The state of parenting

The recent publication of the Care Matters Green Paper has drawn attention to the state’s poor record with regards children in the care system. For all its denunciations of problem parents and anti-social families, say critics, this government like those before it has evidently failed to look after the children for which it has parental responsibility. The Paper has also brought renewed emphasis to its ‘corporate parenting’ role. But, contrary to popular opinion, this is about much more than just working with families where children are ‘on the edge of care’. In 1998 for instance, the Secretary of State for Health wrote to local councillors reminding them that as corporate parents, “you took on important responsibilities for the health and well-being of all children in your area”. And yet this wider definition has been largely ignored.

This extension of the reach of the state into the lives of all families is very much in keeping with the other Green Paper, Every Child Matters, published in 2003. Both are premised on the notion that children are increasingly vulnerable, and that parents are unable to play the kind of ‘safeguarding’ role that the government expects of them in their children’s lives. More than this, by failing their children parents also risk failing in their responsibilities to society as a whole. The state must step in more often, or so goes the argument, to protect society from badly reared children.

The significance of parenting for society aside, parents themselves are typically described in passive or instrumental terms. They only feature in as far as they are a potential threat to their children’s well-being, or as passive recipients of ‘support’. At best they are just another ‘partner’ alongside all the other agencies involved in the business of rearing their children. The implication is that parenting is too important, and too difficult, a job to be left to parents alone. It is for this reason that the rise of the corporate parent threatens to undermine the confidence, authority and autonomy of all parents to bring up their own children.

Response to Care Matters: Transforming the Lives of Children and Young People in Care

Position Paper, Future Cities Project

We are confident that the proposals set out in this Green Paper will deliver a step change in the outcomes of children in care.

For all the grandiose rhetoric the proposals are in fact rather modest. The Green Paper follows on from the Quality Protects initiative in 1998 – the government’s first attempt to ‘transform’ children’s social care; the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000 which extended the support given to young people leaving care; and finally, the duty in the Children Act 2004 requiring local authorities to promote their education. It is, to be blunt, more of the same. This is not to suggest that it contains proposals without merit but neither is it the ‘radical package’ claimed by the authors.

Any attempt to resettle children with their families where appropriate, particularly short-term stayers or those who are in and out of the care system, is clearly a good thing. And the ‘lack of a consistent adult’ in these children’s lives as they typically work their way through numerous social workers and placements, of variable quality, during their time in care is as longstanding as it is outrageous. Solving these two problems, and improving the quality and standards of care, would massively improve the lives of children in the care system. But these things are widely understood within the social care sector and proposals to improve things, however vague, are unlikely to court much controversy.

Some proposals however commonsense contradict wider government policy. The notion that services for children and adults respectively, and the professionals within them, must work together is at once obvious and brimming with hypocrisy. It was this government’s Children Act 2004 that separated children’s and adult’s social services in an effort to draw together all children’s services under a single roof and thus blur any distinction between services for the tiny proportion of children ‘in need’ and the rest of the 11 million. Whereas other proposals such as independent social care practices and making Independent Reviewing Officers even more independent, and revised commissioning arrangements and child-centred budgets, are as likely to exacerbate this fragmentation of social care planning and the care experience.

We are told that the ‘outcomes’ for children in care must improve and that “the State cannot and must not accept any less for them than we would for our own children”. A worthy statement but it inevitably draws attention to its own very poor record. Many of the nation’s homeless – and reportedly 4 in 5 Big Issue sellers – were once in care, as were a quarter of the adult prison population. Only 1 in 10 of children ‘looked after’ (to use the official terminology) get 5 good GCSEs, compared with more than half of all children. So why is it “the school environment and the way in which teachers and other school staff work with them”, rather than the content of the education children in the care system receive, that is deemed “vital to their chances of success”. Education is not about therapeutic classrooms and teaching is not about ‘best practice’. It is about challenging young people and giving them something to aim for. In our view, this reflects the abandonment rather than the defence of a “first class education” based on the promotion of learning and the transfer of knowledge for its own sake. That they find themselves in poorly performing schools is an argument for better schools not just sympathetic admissions policies or the appointment of ‘virtual headteachers’ to fight their corner. Similarly while free transport will help in the short term to traverse the distance between placement and school, it is the high mobility between placements themselves that is causing this problem.

