When is it right to take a child away from a parent?

Stories in the media about children in care are seldom talked about unless a tragedy has taken place, notable examples being the case of Baby Peter or the two boys in Darlington. But yesterday saw a story that soon became a talking point on news sites: Martin Narey, chief executive of Barnardo’s, saying that he wants the number of UK children in care to increase somewhat from around the 62,000 mark where it is currently.

Narey said: “Contrary to popular belief, and for all its inadequacies, care does make things better and can and does create stable, nurturing environments for children.”

On first glance it would seem unbelievable that someone so well regarded would say something like that. This has much to do with the perception society has of the care system, built in part on the negative press it gets from the examples given above. Historically children in care have achieved lower academically than their non-looked after peers, and care leavers are disproportionately represented in prison or on unemployment statistics.

But what might seem like an utterly bombastic and counterintuitive statement by Narey turns out to be in fact correct. A report commissioned for Barnardo’s by the think tank Demos, published yesterday, found that delay and indecision in the care system can have deleterious effects on children in need as well as potentially costing up to £32,755 per child each year, almost four times the cost of a positive care experience.

Local authorities intervening early means problems can be identified sooner rather than later when other problems start to arise, particularly loss of attachment, which could jeopardise a child’s ability to form successful relationships with other children and adults later in life.

There are financial benefits to why early intervention is preferred for children in need. In September 2009, Action for Children, in partnership with the New Economics Foundation, published a report entitled Backing the Future which posits that investment in early intervention and universal services for children and families would save the economy £486bn over 20 years.

The report presents evidence that for every £1 invested in targeted services in crime prevention, mental health services, family breakdown prevention, and against drug abuse and obesity, a saving for the UK economy would reach around £7.60 – £9.20. A further £1 invested in an Action for Children children’s centre, specialising in identifying and avoiding family breakdown issues early on, would result in a social return of about £4.60.

There is of course a strong ethical dimension here: when is it right to take a child away from a parent? Demos in their research look at what is called ‘concurrent planning’ – designating adoptive parents who plan on being permanent carers at the same time as the local authority works with the birth parents to explore possible reunification.

As is recognised in the report ‘concurrent planning’ is based on children and families in crisis being identified very early on, which is rather idealistic, but what the report makes no bones about is that there are plenty of occasions when a child should be taken away from a parent for the safety of both.

While the Tories talk of big society, what we really should be looking at is how the state can be a responsible parent for vulnerable children for the greater good of families, as worrying as that might sound at first. While a contentious subject for many, stronger action and risk adversity today could be the best thing for the child in the future.

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4 Responses to When is it right to take a child away from a parent?

  1. anpa2001 says:

    Excellent blog. I have worked with many families where children are subject to a child protection plan or who are being monitored with a view to preventing this being necessary. IMHO the children of one family in particular would have benefited greatly in terms of stabilty and consistency, from being placed in care. The actions taken (well meaning and following current guidelines of keeping families together or failing that, placing within the extended family) did not work. The grandparents fostered the 2 younger children and the eldest was left in the care of the mother as he refued to move out of the area. The placement with the grandparents didn’t work and the younger two (4 & 9) have been moved twice since. I gather they will probably stay where they are now for a while. Horrendous for children who have had such a dreadful start in life. Incidentally, they don’t have contact with their birth mother as she doesn’t want it (or isn’t in a fit state to commit would be more accurate perhaps). The eldest has finally been moved so some sort of sheltered accommodation away from his mother – this would have been more effective sooner IMO. He is now 16.

    It’s really good to hear such issues raised – people are frightened to talk about such things but you obviously know and approach from a caring perspective. Thank you for writing this.

    • Thank you very much for your kind words.

      Permanancy in placements for children needing care is a major issue, so much has been done, but there is still a lot further to go. It is obviously a brave assertion by Narey; it is a very unnvering issue, of whether a person is deemed unfit by a social worker to care for their child, and he will receive much flack for it. But then all credit for him to say it anyway, because really he is right.

      But also recognising that there may be issues later on, and when they come, to put a young person through the care system at such a late age might do untold harm. I surely wouldn’t want to be the person to have this foresight and act on it, but for those who do, hats off.

  2. Chris H says:

    Narey’s commnt including numbers comes across as very detached, something that doesn’t sit right with me. Saying that, he’s spot on when he talks about early intervention. Me and my wife are foster carers and we see first-hand so many children who suffer with attachment disorder, the damage that has been done to them to get to that stage is heartbreaking. Anything that can minimise that has to be worth going for with both hands.

    Concurrent Planning as highlighted by Demos looks interesting but have they considered the emotional strain for concurrent adoptive parents? Children moving on from foster placements is hard enough but going through as concurrent adopters could tear you apart.

    • Re concurrent planning, it is the first thing which came to my mind, they have devoted space in the paper to problems with it, but it featured less important than the fact that it is predicated on getting good foster parents very quickly.

      On the comments thread where this article is cross-posted on liberal conspiracy, people have tended to have concerns with Narey’s intentions, but I tend not to speculate on things I cannot substantiate, I do agree with the sentiment, and attachment informs this opinion.

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