Before becoming an MP I represented parents whose children were taken into local authority care. This is an important issue to me, and one I was very pleased to be able to contribute to.
CARE: Image credit: Caiaimage/Chris Ryan
Here is my full contribution to the debate bought by my right hon. friend Alan Johnson MP and Lucy Allan MP about Children in Care.
I want to bring to the Minister’s attention my experience of having represented parents whose children are taken into local authority care. I also want to say a little about when I used to represent young people charged with criminal offences and prosecute adults who had been abusing young people. I have worked quite a lot with young people and seen what happens in their homes. I want to concentrate on family law, which does not get enough attention, and especially on what happens in the legal process.
I agree with everyone who has spoken, bar Kit Malthouse—I do not agree with a lot of what he said. Nobody is saying that children should not be taken into care. We have heard about the case of baby P and the Climbié case, as a result of which I am concerned that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. When there is even a slight expression of concern about children, local authorities come in, take them away and put them with foster parents, and then they start dealing with the parents. They never look at kinship care: often, it is the family themselves, or maybe their lawyers, who talk to the wider family and say, “Would you like to put yourselves forward to be a kinship carer?” Then the wider family members come forward, and it takes about six to eight weeks for them to be assessed to see whether they are suitable. I ask the Minister to urge local authorities and social services to proactively find a family member who could look after a child they have taken into care. I assure him that a child will always feel happier with an auntie, uncle or older brother or sister than with a complete stranger, so maybe we need to change the emphasis.
Secondly, when I was practising in the field I noticed that children often have a guardian appointed—a lawyer—and social services are involved, but very rarely do people talk to the children about what they want. I remember a case where I was banging my head against a brick wall. I asked all the people involved, especially the legal guardian who was supposed to be representing the children, “Have you spoken to the child about this? Have you got any information from them? What do they think about it? Where do you think they would like to live?” I was met with a wall of silence. I was very frustrated, and I said, “You know, if you really want to do it, you should be asking these questions. You should be trying to find alternative sources.”
Thirdly, as the Minister probably knows, sometimes when children are taken into care they have an opportunity to have supervised access to meet their parents in a contact centre. However, that tends to be on an awkward date and time and in an awkward place, and the visits are not frequent. Again, we have to fight social services to increase the number of visits for parents, make the location more accessible and allow parents to have more quality time with their children. If that happens, it means that when the process is finished, six months or a year down the road, the child will not have forgotten his or her parents. I ask the Minister to urge social services to look at those aspects of the system.
Finally, I am sorry to say that there is unseemly haste to place babies in care. We know that most people who want to adopt are happy to adopt a little baby but reluctant to adopt a toddler or older child. Babies are therefore carted off to the adoption system before there has been thorough and proper work with the family to see whether they can help. There will always be situations in which children are vulnerable and their family will never be able to look after them, but in my experience those cases are a small minority. We hear about them in the media, but we do not hear about the cases that do not fall into that category. We need to talk about the thousands of cases in which it would be far better to work with the family at home and spend the money that we would otherwise give to foster parents on allowing the parents to improve their home and helping them to look after their children.