In a speech to the IPPR think tank last week, the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, spoke about the terrible delays that routinely take place before children facing abuse or neglect are taken into care. He also spoke about, what is perhaps an even worse scandal, the children then being returned, often repeatedly to their families, despite the likelihood of facing still more abuse or neglect.
The social workers generally wouldn't recognise this as a scandal because it is within the rules and happens routinely. To my mind, that it is a frequent and deliberate arrangement, rather than an occaisional lapse makes the scandal far worse.
Mr Gove said:
The state is currently failing in its duty to keep our children safe.
It may seem hard to believe – after the killing of Victoria Climbie, after the torture of Peter Connelly, after the cruel death of Khyra Ishaq – surely as a society, as a state, we must have got the message.
But, I fear, we haven't.
We are not asking the tough questions, and taking the necessary actions, to prevent thousands of children growing up in squalor, enduring neglect in their infancy, witnessing violence throughout their lives and being exposed to emotional, physical and sexual abuse during the years which should be their happiest.
The facts are deeply depressing.
Too many local authorities are failing to meet acceptable standards for child safeguarding.
Too many children are left for far too long in homes where they are exposed to appalling neglect and criminal mistreatment.
We put the rights of biological parents ahead of vulnerable children – even when those parents are incapable of leading their own lives safely and with dignity never mind bringing up children.
When we do intervene it is often too late.
When children are removed from homes where they're at risk they're often returned prematurely and exposed to danger all over again.
When Professor Elaine Farmer and colleagues carried out a five year follow up study of neglected children returned home, they found that even when we do intervene we still return children to abusive homes too early – and in too many cases. She studied 138 neglected children who had been returned to their families. After two years, 59% of children returned home had been abused or neglected, and after five years, 65% of returns home had ended.
In half of the families, children had experienced two or more failed returns home, with some children repeatedly returned home to circumstances that remained unchanged and about which social workers had concerns.
You can read Professor Farmer's findings here.
More decisive action needs to be taken when children oscillate between home and care, since children with the highest number of returns home to parents ended up with the poorest well-being. It would be useful if local authorities could identify such children and ensure satisfactory permanence plans are made and implemented for them.
There is a lot of talk from social workers about the risks of adoption – including the grossly exaggerated claims of a 20% failure rate. Furthermore the failure in the case of adoption, when it does take place, is the placement breaking down as the adoptive parents can't cope – not the child being removed due to abuse.
Yet the far greater risks of placing a child back in its original home are treated quite differently. The interests of the child are disregarded as the "rights" of the biological parents to abuse the child again triumph.
The miserable revolving door for children between their abusive family homes and the care system needs to end. There should be a presumption for adoption. The defeatist assertion that this "can only be" possible for a minority of children in care must be challenged.