Just 1 in 100 will go on to university. But in the absence of such a commitment, bursaries for higher education may improve access, but to an increasingly inferior education as evidenced in the trajectory over the past decade or so. It is not despite but because of their difficult circumstances that children in the care system need a good education all the more. As a society we suffer from a culture of low expectations but never more than on behalf of these children. And yet for those leaving the care system, though the trajectory of compounded disadvantage needs to be addressed, there are wider trends that must also be considered. It is clearly the case that local authorities have traditionally been keen to offload their young people as soon as possible, and as a consequence only make them more likely to encounter problems with housing, offending etc. Not least, it might be added, because of the paucity of funds available to them to do otherwise. But as with the requirements in the Children (Leaving Care) Act 2000, the Green Paper not only reflects a recognition of the need to treat these young people better and support them as any parent would beyond the age of 16 “as long as they need it”, but it also reflects wider trends in our stay-at-home society. While imposing a duty on local authorities to support young people in their foster placements until the age of 21 (and beyond where they continue in their education) may seem at first sight commendable, it is also cause for concern in as far as it postpones and discourages the transition of care-leavers into adulthood. Similarly while more (and better) supported accommodation would no doubt be welcome, this doesn’t solve the wider problem of young people, particularly those leaving the care system, finding somewhere decent to live independently. After all, the housing shortage and the failure of the government to address it is only felt more acutely by this group of young people.

To conclude, radical change is needed but Care Matters is not it. No amount of auditing, inspecting, ministerial ‘stock-taking’ or political prioritising will solve this problem. An obsession with checks and balances and market mechanisms, and a refusal to commit resources and free up professionals and local administrators to do their jobs, only further distances those charged with children’s social care from the business of really looking after them. It only burdens them with pointless paper trails that further bureaucratise an already targets lead and managerial social care system. The creation of children in care councils, like youth parliaments before them, will only succeed in patronising young people by providing toothless forums for them to air their discontent about the inadequacy of their care – a problem incidentally which you might expect a ‘radical package’ such as this to address head-on rather than consulting upon ad infinitum.

One proposal we wholeheartedly agree with at the Future Cities Project is that we need a national debate on ‘who care is for’? The government, keen to extend notions of statutory safeguarding and corporate parenting, and a children’s social care sector keen to shake off its ‘Cinderella service’ image and renew its battered reputation following the Laming Inquiry, both seem intent on extending their reach into families lives and assuming responsibility for the well-being of all children – a curious ambition for an apparently cash-strapped and crisis-ridden sector, and a government all too conscious of the impending Comprehensive Spending Review. But given the abysmal record of the State in ‘looking after’ the small minority of children in its ‘care’, this consultation should rather be seen as an opportunity to reflect on the consequences of it assuming such a role.

Does Every Child really Matter?

29 October, 2006, Battle of Ideas, Royal College of Art, London

At his trial, Manning said that Kouao [his partner, the girl’s great aunt] would strike Victoria on a daily basis with a shoe, a coat hanger and a wooden cooking spoon and would strike her on her toes with a hammer. Victoria’s blood was found on Manning’s football boots. Manning admitted that at times he would hit Victoria with a bicycle chain. Chillingly, he said, ‘You could beat her and she wouldn’t cry … she could take the beatings and the pain like anything’…Victoria spent much of her last days, in the winter of 1999-2000, living and sleeping in a bath in an unheated bathroom, bound hand and foot inside a bin bag, lying in her own urine and faeces. It is not surprising then that towards the end of her short life, Victoria was stooped like an old lady and could walk only with great difficulty.

This is an extract from the Laming Inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, to which Every Child Matters, the governments reforms of children’s services, we were told was a response. It was followed, not long after, by the similarly high profile Bichard Inquiry, into the tragic deaths of the Soham girls at the hands of Ian Huntley.They differed in as far as Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells were murdered by a stranger, whereas Victoria was murdered by those charged with her care. The government’s response to both inquiries had an impact and developed a remit that went far beyond the particulars of the matters with which they were supposedly concerned. Consequently one investigation came to frame the campaign for vetting people who work with children and the subsequent Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill currently going through parliament. The other became a vehicle for the project of‘mainstreaming’ child protection and questioning the capacities of parents and carers to look after even their own children.

