In my many years of working with vulnerable young people, one thing which never fails to shock me is the negative attitudes targeted towards children in care. The archaic view of looked after children as “little thugs”, responsible for their problems, is more widespread than we might like to admit.
The reality couldn’t be more different. Young people in or on the edge of the care system have often faced multiple disadvantages and trauma which most of us could never imagine. In addition, they often do not have the security of a family support network in the same way as other children.
But, however untrue they might be, negative attitudes such as these seep through into how the care system operates. We can see it in issues like teenagers being moved to semi-independent accommodation like hostels, often alone and sharing the premises with grown adults; or the way some of those who work with vulnerable children, like certain private transport providers, still rely on physical restraint and handcuffs to force compliance instead of using supportive de-escalation techniques.
We know from the data how damaging these early experiences can be on a child’s future, and that care leavers face greater risk of poor life outcomes when compared to their peers. For example, as a recent report undertaken by the Hope instead of Handcuffs campaign showed, care leavers make up 25% of the homeless and 24% of the prison population. They are also more likely to suffer with poor mental health and more likely to be classified as Not in Education Employment or Training (NEET), in the years after they leave school.
These statistics demonstrate exactly how looked after children are slipping through the cracks in the system. There is a clear disparity between how the general public view, and therefore treat, children within the care system compared to those outside it. Looked after children are considered to be more responsible for their behaviour and actions than their peers. This leads to many people considering these young people as being ‘deserving’ of poor treatment or written off as lost causes. These negative views are engrained in the public consciousness, and undoubtedly contribute to a society where, for many years now, the care system is not afforded the money or resources it so desperately needs.
It is because these sentiments have been allowed to grow and fester by complacent government attitudes, that the change must come from the top down. Moving forward, children’s social care needs to take a holistic approach, centered on compassion and dignity. Looked after children need better access to tailored mental health services, mentoring schemes and support to transition from care to independent adult life.
But underlying all of this, the government must put the effort into radically overhauling current perspectives. No child is responsible for finding themselves in the care system. We must change the minds of those who think this and make them realise that every child in the care system is just as deserving of empathy and kindness as their own. Until we do, we are failing some of our society’s most vulnerable.