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Children need love, not red tape

What are we to do with agencies employed by us to carry out a specific task yet which give every appearance of simply refusing or being incapable of carrying out that task? I have a pretty good idea what industry or commerce would do. In America they would say they’d need to kick ass. This particular task is so important that the Prime Minister himself has joined the fray.

Here I refer to those agencies responsible for getting children out of the care system and into loving and supportive homes.

Black and coloured children are often the hardest of all to place.

Last week OFSTED published some truly shocking statistics. Among the many figures which made such depressing reading was the fact that only one in eight of the people who wished to adopt were approved by social services. From a total of 20,000 adoptions in the mid 1970s, the figure has fallen to a fraction over 3,000 today.

Nobody, apart from that closed circle of social services, knows the breakdown of reasons why so many were rejected and they won’t tell us. What is known is that many of the reasons are varied and extraordinary. So much concerning children these days is conveniently hidden behind a veil of secrecy. That veil permits intolerable things to happen in our name.

Take the latest: the virtual kidnapping of the two orphans of the Alpine murders in France. The dead mother’s sister wants to take care of them, but oh no, social workers say they must be taken into care. Their disdain of the children’s surviving family is so great that they will not even answer their emails or other enquiries. Shocking tragedy is compounded by gratuitous additional tragedy.

UNICEF revealed in a recent report that 60 per cent of children brought up in our national childcare system end up either criminals, homeless or suicidal. How bad is that terrible statistic? It should make us all feel ashamed. So finding children homes and getting them out of care is of the utmost importance.

Unfortunately we live in a box-ticking age. You wouldn’t want to know the number of boxes which have to be ticked before you are given the green light to adopt. Like the driving test it has got harder and harder, though in this case exponentially so. So hard, in fact, that another report said that most of us wouldn’t be able to adopt our own kids. It therefore seems nonsensical for the Government to announce a National Adoption Week calling for thousands more people to apply to adopt. Last year 25,380 did just that, but only a measly 3,048 made it through the multiple hoops and mile-high hurdles that were put in their way. Not exactly an encouragement for more to come forward.

My own advice to Social Services (and this is from someone who spent 15 years in care) is to take your hat off to a person who will take on somebody else’s child. There is no pecuniary incentive to do so, unlike fostering. And they will spend a river of love and treasure over the years in making that child their own. In fact, this should be the default position in of Social Services. In my view it takes a very special kind of person who will set aside the ties of blood.

Evolution makes it easy for the natural parent to bond. To do so in other circumstances is laudable in the highest degree and we should stand in awe of those many who choose to do so. With the way things have developed you could almost be forgiven for thinking they are treated with suspicion by Social Services, as though they must prove themselves first. Yes, of course there has to be proper vetting, but is it right that the bar should be set at such a height that most of us parents would not clear it?

You might say it was great good fortune that because of lucky biology we didn’t have to take the test. Pity the poor would-be parents who were not so lucky. Why should they be double punished by being put through the mill in quite the way they are? And what are the reasons they are rejected?

As I say, Social Services will not give us a straight answer; indeed, they give us no answer at all. But we do know that if one of the applicants smokes that will count against them. Or if they are of a certain age, that too, or if in not-so-good health, or too fat, too poor, too stupid or too messy or too much of anything (a member of UKIP, perhaps); all will be weighed in the balance. Most contentious of all is if they are not of the same race. Black and coloured children, as it happens, are the hardest of all to place. Of course it would be ideal if children could all look the same as their adoptive parents, but are we to take the view that a black or coloured child would be better off staying in care if we cannot find an ethnically perfect match? Again my hat comes off to those couples who will happily take a child from another race, and there are more of those than you would think. And I’ll tell you what! All decent people – who despite the litany of horror stories in the papers still form the great majority – will have nothing but admiration for those who do.

More must be allowed to adopt across the race divide because, in truth there is no divide, as Social Services would have you believe. If there were, black and coloured contestants on the likes of X Factor wouldn’t stand a chance. In fact, so far have we come in race relations that I have actually come to believe that your life chances in Britain PLC may be better today if you are not Caucasian.

