27 September 2006 saw the launch of an unusual but hopefully important manifesto seeking to improve the system of care for children and young people who are in residential and foster care. There will be elections to the Scottish Parliament next May and it is with the aim of influencing all the parties that the manifesto was designed.
Those with an interest in politics might like to know that currently Scotland is governed by a coalition of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties; the First Minster, Jack McConnell is Labour, his deputy Liberal, and the Minster responsible for looked after children is a Liberal, Robert Brown. However with the current trend of opinion polls there is a lot of speculation that a new coalition might emerge next May that could potentially involve the SNP or the Greens as well as the two current partners, in many possible combinations!
The launch of the Manifesto took place at the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh and was hosted by the leader of the Green Party in Scotland, Robin Harper MSP. There are seven Green Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) currently and their manifesto will feature the needs of looked after children prominently. Robin has been a strong supporter of social work more widely, but especially all services for children. He is a former teacher and one of his ex-pupils is currently the manager of a children’s home. She was one of the ninety people attending the launch and took the opportunity to ask Robin if he remembered her!
Strength in Numbers
The manifesto has been produced in Scotland by a coalition of national agencies representing fostering and residential services including one of the major providers, Aberlour Child Care Trust, and advocacy and campaigning organisations such as Who Cares? Scotland and The Scottish Throughcare and Aftercare Forum.
The idea for the manifesto came from SIRCC’s Director, Jennifer Davidson, and the group was pulled together by SIRCC but we are emphatic that it is not a SIRCC manifesto. Indeed we are particularly pleased that we have set aside the ‘great divide’ between residential and foster care as both BAAF and the Fostering Network were also represented on the Manifesto planning group. The Association of Directors of Social Work was also closely consulted during the drafting of the manifesto. Naturally the Manifesto recognises the value of all types of placement and does not repeat the old mantras about trying to put ever more children into foster (or adoptive care) as the be all and end all of policy.
As well as the six national organisations represented on the Planning Group, over seventy organisations and a number of leading individuals have signed up to the manifesto showing that it really does represent a consensus of all parts of the care system. All the major providers in the voluntary and private sectors have signed and many local authorities. Others have expressed a desire to join in and we are exploring ways – probably through the SIRCC website – that others can become signatories.
So what’s in the manifesto? Well for a start our first and major demand is a call for a National Strategy. We are asking politicians to take more responsibility for making the system work better and in our view this requires a greater central push. Scotland did not have any equivalent to the Quality Protects programme in England, nor are local authorities required to meet various specific performance indicators or QP targets in relation to children in residential or foster care, concerning placement stability, for instance.
Our message is that many of the points we are making are not new; there are many issues that have been long acknowledged, but we just don’t seem to be making much progress in them. The manifesto does not claim that the situation is all one of ‘doom and gloom’ but unfortunately there is tremendous variation in the quality of service to children in different parts of Scotland and sometimes even within authorities. Some children are getting well looked after, supported with education, and with decent aftercare plans etc. but others are not.
The Manifesto says that services are stretched to the limit and often young people get placed in the nearest bed, rather than any kind of planned or most appropriate placement. There is a lack of coordination between the local authority and independent sectors, meaning too many children are placed at a distance from home and their transitions out of residential schools in particular are often not handled well. There is concern about a lack of advocacy services, especially for children in foster care and for children with complex needs or disabilities. We emphasise the need for local authorities to improve their own internal coordination to achieve a better level of corporate parenting, and so on.
As I said, these are not new and are probably familiar issues in all parts of the UK; what concerns us is that there is no national coordination to identify the gaps and do some strategic planning – there are thirty-two local authorities and they are all left to get on with delivering or buying in their own services.
As well as the broad strategic concerns including placement stability, staffing and training issues, the manifesto has a number of sections addressing specific areas of service and concern: education, health, youth justice and secure care, children with disabilities and unaccompanied young people. We also make a big focus on the need for much improved care-leaving support. It is a campaigning document but we also felt we had to explain what the issues are – so I can’t do more than give a flavour of it here.
What will happen next, and what does it all add up to?
We were delighted that six MSPs attended the launch, – there is a launch of one kind of document or report nearly every day when Parliament is sitting and we were warned that MSPs would not necessarily come, so that the attendance of MSPs from across the spectrum was encouraging.
The Manifesto planning group is continuing to meet and planning to lobby all the parties in the run-up to the election and we are encouraging all agencies involved with children in care to look at the manifesto and give staff an opportunity to discuss it.
Many issues involving young people have had a bit of a high profile in recent years however those of us working with children in care have been disturbed by the focus on ASBOs and persistent offenders etc. There are other good things that the Government here has done, such as appointing a Children’s Commissioner with serious powers and a reasonable staff team, but the needs of many of our children and their families are desperate.
The First Minister, Jack McConnell, has also stepped on a lot of social work toes by demanding that social workers be more willing to take children into care, in the context of those growing up with parents who are misusing hard drugs. Some of us feel there is a need for more intervention but it must be better resourced and coordinated and that is why our campaign has to make an impact. We think out politicians are listening, but it will take leadership, a big commitment of the time and energies of civil servants and money to really prioritise an improvement to the whole system.
The Forward to the Manifesto has been written by Scotland ‘s Children’s Commissioner, Kathleen Marshall, and in it she pulls no punches. She has a real concern about the way children are being pushed out of the care system much too young, often at 16. I’m sure there are some echoes here with the recent Green Paper in England so perhaps between us all we can see some real pressure building up.
There is some good work going on in the child care system but the system as a whole is not working well. Too many children are being let down. So if you’d like to say something or just add your support why not check out the Manifesto and see how it compares with the issues you face?
You’ll find it at: www.sircc.strath.ac.uk/manifesto.html