But how did we get here? How was an investigation into a child’s murder by her carers turned into a catalyst for the wholesale transformation of children’s services in this country? A glance through the Every Child Matters Green Paper raises more questions that it answers. There is little mention of child protection and even less how we might avoid other children going the way of Victoria. Beyond child murder, we are told, Every Child Matters will address youth justice, youth activities, educational failure and exclusions from school, anti-social behaviour and young people as victims of crime; homelessness, substance misuse, obesity, suicide, truancy, domestic violence; teenage parents, foster parents, poor parents, unemployed parents, low income families and family breakdown; low birth weight, post-natal depression, self-harm and eating disorders.

But what you might ask has any of this to do with Victoria laying in that bath? Is some sort of equivalence being drawn between violent or sexual abuse and a child not doing their homework? If not, why are they being talked about in the same breath, in the same document, as if they had something to do with each other? There is a constant slippage between categories, a drawing together of material disadvantage and behavioral problems with abuse and neglect. All of which begs the question, if indeed every child does ‘matter’, ‘Why does every child matter?’ and ‘How does every child matter?’ Why every child and not that particular child, Victoria Climbie, and children like her? Is Victoria representative of a wider suffering? Is that what connects her to every other child? Or do all these other children ‘matter’ in a different way? Are they on that list somewhere? Throughout there are references to children being ‘at risk’. At risk of what – abuse, murder or missing an appointment with the dentist? The sentence is never finished. The threat is never specified.

Is it about children at all? Just as the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill is also about protecting ‘vulnerable adults’, it seems that we ‘matter’ too. In Wolverhampton the Council and Primary Care Trust have jointly declared that ‘Every Adult Matters’. In Lincolnshire, I understand that ‘Every Street Matters’. For the Scottish Executive, never one to do things by halves, Every Child, Every Young Person, Every Old Person and Every Community Matters .

But I digress. How did we get from child protection, something that used to be understood as a specialist field of social work, concerned with those rare instances of severe mistreatment of children by adults, to something that has apparently broken free of its institutional moorings and become a booming industry. In which so-called ‘experts’ routinely pedal fears that are often either spuriously founded, wildly exaggerated or both. Perhaps taking their lead from the Green Paper, they conflate a shopping list of dubious dangers from unscrupulous advertisers and bullying, to mobile phones and obesity, with serious abuse and neglect. In doing so they exaggerate both the gravity and the extent to which children and young people are exposed and made vulnerable to innumerable risks. It is the fears of the most innocuous or unlikely that the ‘industry’ stokes. To the extent that we now find ourselves in a situation where children it seems are universally vulnerable to the alleged toxicity of modern life itself.

Every Child Matters endorses this notion of a wider abuse being done to children. They are, claims the prime minister, “a standing shame to us all”. It is for this reason that we are told that “child protection cannot be separated from policies to improve children’s lives as a whole” but must operate “within the framework of universal services” and “be a fundamental element across all public, private and voluntary organizations.” All of which goes way beyond the duty on local authorities to protect children from significant harm as established in the Children Act 1989. Indeed, the only likely outcome is significant harm to children, their relationships with adults, and consequently to society as a whole.

According to a recent survey conducted by the Fostering Network a third of foster carers have been wrongly accused of abusing or harming the children they look after. The children are removed, causing all sorts of upset and instability while the claims are investigated. This is at a time when there is already a massive shortfall of carers with local authorities forced to run high profile recruitment campaigns. In the other Green Paper, Care Matters, recently published by the DfES, and aimed at transforming the lives of children in the care system, we are only reminded that when the state does assume responsibility for the upbringing of children already subject to disadvantages, it compounds these and fails them badly. Many leave school without any qualifications at all, find themselves living on the streets or else at her majesty’s pleasure.

