The recent events in Rochdale, where under-age girls were forced into prostitution, have mainly focused on other issues. Prostitution has been a long-standing problem for young people in care – vulnerable teenagers who have been abused and sexualised at a young age, are often open to the opportunity, and no institution has ever found a satisfactory resolution. One of the issues which came out of the recent case was that one young girl who was placed in a single unit, with six full time workers, nevertheless managed to spend one or two nights a week out – 19 times in three months, which sounds worse.
The cost of this private unit has been reported variously at £225,000 to £250,000 a year. Most authorities have some children farmed out in this sort of arrangement. That poses a question which has mainly been considered at much lower levels of need – whether such intensive childcare is justifiable. We know that the outcomes of formal care are generally poor, and that many arrangements end up making things worse. But there is a standard, default comparison: how a child would fare in substitute family care instead. What are the objections to paying a full-time foster parent a living income – say, £40,000 a year – instead of paying £225,000 for six-full time workers?
There are four main objections, and none of them seems to me to stack up. The first is professional training. I think we have to ask what a very damaged child needs to have provided on a 24 hour, 365 basis – thoughtful, systematic intervention or a secure, protective life style. There is no reason why these cannot both be done – but also no reason why they have to be done at the same time. The second is the variable quality of foster care, including – in the worst cases – abuse. That is true, but the same is true of residential units. Many local authorities take the view that they cannot pass an ungovernable child to any but the best foster parent. While I understand their reticence, the illusion is that they have a better option in residential care.
The third is that it is not possible to pay someone a large amount of money in a fostering allowance without treating them as an employee. That’s not right – this is family support, and family support doesn’t have respite or hourly rates of pay – but clarification of the law would help. The fourth is that while one can pass legal responsibility to a private provider, a local authority cannot pass it to a foster parent. That is true, but it shouldn’t matter. Local authorities are not minimising harm to a child by keeping the child in residential care instead. In relation to the third and fourth points, both hang on current constructions of legal responsibility. If the law is working against the child’s best interests, we should change it.
There are no general rules, but in every case where a child is in residential care, the question needs at least to be asked: why is this child not in substitute family care instead? If the only objections are the four I have mentioned, they should be overruled. Increasing the use of substitute care in the most difficult circumstances will inevitably lead to some bad decisions, and some disasters, but let’s be blunt: it’s disastrous now.