Putting the child first: the case for care for neglected children.
In social worker and academic circles my name is most frequently associated
with adoption, my appointment as the so-called Adoption Czar having driven
– I am proud to say – a significant recovery in the number of adoptions in
But my interest in adoption has always been part of a much wider interest in
inequality, disadvantage and neglect and the long-term consequences of that.
One can’t work for twenty three years with offenders, as I did, without
drawing conclusions from the reality that the proportion of those we
incarcerate who enjoyed a stable and economically secure start in life is a very
Before beginning to advise the Government on adoption I ran Barnardo’s for
six years from 2005. My arrival there was still in the period of great optimism
about early intervention with families, offering support to keep them
together, based very much on the proposition that children should not – save
in the most extreme circumstances – be separated from their families.
I embraced that philosophy and prioritised in the charity our contributing to
early intervention work that included a very large expansion in the number of
Sure Start Centres that we began to manage. But as I spent more time with my
staff, as I met more Mums, and it was always Mums(I found the lame denial
in recent weeks of the Centre For Social Justice proposition that we have a
significant problem with absent fathers depressing) and looked at cases where
children were on the verge of being returned to their birth families from care I
began to be concerned. It seemed to me that – as a society - we were hesitating
too long before intervening to take a child into care and then, when finally
that brave intervention was made, were seeing success, too often, only in
terms of reunification between child and birth family.
In 2009 I wrote something to that effect for IPPR(1) arguing that we might
need more, not fewer, children in care. That drew a predictably outraged
response from politicians from all sides, Ed Balls, then Secretary of State for
Education going on TV to criticise what I had to say, Tim Loughton, Shadow
Children’s Minister describing what I had written as “shock tactics” and
saying that “parents always knew best” and the National Children’s Bureau,
unusually for one charity speaking of another, saying my arguments were
When I researched adoption for The Times (2) I looked more closely at social
worker hesitancy in taking children into care. I concluded that there were
three main reasons for such caution. The first was generally prompted by
misconceived interpretations of attachment theory that encouraged a view
that, at almost any cost, the relationship between birth mother and child must
be maintained. Those holding this view were often quick to quoteBowlby and
the stress he put on a warm and continuous relationship between infant and
mother. I don’t believe Bowlby was necessarily suggesting that an attachment
always had to be with the birth mother. But certainly by 1972, Rutter had
demonstrated that the main attachment between a baby and carer was not
always with the mother (in a third of cases it was with the father) and a warm
bond with a mother substitute could succeed(3).So, while attachment theory
certainly points to the need for a loving bond with one individual to be
allowed to flower before a child reaches his or her first birthday it does not
support notions – held by many practitioners - that such a bond can only be
achieved between the child and his or her natural mother. What is important
is that a child develops a stable attachment. As the Royal College of
Babies and children raised in loving homes with at least one responsive parent
are likely to be securely attached. They are more likely to be resilient to the
ups and downs of life, be psychologically and physically healthy, do better at
school, make and sustain mutually-satisfying relationships, make a positive
contribution to society and be good parents themselves.
Insecurely attached children may achieve such good outcomes but life may be
much more of a struggle.
Those with disorganised attachments are most at risk and are more likely to
have mental health problems, misuse drugs and alcohol, become teenage
parents and be involved in anti-social behaviour and criminal activity.
I found the second main reason for social worker hesitation about careto be
based on the passionately held belief on the part of some practitioners, and a
number of academics involved in social worker education, that in considering
whether a child should be taken into care, there was a need to balance the
interests of the child with those of its parents. When my IPPR piece was
published, one academic wrote to me in angry terms and, quoting Article 8 of
the Human Rights Act, insisted that the interests of parents had to be
balanced alongside the interests of the child in any decision about care. This
is, of course, not so. The paramountcy principle in the 1989 Children’s Act
makes it clear that the child’s welfare is the paramount consideration. Liberty
accepted that interpretation, acknowledging on their website:
Separation of family members will normally constitute an interference with
the right to respect for family life, although such interference may be justified,
for example where a child is taken into care for his or her own protection.
