But I have a number of concerns about the way the care system and those in it are portrayed and the responses to this.
Firstly, there is tendency to represent children in care as 'victims' and 'vulnerable', and while it is true that they will have experienced difficulties, when we talk to children and young people in care, they don’t want to be labeled in such a way – they want to be treated as children first – now there’s a surprise! I recently helped with an ANV event and was particularly impressed by a presentation from children in Derbyshire who emphasized the differences in language used about them when compared to other children, for example 'siblings' rather than 'brothers and sisters'. We wouldn’t use such language about or to our own children and shouldn’t with children in care.
"…the system has always had a fatal flaw in that IROs are not independent, they are employees of the same local authority they may be challenging and as such are bound, on occasions, to have a conflict of interests."
Secondly, while I agree to some extent with Martin Narey (the Government’s adoption adviser) we have to make sure that any changes to legislation are absolutely right for children guard against – shortening and simplifying the process and eliminating any perceived political correctness is fine, but the recruitment and matching system must still maximize the chances of success. We also need to remember that that adoption will only be the right option for a minority of children in the system, even when these changes have been made.
Thirdly, the recruitment of enough foster carers is a perennial problem and likely to remain so in these austere times. I know that most fostering services bend over backwards to recruit and support a wide range of carers, but I was concerned to hear a radio programme recently where prospective foster carers had been put off because the first thing they were told was that children might make false allegations against them. I am a great believer in prospective carers understanding about how and why some children they take into their home may behave in a difficult way. But I would query whether starting the recruitment process in this way is necessarily helpful; while it may be an isolated incident, it is shows a culture where the children in care are initially portrayed as 'difficult' rather than in need of nurture and understanding. Who knows, if we focused on that there might be fewer false allegations – it’s not, as they say, rocket science!
And finally one important issue which received no press coverage at all. Recently, the National Association of Independent Reviewing Officers sent an open letter to Tim Loughton with an accompanying press release, expressing concern from some members that: "they have experienced management constraints to genuinely independent practice, including legitimate challenges being suppressed and IROs feeling intimidated by managers".
The IRO role was designed to be the 'champion' for children, ensuring plans are followed and services meet the needs of each child, and is crucial in ensuring that the voices of children and young people are heard by their corporate parents.
But the system has always had a fatal flaw in that IROs are not independent, they are employees of the same local authority they may be challenging and as such are bound, on occasions, to have a conflict of interests.
Whenever there is some sort of 'scandal' in the care system, there is always a shocked response often followed by more legislation, regulation and guidance. In my view this is the last thing the care system needs and I am delighted that this view was also put forward by a young care leaver on the 'Today' programme recently, when asked what the Government should do, she was clear that more rules and regulations was not the answer. If I were the Minister and wanted to find a quick and no cost way of protecting children in care and holding the system to account, I would find a way of making IROs truly independent so they can indeed be the champions that children in care should have.