Despite its own dismal record as a ‘corporate parent’, it is the state and those agencies it co-opts to its safeguarding agenda, that plays the critical role in generating and lending legitimacy to our anxieties. Almost in spite of itself, it adds fuel to the fire in an effort to engage with and recognise our fears and insecurities and ends up further reinforcing the case for more regulation, more protocols, more checks.But initiatives like the vetting of people working with children, the introduction of ‘no-touch’ protocols and the requirement in the Children Act 2004 to store and share information about the nation’s children on a database (or ‘index’ as it is now called) – amounting as they do to a new managerialism of fear – are as much an expression of this wider mood in society as they are policy solutions to specific problems. And only by understanding how they resonate with our anxious times can we see how incidents of abuse, real or imagined, are able to gain a wider significance. We need to challenge the heightening of risk-consciousness, on the one hand, and the exaggerated vulnerability of children, on the other.

What happened to Victoria and the Soham girls is thankfully very rare, and yet is often presented as emblematic of an uncaring society that is frankly too ready to believe the worst about itself. Their peculiarly horrible experiences gain a greater resonance and are credited with a wider significance than they truly deserve. As a consequence, we, both as a society and particularly those agencies and professionals involved, are less likely to learn any lessons where they are to be had. And finally and most importantly of all, both the authoritarian interventions of the state and the wider growth of the child protection industry threaten to poison the relationship that ministers and lobbyists claim to be in the business of defending – that between children, young people and the adults best able to look out for and look after them.

Every Child Matters – but so does our privacy

Under the Blair government’s Every Child Matters reforms, local authorities and other agencies working with children are required to protect children under a new duty to ‘safeguard’ them and promote their welfare, to work together more closely and share information, and by creating new high-powered posts to oversee children’s services. However, these reforms are not so much the antidote to child abuse panics, as implicated in them.

If anything, the evidence suggests that abuse is on the decline. The origins of our anxieties are cultural, rather than down to specific threats ‘out there’. In this regard, a distinction needs to be made between the targeted activities of child protection agencies and the ‘awareness’ campaigns of the child protection industry. The conspiratorial obsession on the part of civil liberties campaigners with what information is kept on our children, whilst important, tends to distract us from the bigger threat of a growing mistrust in society created by other more fundamental erosions of our privacy.

Society is not facing a major child abuse epidemic. In fact, the official figures suggest quite the opposite. In the year 2004-05, 23 children in every 10,000 were on the child protection register. This compares with 27 just five years ago, and 32 in 1995. In absolute terms, the numbers of children registered has dropped by more than a quarter in the past 10 years (1). Despite this, we do have a serious problem with anxiety.

It is all too common for the apparently informed commentator to argue that ‘stranger danger’ is exaggerated, only then to explain to the concerned parent that most children are abused by somebody known to them, as if in some perverse way suspicion of what goes on ‘behind closed doors’ is somehow preferable or reassuring. A recent UN-commissioned report claims that in the UK alone seven per cent of children are living in ‘violent homes’ – a figure apparently plucked out of the air but not regarded as any less authoritative for that (2).

While some will readily concede the damage done by relentless panics and scandals such as these, few would challenge the notion, for instance, that the vetting of people working with children is still necessary. Similarly, to declare that ‘no touch’ protocols are an example of political correctness ‘gone mad’ might meet with knowing approval, but this would not begin to challenge the underlying culture of fear that gives rise to such measures (3).

We are not over-protecting our children. We are projecting our fears onto them. By conflating the alleged dangers associated with mobile phones (4), bullying and obesity, with cases of serious abuse, we exaggerate both the gravity and the extent to which children and young people are exposed and made vulnerable to innumerable risks to their welfare. Indeed even those episodes serious enough to merit registration on the child protection register are worth a closer look. Of the children registered last year, 43 per cent were ‘at risk’ of neglect, nearly 20 per cent exposed to emotional or physical abuse, respectively, and just nine per cent to sexual abuse (5). Without seeking to minimise the seriousness of each, the undifferentiating campaigns promoted by the child protection industry give a very different impression.

Though there is very little differentiation between the presentation of one risk and another, it is notable that sexual abuse, the rarest of all the recorded categories, features particularly prominently.  For instance, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) have recently launched a high-profile campaign aimed at uncovering the sexual abuse that they claim is happening to one in six children (6), and have urged schools to teach their pupils all about it. But also evident, and arguably more worrying, is the degree to which the safeguarding agenda is internalised by even the more conservative elements in society, its inexorable logic meeting scant resistance as it moves from one institution to the next.

