral sex for a doughnut.
Or, as Mr Gove put it in his speech,
“We shielded the children from the authorities who needed to be looking out for them. An ‘out of sight, out of mind’ culture developed.”
Other cases I recall include the little 11 year old girl who looked every inch a child, yet was lured away from the children’s home that was supposed to be protecting her to the notorious ‘Newtown’ area of the city. There, she would spend her evenings in a high-rise flat, allegedly in the company of several much older men. Her biological father would often be the one who retrieved and returned her to the care home. She struggled, academically, but would still show up to school every day. Then there was the regular talk of ‘gangs’ of chip shop owners and workers, or taxi drivers who were known to be routinely targeting these girls, although, unfortunately, nothing that I ever heard about was ever pinned on them or proven.
Memorable for me was the ‘Child Protection’ review meeting I attended, where the harried social worker didn’t even know the child’s name. The child hadn’t been attending school and knew I would report on this. She almost got me excluded from the meeting on the grounds of her human rights. An irate phone-call from my manager ensured my presence at the meeting, but I sensed that nobody really cared. I honestly felt I was the only one at that meeting who really knew that girl. A poor report on her educational progress really was the very least of her issues.
Mr Gove said that it is “indefensible that almost half of children in homes are placed outside their local authority area, and more than a third over 20 miles away.” Last year I taught a girl who will now be twelve years old. She is one of identical twins, already separated by the authorities and living apart from her sister. When I last saw her, in July 2013, I was helping her to put her school books and paintings into the back of a taxi. At that time she didn’t know if she was about to be moved to Bath or Yorkshire. All she knew was that she knew nothing at all about either of those places, and certainly knew no-one there.
Shadowy darkness and secrecy will always provide good cover for criminal acts. Let’s now shine a light into the dark corners, give those who have reason to hide, nowhere to hide. We must do far more to protect these vulnerable children, and hold to account those who choose to exploit this vulnerability. One thing is certain, children who are resident in children’s homes have no reason to be ashamed. These children are already the victims of the poor choices and behaviour of the adults in their lives. Surely It’s right to do all we can to avoid them becoming victims all over again?
*I wrote this piece in September 2013. The fact that I chose not to put it on my own blog site, and instead had it published it anonymously on another website, probably goes some way towards explaining how scandals such as those now exposed in Rotherham have been allowed to happen. There is a definite culture of fear and secrecy surrounding these sensitive matters. How long can it possibly be before a similar story emerges in Birmingham, I wonder?
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