The other great scandal is the length of time it takes the authorities to process an adoption – anything up to three years (the average time is 636 days). That is a lifetime to a child.

So not only have the barriers to come down but the speed must be greatly accelerated. Never mind looking for the perfect match racially as though you were looking for the perfect kidney. The fact is that we live in an imperfect world and getting those kids out of care pronto and into the warm embrace of a loving family must be the overriding priority. Remember the wretched outcome of those sad 60 per cent who never made it out of care and what became of them.

The new Plympton library

After the devastating fire at Plympton library four years ago, a phoenix of a new library has arisen: 50% bigger and incorporating all the latest must-haves in a modern library. At a time when libraries across the land are being closed due to austerity cutbacks, this is serendipity of the highest order.

All this week there are events, and on Thursday it is authors’ day. I have been much privileged to be asked to contribute on that day. But what shall I speak about? My book, of course, but I shall also speak about children’s issues since it is much of what the book is about.

In researching the book, I came across a startling set of statistics; they relate to a recent UNICEF report. It stated that 60% of children passing through the present childcare system grow up to be either criminals, homeless or suicidal. And we must not assume that the other 40% have made successful lives for themselves; more probably they have muddled through and simply don’t qualify for a place in that terrible roll-call of tragedy.

These figures caused me to consider the fate of the Foundling Hospital children of which I was one. They were taken into care as weeks’ old babies, fostered out for their first five years and then sent to the hospital for their next ten.

The hospital, now called Coram after its 17th century founder, Captain Thomas Coram, has an association called the Old Coram Association (OCA) which encourages old boys and girls to keep in touch with each other. It publishes a twice-annual magazine and stages umpteen gatherings each year at its central London headquarters.

What emerges through all this communication is that, for all its faults, the hospital’s children made infinitely more successful lives for themselves than is the case with today’s deprived children. So what is going on?

Foundling children were institutionalised at a very tender age; they were subject to the harshest and most disciplinarian of regimes – although, it has to be said, no harsher than many of the country’s top public schools of the time – and should, therefore, be prime candidates for a failed life. They didn’t even know who their mother and father were, or even what their real name was (a new one was given them by the hospital). Yet despite all these things they have become, for the most part, loving parents and successful people.

The only conclusion that I and other ‘old boys’ can reach is that the hospital’s policy of fostering them out for their first five years saved the day. Children are tougher and more resilient than we often give them credit for. Having been surrounded by love and security since babyhood, they were able to survive the rigours of what was to become. But what they cannot survive is a messed up, abusive early start to life: nothing and nobody can undo such damage inflicted so early. If this is true – and all the evidence points to this being the case – then it seems to me that we have to move fast and adopt a much more hands-on approach where babies at risk are concerned.

The rights of parents absolutely have to come secondary to those of the child. It is well known that social services will bend over backwards and go to incredible lengths to keep mother and child together. And by the time they wake up to the reality of the relationship it is, in almost all cases, too late. The child is irredeemably scarred.

If it becomes apparent that the parent, or parents, for whatever reason cannot provide stability, love and a decent standard of care then I believe the baby should be removed as a matter of urgency and placed in an environment where it has all of these things. Intervention at the earliest point – once the facts have been established – is of the absolute essence. Who would deny that if such a policy had been in place for poor Baby P, he would not be alive today?

I would not even be averse to sending them, during term time, to a school such as the Foundling Hospital – ran with all its stunning facilities. There, in today’s world, they could be guaranteed a standard of education second to none. Think of the pressure cooking excellence that a live-in school bestows. And don’t say ‘yes, but it would be cruel to send them off from their home during term time’. Isn’t this exactly what the elite of our country have done for centuries and continue to spend thousands of pounds doing? Sending them at the tender age of eight from the far flung outposts of empire in times past, not to see their parents for years, never mind every school holiday?

Armed with this very superior education, wouldn’t society have gone a very long way not just in saving them, but off-setting the sadness of the loss of their own inadequate parents?

If you can spare some time to join with me, we can discuss some of these very important issues. I can also answer any of your questions with regard to my book. The opportunity comes at 2.30pm at Plympton Library on Thursday 9th February. Another local writer, John White, who writes military and political thrillers, will also be there.

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