Spending early on children in care will save in the long term

Guardian.co.uk – society – The state, as a corporate parent to vulnerable children, should give a child the best possible start in life. Even if it costs in the short term, says Dawn Howley
Posted Wednesday 31 March 2010.   By Dawn Howley

We have more than 60,000 children in care in the UK, referred to as “looked-after children”. Many are extremely vulnerable and deeply damaged – and we fail them at a spectacular rate. The statistics around children leaving care are terrible and don’t seem to improve. The shocking statistics show that 27% of the adult prison population, and half of all prisoners under 25, were in care.

So how can we reach this group of children and stop them falling through the net? One option for some children with complex needs is out-of-borough residential placements for specialist therapeutic provision that is often not available in their home town.

I benefited from one of these placements when I was moved from my local authority at the age of 16. I was offending, absconding, self-harming, and at grave risk. I was seen by a multitude of specialists, and an out-of-borough therapeutic community was identified as meeting my needs. It was ruled out, until I threatened to take action against my local authority about my placement on an adult psychiatric ward. It moved me to a placement that, only weeks before, was too expensive. This demonstrates how decisions are often made with finance in mind, instead of the needs of a vulnerable child.

I moved to rural north Wales, and after some months I began to calm down and recover. Eventually, the bond with a residential social worker there helped me to turn my life around.

It was a good thing for me to move out of borough. It meant I couldn’t hang out with the older group of young people who had got me into drugs, shoplifting and absconding. Also, that I wasn’t in a home with 10-15 other young people really helped. I lived in a regular house with workers who operated a three-day rota system, so I had consistency and structure. I dread to think what would have happened if I had stayed in my home town. I benefited initially from one-to-one supervision and an intensive programme that included therapeutic care, education, sporting and outdoor activities, and encouragement to read and take an interest in current affairs.

This type of care is often considered the gold standard in residential care as the programmes are designed individually. The formula for one child may not work for another, and these high-quality placements honour that. They are often privately run, and expensive, so are not a first choice for local authorities. Social workers are under pressure not to send a child to one of these placements, even though there is evidence that this intensive approach can change the course of a young person’s life. However, they are usually cheaper than secure units.

The real problem is that the director of a local looked-after children’s services is making decisions based on a 12-month budget. Even though evidence can show incredible savings over the life of a difficult child, by early intervention and investment, the director can’t report that back at a finance meeting. All that is shown is a big spend on one child.

The long-term savings for these children will come by ensuring that they don’t go on to be a burden on prison, mental health services and the benefits system, as well as ensuring that any future children they have don’t repeat the same distressing cycle.

I wonder why all the departments and services are not collectively responsible, and therefore able to celebrate together when a costly early intervention saves money in the long run. The real victims are children, and perhaps the children of former children in care, who haven’t had sufficient intervention to break the cycle of abuse, crime and mental health problems.

What are all these highly trained economists and policymakers thinking? Don’t they see that early investment aggregates to a greatly reduced lifetime spend on a damaged and vulnerable person? The state, as a corporate parent to vulnerable children, should do what any parent would do: give a child the best possible start in life.

• Dawn Howley, who was in care from age 14 to 18, is a volunteer with Kids Company and writes a blog at dawnhowley.wordpress.com

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