Testimony of a Caregiver: The last decade

Soon after the New Millennium came of age, I celebrated 45 years caring for, and about children and young people looked after by the state, and the adults they become. For the most part, it had been a joy and a privilege, but as the curtain closed on the last decade, it ended for me as it began... in disillusionment.

The company I worked for had purchased 4 small children’s homes in Kent just before Christmas 2009. Soon after, arguments were raging in parliament about the number of children from London Boroughs placed in children’s homes in Kent and the demands this imposed on local resources. Around this time my work also took me to Hackney to a presentation titled ‘Reclaiming Social Work’. The presentation was delivered by Isabelle Trowler who set up Morning Lane Associates Ltd. with Stephen Goodman and Mary Jackson in March 2010. In 2011 an article in the Guardian gave them credit for transforming children and families social work in the borough and influencing government policy. Two years later Isabelle Trowler became the first Chief Social Worker for Children and Families in 2013. 

In the spring of 2010, I had also uncovered and reported the use of excessive and unauthorised physical restraint overlooked by Ofsted. After exhausting all investigative routes except the media, I struggled to accept that those responsible for this regime would not be called to account. What I did not know then was that a few years later it would take a legal battle costing thousands of pounds to secure that evidence. I was still struggling to come to terms with these safeguarding failures when my hopes were raised by the announcement of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse on 7 July 2014. At last, I dared to believe the shroud of secrecy would be lifted, that wrongdoers would be held to account and justice would be served.

It was well known that children in care were being targeted and sexually exploited long before the Jimmy Saville scandal triggered the inquiry. The police called it a lifestyle choice, blamed missing children on caregivers, and even failed to respond to calls for assistance from female staff following girls taken from a children’s home in a vehicle driven by armed men. In 2007, a young person who had been moved from one children’s home to another 60 miles away for protection was pursued within 48 hours by a man claiming to be her ‘friend’. Another girl was found in hospital with life-threatening injuries three days after she was picked up from a children’s home. She had been stabbed during an argument by the man who took her, but nobody wanted to listen to the horror that was unfolding. That caregivers walked the streets in the middle of the night searching for lost girls and spent hours tending to the physical and mental wounds inflicted. Instead, when the scandal finally sparked media interest children’s homes were again in the line of fire. 

By 2014 the company where I worked had been under new management for two years and I had decided that the boardroom was not the place for me. My notice was served on garden leave, and I attended the trial of a male carer charged with sexual offences against 3 girls residing in 3 different children’s homes. The defendant and two of the girls were known to me, and I was familiar with circumstances surrounding the alleged offences. When I heard the defence barrister telling the jury that these girls had gone to the same school, I was immediately alarmed. This was a distortion of truth no doubt intended to introduce the possibility of collusion in the minds of the jury. The girls had attended the same school at different times, but that was not what the court heard. The seed of doubt had been planted and matters were made even worse when jurors were told the defendant had an impeccable work record. A mere check on the school register and his personnel file would have eliminated this line of defence, but protest was pointless.

The judge was told that notes I had passed to the defending and prosecuting barrister pointing out that the evidence given to the jury was incorrect, were not a matter for his attention. I was later advised that the law does not permit the introduction of new evidence during a trial. In this circumstance, it came as no surprise to me that the defendant walked free even though there was clearly doubt in the minds of some as the jury could not reach a decision on all charges. After the hearing, I wrote to the Chief Inspector and the Police Commissioner in search of an opportunity to discuss what I knew about this case, and what I had witnessed in the hope that lessons could be learned. But beyond a one-line acknowledgment from the office of the police commissioner, it seemed to me that there was no appetite to learn any lessons from the possibility that a miscarriage of justice had occurred.  

I wrote to the independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation about this and other concerns related to institutional child protection failures on 3 August 2017. The response I received was not reassuring, “... given the wide scope of the inquiry it may or may not be possible that they will form a subject for further investigation as the inquiry proceeds. The information you have provided will be considered in this context as it makes these decisions. A member of the Inquiry team will be in touch at a later date if we have further queries.” The independent inquiry announced a new investigation into Effective Leadership of Child Protection on 1 November 2019, I was not contacted. 

By then I had read The Secret Barrister... stories of the law and how it’s broken. From this, I learned that the former chief crown prosecutor for the North-West had also decided in 2014 that he no longer wanted to be part of the service he worked for because, “junior, less experienced staff, were being asked to do more with substantially less in a climate where they are constantly under scrutiny.” (The Secret Barrister, Chapter 4. Watching the Guilty Walk Free: Prosecuting on the Cheap...) it sounded familiar. 

Soon after I was approached about the possibility of participating in a television program about the use of unregulated provision for care leavers. When I explained that whilst I could understand why people thought regulation was necessary, I seriously doubted that Ofsted style regulation was the solution needed, I heard nothing further. After watching the program weeks later, I became very concerned about the rhetoric influencing children’s social care and wrote to the program makers. 

“As you know I don’t share your view that Ofsted’s approach to regulation will improve supported accommodation. My reasons are many, not least that we have had regulation for 20 years and for 13years it has been Ofsted led, outcomes have not improved and stories of unethical business and regulatory practices in regulated children’s homes are not in short supply. Give me a call if this is of interest.”  The reply... “I have been asked to turn my attentions to other areas of policy and I imagine I won’t be reporting on the care sector for children again for some time...” It was a familiar response...  

By the end of the decade, children’s social care was in crisis. Many victims of historical child abuse had lost confidence in the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse. I understood their pessimism and shared it. Stories about where the blame lay, dominated the front pages of newspapers, television screens, and the internet. Public outrage was directed at those accused of exploiting vulnerable children for profit whether guilty or not. Little thought was being given to the underlying causes or reasons for the increased number of children entering the care system or those who had not plundered the public purse. 

 

It was during this decade that venture capitalists entered the market. Ofsted did not prevent mergers from creating monopolies and big companies were not prevented from inflating fees. Instead, Ofsted forced small providers out of the market, unfairly disqualified trained and experienced caregivers from the workforce for life, and imposed placement moves on children against their wishes. The outcomes for children in care were poor according to government-defined targets in the general population, and the media was having a field day. Astonishingly, at the same time, Ofsted was reporting that 50% of Local Authorities, 93% of fostering agencies, and 80% of all children’s homes were rated good or outstanding in overall effectiveness. Despite this as stories of systemic failure emerged providers of children’s homes and supported accommodation were prime targets for journalists, and Ofsted reports whether reliable or not became weapons of war. The marketisation of children’s social care was under attack and the prime minister responded with the promise of a wide-reaching independent review of children’s social care. He omitted to say this was a crisis forty years in the making.

On 15 January 2021 Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that Josh McAlister CEO of Frontline was to chair the wide-ranging, independent review to address poor outcomes for children in care as well as strengthening families to improve vulnerable children’s lives. The independence of the chair was immediately questioned by large parts of the care community and Josh McAlister’s announcement of a forward-facing solution-focused review left many with no doubt that the review had been meticulously designed to ratify plans that have been in the making for decades and silence critics.

Within hours McAlister’s political, professional. and commercial connections were exposed. Suspicions were triggered, divisions emerged,and some seized the opportunity for self-promotion with headline-grabbing claims about the state of children’s social care. There is of course no disagreement that too many children, young people, and the adults they become are being failed by a system that provides insufficient help. But surely there is a need to understand why we are failing our children on such a large scale, and why regulation has not been the force for improvement it was intended to be, before pressing on with a politically driven plan that risks burdening future generations with more of the same.

Amanda Knowles MBE 3 September 2021