Paramountcy has not been challenged either by the European Court of
Human Rights or by the UK Courts and the House of Lords has found that
the paramountcyprinciple and Article 8 are consistent.
But perhaps the most important reason for social worker and local authority
unwillingness to intervene, sometimes until neglect had turned into abuse
was the still widely held viewnot just on the part of practitioners but also, and
crucially on the part of politicians and the media, that managed neglect was
preferable to care and however bad things were at home, local authority care
would make things worse.
It was hardly surprising that this view prevailed (and still prevails in some
quarters) since it received public support from a number of key
commentators. Barry Sheerman, then Chair of the Select Committee on
Children Schools and Families told his Committee in 2009 that there was a
perception that entering the care system is catastrophic for a child’s future
The then newly appointed President of The Family Division, the most senior
Family Law Judge in England, the much respected Lord Justice Wall said
shortly after his appointment:
What social workers do not appear to understand is that the public perception
of their role in care proceedings is not a happy one. They are perceived by
many as arrogant and enthusiastic removers of children from their parents
into an unsatisfactory care system
While still at Barnardo’s in 2010 and in an effort to address this prejudice
against care which I knew was not supported by the research, I commissioned
DEMOS(6) to review the evidence for and against care. They concluded that:
Stigmatisation of the care system, combined with concern about the
upfront costs to the state, means that some children who might benefit
from the care system do not do so.
When the care system is used effectively in this way it can be a powerful
tool for improving the lives of vulnerable children and young people.
The mistaken belief that care consigns all looked-after children to a lifetime
of underachievement and poor outcomes, creates a culture of uncertainty,
increasing delay and leading to instability later on.
There is now a substantial body of academic evidence that provides a
longer-term and more nuanced perspective on looked- after children’s
lives, taking into account the nature of their pre- care experiences and
comparing them with more appropriate control groups. This evidence
shows that care can be a positive intervention for many groups of children.
Some groups of children whose entry to care is delayed by indecision or
drift are at risk of experiencing a longer exposure to pre-care adversity;
higher emotional and behavioural problems; placement disruption and
Because of my view that we have tolerated neglect for too long it is sometimes
suggested that I believe that we should not try to support families, not try to
effect positive change and make a neglected child’s parenting acceptable so
that they can stay at home. That’s nonsense. I believe that families can and do
change, particularly when support is accompanied by rigorous challenge and
timescales for the care of children to improve. Making the birth family
successful should certainly be our first option, and I am not arguing that
mothers should not be given a second or even a third chance, just not a
fourth, fifth and sixth.
The unjustified optimism in the capacity of deeply inadequate and sometimes
uncaring parents to change may have abated somewhat. But I would argue
that there is more to do yet to tackle the naïve optimism that so often
condemns children to a miserable and damaging start in life. And there is
more to be done yet in terms of realism about re-unification from care. We
have to stop letting children down by returning them to parents only for them
to be neglected once again. Professor Elaine Farmer’s 2010 study of 138
children returned from care to their parents (7)and which found that three in
five suffered further abuse or neglect should horrify those who still see
success in neglect cases as inevitably achieving reunification. Families should
be supported, but only for so long and we need to be realistic about those
families whose capacity to recover is patently limited. Recent initiatives by at
least one large local authority, financially to incentivise reductions in the
number of children in care, are at best misguided and at worst dangerous.
There is no over reaction to neglect or abuse in England indicated by the
relatively modest increases in the care population since the death of Peter
Connolly. The current population of 67,000, a little high by the standards of
the last decade,but would have to grow by almost 40% to match the size of
the care population in 1981. What, apparently, has happened since 1981, to
make parenting so much better?
There can be no target for the number of children in care. There can be no
right number. We simply have to do what is best for the child in each and
every case of neglect. Sometimes that might lead to leaving the child at home.
But we cannot gamble with children’s life chances in the misguided belief - as
a social worker once pleaded with me– that blood is thicker than water.
(3): Rutter, M (1981) Maternal Deprivation Reassessed
(4): Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Teaching materials (2011)
(5): Children, Schools and Families Committee - Third Report
(7): Farmer E (2010): Case management and outcomes for neglected children returned to
their parents: a five year follow-up study.