Earlier this year the leader of the ‘Muslim Parliament’ raised the alarm on the UK’s madrasas (Islamic schools). He urged that they institute the necessary protocols and safeguards if they are to avoid the scandals that rocked the Catholic Church in the 1990s.  As is typical of such entreaties, it was the continued use of physical discipline by minority sections of the community, and speculation that incidents of sexual abuse were being ‘swept under the carpet’ that featured most strongly. (8)

But the origins of these alleged dangers are not to be found in a propensity to abuse of particular (as yet under-surveilled) sections of society (9). They are instead a symptom of our anxious and risk-averse culture. This is not lost on a political class that is never too cynical to promote a fearful outlook (that incidentally paralyses itself most of all) as an opportunity to connect with us (10). Which is why initiatives like the vetting of people working with children and the introduction of ‘no-touch’ protocols; and the proposal in the Children Act 2004 to store and share information about the nation’s children on a database – are as much an expression of this wider mood in society as they are policy solutions to specific problems.

Eileen Munro, reader in social policy at the London School of Economics, thinks the database is further evidence of the ‘government’s belief that there is a regulatory solution to every problem’ (11). However, it is suspicion and not surveillance per se that poses the greatest threat to society. Despite important campaigns like Munro’s, including a conference she jointly organised recently (12), many of those opposed to the civil liberties implications of information sharing are remarkably quiet on more everyday incursions into our lives – especially those premised on the protection of children. This inevitably undermines their argument.

It is revealing that the libertarian tendency (to the extent it exists at all) is more likely to be found debating the finer points of the Data Protection Act or worrying over what our store cards reveal about our shopping habits. Munro, at least, is more mindful of the far-reaching implications of the reforms:

‘For most of us, families are a safe haven against the outside world, allowing us to have both a private and a public life. Historically, we have been reluctant to intrude into the family without permission except in extreme circumstances such as serious abuse. The radical reduction in privacy [implied by the proposals on information sharing] can only be justified if it will make a significant difference to the well-being of children…(13)

But she concedes too much. We must not accept the erosion of our privacy in the name of children’s ‘well-being’. While I would agree that with the children’s database ‘the government proposes extending the surveillance mechanisms to all parents because they do not trust any parent to keep track of their own child’s well-being’ (14), this applies equally to other government initiatives such as Surestart, Children’s Centres and Extended Schools. It is for these reasons that an important principle needs to be restated. In the absence of suspicion of ‘significant harm’ parents must be assumed to be competent to care for their own children (15).

Maintaining this test as to when intervention is warranted is important because while it seeks to protect children from abuse, it does not do this (in theory, at least) at the expense of unfounded allegations and state intrusions into our lives. The problem today is that contemporary notions of what constitutes harm, and its significance for the child, are increasingly broad. Consequently, it is only when we begin to challenge the heightening of risk-consciousness, on the one hand, and the exaggerated vulnerability of children, on the other, that we can question the triggering of interventions on dubious grounds, and tackle the broader cultural anxieties that inform them.

Similarly, the case against the children’s database can only be won by trusting rather than undermining those charged with attending to the welfare of our children, be they social workers, teachers, carers or coaches. Though professional competence cannot always be assumed (incidentally, this is one of the lessons we should be learning from the Climbié Inquiry (16)) unless we challenge our culture of mistrust such professionals will never be able to win our confidence, and we will all be the poorer for it. Unfortunately, as the nation’s dentists become the latest recruits (17), the undermining of the traditional roles of professionals working with children, and the introduction of new safeguarding duties, is going to make this an uphill battle. 

We need to develop a political culture that resists the replacement of relationships based on trust with relationships based on procedures. It is only by seeking solidarity as adults best able to look after our own children and look out for the welfare of each other’s, that we will be able to achieve this. Distrust of surveillance by the state must not be allowed to extend to the competency of parents or the motivations of adults who work with other people’s children.

Though the death of Victoria Climbié at the hands of her carers was the ostensible catalyst to Every Child Matters, the scope and reach of the children’s agenda makes no sense in its own terms. Only by understanding how the reforms resonate with our anxious times can we see how incidents of abuse, real or imagined, are able to gain a wider significance.

