A Stitch in Time Saves Nine: Stemming the looked-after children epidemic

There is a growing epidemic in the United Kingdom; a spiralling statistic, which, left unchecked, threatens the stability of local authorities and the life chances of a generation. 

Between 2008 and 2015, the number of care applications for children rose from 6,532 to 12,781, the figure has increased by a further 26 per cent in the last year.

Should we be celebrating the fact that so many children are being “saved” from damaging homes? Or should we be looking to establish why so many homes are considered “damaging” in the first place, and what we can do to improve the situation, ensuring that more of our children are able to live in safe, happy families?

As the majority of us know, the outcomes for children in, and emerging from, the care system, are not favourable. Various reports from the past decade have showed that 70% of sex workers have been in care; only 37% of care leavers achieve 5A*-Cs at GCSE, compared with 80% of those outside the care system; and almost a quarter of the adult prison population has at one time been in care. These are not positive outcomes, either for the individuals, or for society as a whole.

These figures don’t even touch on the financial implications of children being taken into care – not just the cost of that care (which can reach tens of thousands of pounds a year), but of the knock on outlays – long-term benefits claims, to the penal system and as a result of health inequalities.

Explaining the care application surge, some commentators point to protectionist hysteria in the wake of high profile abuse cases, or suggest that local authorities are better able to identify abuse taking place, while others blame the reduction of funding available. Whatever the cause, what is abundantly clear is that more needs to be done to stem the flow – providing brighter futures for our children and a better, more cohesive social landscape.

After I sold my business in 2006, I undertook a number of charitable pursuits, including work with the homeless, the criminal justice system and offender rehabilitation. It was through this work that I became aware of the inequalities suffered by care leavers and the need to do more to support them and their families, before problems reached crisis point and children were taken into care.

Early intervention in children’s services is underestimated. Its results, although difficult to measure, are tangible. We’re all familiar with the phrase “a stitch in time, saves nine”. And so it is with struggling families – before their problems escalate – whether mental or physical health, financial worries or relationship breakdowns, more can be done to ensure that families stay together, preventing whole lifetimes of hardship and difficulties.

It doesn’t have to cost the earth either, it can utilise the potential of the local community and the willingness people have to help each other. In 2013 I began seeking to bridge the gap between isolated and vulnerable families and the strength of the community around them, introducing Safe Families for Children to the UK from Chicago, where it has reduced the number of children being taken into care by 50%. Harnessing the power of volunteers in partnership with local authorities, with minimal financial outlay, it provides a community-based solution to a community-based problem. It may sound like a reworking of the often misunderstood “Big Society”, but the need to rebuild communities has never been more essential.

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