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I grew up in care, alongside 20 other children with whom I shared foster homes and children’s homes in Manchester. In May, I wrote a piece for the Guardian about the time I spent looking for those kids later in life. I only managed to find a handful, but all of those I did see again – 15 years later – had grappled with severe hardship since leaving the care system.
Although discovering this was deeply upsetting, I was not surprised. The kids I grew up with were already dealing with problems that would have broken the strongest adults. In care I witnessed them struggling with emotional and behavioural difficulties, abuse, teenage pregnancy, bereavement and addiction. Is it really a surprise that some of them continued to face problems as adults?
Child social care in Greater Manchester was stretched and underfunded when I was in the system; today it is almost broken. An investigation into social care by the Manchester Evening News revealed that councils are struggling to cope with the rising number of children referred into the system, while the cost of accommodating them soars. The MEN report found that 2,500 children are in the system in Manchester, Tameside and Oldham alone. In my home town of Oldham, where I spent most of my time in care, the number of children recognised as “at risk” has doubled over the past year. Such news rarely makes national headlines but, while attention is turned elsewhere, Tory austerity continues to wreak havoc on local communities.
The government hoped the private sector would compensate for cuts to local services, but unprecedented levels of homelessness, rising violent crime and the growing social care crisis have proved those hopes to be fantasy. A key problem is that the Tories seem capable of seeing only a couple of steps ahead. It was short-term thinking that caused the current housing crisis. Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme seemed wonderful for a generation of council tenants who became homeowners – and for Tories who enjoyed electoral success in the aftermath. But with more than a million families languishing on social housing waiting lists, it has been an unmitigated disaster for the children and grandchildren of those homeowners.
Such short-termism also accounts for the crisis in child social care. Slashing services was great news for private care providers, which were able to pull in enormous profits. But it has been a disaster for children, with the market unable to cope with rising demand and Ofsted frequently finding privately run children’s homes to be below acceptable standards. The Tories don’t see the need to spend money on vulnerable children; there’s no quick cash to be made, but the long-term benefits to the taxpayer are enormous. An estimated 11% of homeless young people are care leavers, while young people who have been in care are six times more likely to enter the criminal justice system than those who have not. More than one in three “looked-after” children are not in education, employment or training after leaving care – and only 6% go on to university.
Improving these shameful social outcomes will save the country billions, but it demands serious long-term investment in local services.
There are many brilliant care workers in Greater Manchester and across the UK who have dedicated their lives to looking after society’s most vulnerable children, and yet the government does not value them. Social workers are burdened with unmanageable caseloads that are growing ever larger. With no sign of help on the horizon, more and more children in care will suffer as a result.
I’ve lost touch with almost all the kids I was in care with: some of them are gone for ever, others are in prison and more have completely dropped off the map. With the situation for children in care getting worse, such outcomes are likely to be exacerbated for future generations of vulnerable kids, unless we get on top of this problem. But with a government and the media preoccupied with Brexit, I fear this issue will not have the spotlight it deserves for some time to come.
By Daniel Lavelle
4 September 2018