(1) Department for Education and Skills (2006) Referrals, Assessments and Children and Young People on Child Protection Registers: Year Ending 31 March 2005 accessed on 29 July 2006

(2) John Carvel, 1m children in Britain at risk in violent homes, Society Guardian, 15 August 2006

(3)  See Frank Furedi (1997) Culture of Fear, London, Cassell

(4) See online debate Mobile phones and child protection – how far should we go?

(5) Department for Education and Skills (2006) Referrals, Assessments and Children and Young People on Child Protection Registers: Year Ending 31 March 2005 accessed on 29 July 2006

(6) NSPCC launches campaign to tackle sex abuse, 0-19, 16 May 2006

(7) Schools urged to help pupils spot abusive relationships, 0-19, 6 June 2006,

(8) Muslim Parliament warns of risk of child abuse in madrasas, 0-19, 28 March 2006

(9) See Jennie Bristow, Children: over-surveilled, under-protected

(10) See Mick Hume, Sarah’s Law, Sven’s Law, lynch law … it’s the law of the desperate politician, The Times (London), 23 June 2006

(11) Eileen Munro (2004) State Regulation of Parenting, The Political Quarterly, 75, 2 [pdf format]

(12) See Jennie Bristow, Children: over-surveilled, under-protected

(13) Eileen Munro (2004) State Regulation of Parenting, The Political Quarterly, 75, 2 [pdf format]

(14) Eileen Munro (2004) State Regulation of Parenting, The Political Quarterly, 75, 2 [pdf format]

(15) See Frank Furedi (2001) Paranoid Parenting, London, Allen Lane for a discussion of contemporary attitudes to parenting capacity.

(16) Eileen Munro (2004) State Regulation of Parenting, The Political Quarterly, 75, 2 [pdf format]

(17) Asha Goveas, Child protection – Dentists sign up to children’s agenda, Children Now (online), 6 June 2006

What happens when the conversation ends?

Too often the care system fails to involve young people in decisions that affect their lives, or to engage them in any meaningful way. Where consultation or participation initiatives are pursued they are often short-lived or seen as an end in themselves. Quality Protects, the modernising fund which aimed to transform children’s social services, came to an end last month and other local consultation and participation initiatives are under threat.

The Children Act 1989 states, before making a decision, local authorities must “as far as is reasonably practicable ascertain the wishes and feelings of the child”. And citing article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England claims that the right to be involved in decision making, “is not dependent upon age or understanding”. This is typical of the increasingly uncompromising character of the children’s’ rights agenda. Indeed, consultation and participation have come to play an increasingly important role as a governing ethic in children’s policy circles.

In the green paper which preceded the much anticipated children bill, the government claimed to have the nation’s 11 million children on side. Or, some might argue, a dubiously complicit sample of them. Apparently, economic well-being, staying healthy, staying safe, “enjoying and achieving” and “making a positive contribution” were at the top of their collective wishlist. A cynic might find this all a little convenient for a government bent on promoting healthy lifestyles, risk-aversion and a newly engaged citizenry.

But is it accusations of thinly disguised ventriloquism that so discredit efforts to ascertain the views of children and young people? Or is the much cited consultation fatigue to blame? Certainly, deepening levels of mistrust seem to blight each and every policy endeavour whatever its merits. Either way, suspicion that consultation is being used as a stalling tactic, or an unconvincing distraction from policy vacuity or political indecision, is on the rise. Yet perhaps something more fundamental lies at the heart of this enthusiasm for connecting with such “hard to reach” constituents.

Does seeking legitimacy supposedly through the mouths of babes, itself, betray a shaky hold on the public confidence? Has “user centeredness” become an all-purpose and consequentially tired and ineffectual mantra? There is, I think, a danger in conflating misgivings about social work practice with the very different concerns of political or institutional legitimacy.

The social work profession is in a seemingly continual state of disarray. The relentless glare of adverse publicity in the wake of preventable tragedies, culminating in the momentous inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié, has wounded it immeasurably. Consequently, the children’s rights agenda appeals to those seeking to relegitimise the social care enterprise or find a renewed sense of mission. But is hiding behind the kids really a solution to this existential crisis?