We all have a duty to stand up for children in care

When I first became a County Councillor I was fortunate enough to be appointed Chairman of the council's committee that scrutinised children's social services.

Shortly after I had started the role I was taken to one side by the rather wonderful Lead Member for Children and Families - a statutory role - for a quiet chat.

This longstanding councillor, and a nformer headteacher, asked me if I understood the seriousness of the role I had found myself in?

I replied that I thought I did, but a conversation later I realised that I very much did not. That conversation in many ways changed my views on life.

I'm eternally grateful to my council colleague for his counsel and wisdom that day (and since), and I would like to explain why.

Having worked in schools for years of course I was familiar with the concept of being 'a corporate parent'.

To the uninitiated a corporate parent is the body responsible for looking after a child who is in foster care or, say, a childrens' home when for whatever reason they are no longer living with their birth parents. 

I'm guessing that to many, if not most, councillors being a corporate parent - as indeed they are - is something quite intangible. You sort of know that you are, but it doesn't mean a great deal in practice.

The difference was that following my conversation with that experienced and devoted councillor I came to learn that being a corporate parent was very much a practical issue.

My colleague asked me to consider what I would and wouldn't do for my biological children? Obviously my reply was simple, there was nothing I wouldn't do to make sure that they were safe and well and had every opportunity in life that I could possibly provide for them.

He reminded me that actually, when a child is taken into care, it was us as corporate parents that should be willing to do the same. In many cases if we didn't, then who exactly would be sticking up for those kids?

But then he invited me to go one step further. He asked me if my biological kids had ever been through trauma? I was fortunate enough to reply that apart from the odd scraped knee or being told off by a teacher; no, they have had it relatively easy.

My colleague told me - and I saw many times in the following years - that inevitably a child who is taken into care will have had their early years defined by trauma. It may be they have witnessed domestic abuse, or have had birth parents who were drug or alcohol dependent. It may very well be the case that they have been victims of child sexual exploitation, or have even discovered a parent dead in bed.

Sadly none of those things are particularly uncommon.

And if any one of them happened to my biological children then what wouldn't I do to fight for them?

My colleague told me that day "When you are a corporate parent to the most vulnerable children in our society then you have to be a real parent to them too."

I've never forgotten those words and never will.

Because if I don't stand up for the most vulnerable kids in this country - thousands of whom have had the most horrific early life experience - then who will? 

What does it say about me as a human being?

During my time as a councillor a childrens' social care provider applied to convert a very nice family dwelling in my patch into a childrens' home for three teenage kids. The planning application outlined that the young people would, in all likelihood, have emotional and behavioural difficulties.

For heavens sake that's almost a given if you are a teenager living in care. You wouldn't be living there if you had the benefit a comfortable childhood. You simply wouldn't.

What struck me with that planning application was how vile and vitriolic neighbours were in their comments urging the council to refuse it.

'Those sort of children shouldn't live on our sort of estate.' 'Crime will increase.' 'The police will always be around.' 'It will drive the price of my property down.'

I may be paraphrasing slightly but everyone of those types of comments were made multiple times.

Numerous local residents asked me to object to the application on their behalf. I refused to do so. It was almost every neighbour calling for the application to be turned down for similar reasons to those above, frankly I was ashamed to say that I represented them.

Although I had stepped down as a councillor by the time the decision was made I was delighted the day the planning application was passed. It meant that vulnerable children who had the most horrific childhoods could live in a family setting - the best possible place for them to have a chance of recovering from the trauma they had lived through.

I've kept a track of that home since. For the most part there hasn't been problems in the community, neighbours generally forget that it is even there.

The sad thing is that the number of children in care is growing and the need for similar homes is increasing too. 

There have been two more similar applications in my old division since I stood down and the comments of neighbours never fails to nauseate me.

Below are just a few of the comments lifted word for word from actual objections:

"I realise that there is a need for such facilties, but why in the middle of a residential area...Where will it / does it end on this and any other pleasant housing residential area's. (sic)"

"we chose this house because of the type of area it was and how suitable it was to bring up our family. We found it to be a friendly and a care home will change this community environment for the worst."

"With this type of business being run on a small cul de sac I fear it will also affect the house price and ability to sell."

"The garden...is wholly unsuitable for use as (sic) chilrens' home since it cannot be secured or fenced off..."

"Sadly, I know there would be considerable antagonism towards the staff and children if this application were to be approved."

"We would be nervous and would not feel safe in our homes. It could affect the prices of properties and also the ability to sell those properties in the future."

"I appreciate that such facilities may need to be located somewhere, but am sure the are more appropriate places for them..."

"I am especially concerned for the safeguarding of the local residents, particularly as there are a large number of both young children and elderly residents..."

"Whilst I accept the opposing argument that the children have to be housed somewhere. I do not believe that this is the correct location for a home of this nature."

"This will also affect house prices in the area."

The sad thing is that I have no doubt that everyone of those neighbours will think of themselves as decent people, and they probably are.

It just saddens me tremendously that they think a childrens' home for the most vulnerable kids should be fenced like a prison, or that it will bring down the neighbourhood, or will lower property prices, or would in theory be fine somewhere else as long as it isn't here.

I wonder if any of them would want those sort of comments made about their children or grandchildren? Because it's only down to good fortune that it isn't.

The funny thing is I only ever became a corporate parent because I was elected as a representative of my community. The truth is that we should all have the same level of care for those kids whose lives have been so tough that they have been absorbed by a system.



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