Most people who have any involvement with children in care will know that one of the biggest issues is an extraordinarily high level of, what is often euphemistically called, “placement turnover”. Or, more honestly, the number of homes a child has while in the care of the state. The reasons for this problem are manifold and would require a lengthy book and not a blog post so I am going to focus on one, but before I do that I think it is worth reflecting on what moving a child around really means:
Let’s say a child has been removed from her family at 4-years old, and this has been necessary to protect her from harm. Let’s imagine that by the age of 12 she has had five different foster or children’s homes (this is very conservative – double digits are common, 27 homes by the age of 11 is the worst case I have seen but I am sure others will have even more shocking examples). This means that on five different occasions, she has been moved, probably without much warning, to a strange house, possibly in an area she does not know, to be looked after by another set of adults she has never met before – who she will somehow be expected to trust and accept. Is it any wonder if this 12-year old girl does not bother to invest in a relationship with the fifth set of adults?
Perhaps, if a child is lucky, she will have had maybe one or two homes she lived in for a shortish period of time and then one, which appeared stable, where she lived for several years. As she enters adolescence, the early trauma becomes more manifest and this, combined with a level of risk taking, common to many teenagers, leads to behaviour which the adults involved consider too “high risk”. Her current home, usually at this point a foster home, is deemed unable to keep her safe. So she is moved, often, in these circumstances, to a children’s home.
A few weeks or months later, the children’s home decides it is equally unable to keep the young person safe, so she is moved to another children’s home – without anyone bothering to consider how this new home will be in a better position to keep her safe than the previous one. And of course it can’t, so she will be moved again.
Occasionally, if the risk is considered very high, she will move to a secure children’s home, but, under the current system, the secure order will likely last three months, after which she will not return to the previous children’s home but another one, to be looked after by another set of strangers in an area she does not know. However skilled and well-meaning the staff of the secure home are, unless they are magicians, nothing meaningful will have taken place in those three months to address the causes of the risk-taking behaviour. Indeed, such is the level of disruption in her life, and with no consistent and reliable adult relationships, it is very very likely the risk-taking behaviour will increase.
In my experience, the two most common reasons a home is deemed not to be able to keep a child safe or “manage the risk”, are because of high-levels of self-harm or suicidal behaviour and, perhaps even more commonly, because they are running away and at risk of, or definitely, being exploited, – sexually, via county lines drug running, or both.
Let us deal with self-harming first, the reasons a young person may self-harm are beyond the scope of this post, and I do not want to be reductive, but it is usually, in some way, a regulating behaviour, done to calm and communicate emotional distress. Given that almost all humans are more regulated and less distressed when in the company of known people who we consider safe and who we have a relationship with, moving a young person away from his or her known relationships, to live in an unknown environment with another set of strange adults is very very likely to increase the level of self-harming, not reduce it. Further, even secure mental health hospitals are not able to sanitise the environment so much as to prevent self-harming – so I cannot see how it is ever helpful to move a young person in these circumstances.
Often, when a young person is running away and being exploited, the case for moving them can seem overwhelming. I am going to say something that many will find unpalatable – young people often run to, and seek out, the types of people who exploit them. I intend to write more about this one day, but for now, I will state that a reason which is common in almost all these cases is a crushing lack of self-worth and self-esteem. I want to be clear that I am in no way excusing perpetrators – indeed much more should be done to catch and prosecute them. I simply make this point because it is necessary to understand how it can seem almost impossible to keep some young people safe.
I can often feel sick with anxiety if a teenage girl I am a carer for goes missing for a few days. The staff and management of a home, the police, the social worker can all very quickly feel powerless and frustrated, and genuinely very concerned that a young person may come to serious harm. The pressure to take action, to do something, is immense and it can quickly seem like the only option is to move the child.
The problem is this, and it is a big one, will moving her actually make her safer? The likelihood is, she will either run away and find her previous associates or she will finds, or be found by, very similar people in her new town.
Crucially, she will have just lost the relationships she had, or was starting to form, with the adults in her previous home, she will likely be experiencing shame and rejection, she will have even less reason to invest in relationships with the new set of adults, she will be even more convinced that she has to survive on her own. All of these things increase the risk to her, rather than reduce it. Perhaps most troubling, is that it means that the only consistent and known relationships in her life are with the people who are abusing and exploiting her, making their pull even stronger.
It is just a simple statement of truth that a young person (or anyone) will only feel valued, will only build their feelings of self-worth, will only feel regulated and safe, in the context of known, meaningful and empathetic relationships with key adults, and any work done to “reduce risk” can only take place when these relationships have been built – this takes time. For these reasons, and as difficult as it is, care providers, social services, Ofsted and the police, all need to accept that, in the short to medium term, risk cannot always significantly be reduced. “Managing the risk” sometimes means accepting and tolerating the risk.