Time to confront the tragedy of 'at risk' children

Ann Farmer
December 2, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
politics and policy

Only a quarter of Britain's parents understand the critical importance of early childhood, and poor care during the first five years can result in family breakdown, addiction and homelessness. That is the message to be delivered to Britain by The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William and likely future queen consort.

The warning about child neglect has been inspired by a "landmark study - the biggest of its kind in the UK" - which concludes that parents need better support and access to information from society as a whole. The report, "State of the Nation: Understanding Public Attitudes to the Early Years", commissioned by the Royal Foundation, says that the significance of pregnancy and pre-school development must be better promoted. It warns that the current lack of understanding could lead to a "passive" approach to childcare. 

The Duchess of Cambridge is doing a public service in drawing attention to the vital importance of the early years in children's lives, but it is likely that the 57-page report will take a "passive approach" to the vital importance of an intact family to child welfare, not least because Princes William and Harry have suffered from having divorced parents - with the further tragedy of the loss of their mother, Diana - as have the children of three out of four of the Queen's children.

All of them grew up enjoying the benefit of an intact family but, sadly, more and more children no longer enjoy that basic benefit, leaving the state to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives; as the Children's Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, reports, statistics from the courts reveal that vulnerable children are increasingly being "locked up" in makeshift accommodation. While the overall number of children being detained in secure placements - under mental health, criminal justice or children's laws - is falling, she warns that the statistics mask a "hidden group of youngsters being deprived of their liberty outside of these settings and that their number may be growing".

She explained that judges were being asked to make decisions in potentially hundreds of cases to deprive children of their liberty in unregistered placements because beds cannot be found for them in secure accommodation. In the foreword to the report, she says she found more evidence about the growing number of children locked up who do not appear in any official statistics and are not living in places designed to hold children.

Warning that these "incredibly vulnerable" youngsters are often at risk of being sexually or criminally exploited, she asks for an urgent increase in specialist care centres, and calls on the Government to consider whether legislation is required to protect these youngsters.

The traditional family used to be the "specialist care centre" for children, but sadly the British Government has presided over legislation making divorce even easier, while failing to help couples stay together and indeed encourage them to get married in the first place ,  thus ensuring that the benefits of marriage are extended to all - that it does not become a privilege for the privileged few . 

Divorce used to be seen as bad for children, but the Government has shown its commitment to children not by making the home a safer place but by making it even easier - if not safer - to abort a child at home .  

Perhaps this is their "final solution" to the increasing numbers of children being categorised as in need, an increasing number of whom are actually living with their families , and it can be no coincidence that increasing efforts are being made to keep children in their families despite domestic and welfare problems rather than taking them into care, given that the care system is struggling to cope with more and more children - indeed, Britain has now hit the 100,000 mark . Even if the Government does not take into account the emotional cost of growing up in care, it must be looking for ways to reduce the financial cost .  

Only recently the Children's Commissioner issued a series of reports highlighting the fact that children "in care" were being dumped in "rat-infested care homes" because of a dearth of suitable accommodation ,  and the Government must be relieved that the numbers of children in care and "in need" naturally decline when they leave the care system and/or social services scrutiny and are no longer counted.

Despite all the reports and all the advice and all the lectures, it is clear that children no longer count in the scheme of things; by making divorce ever easier and failing to protect and promote marriage, we have created record numbers of broken families. And when we have presided over the trashing of the nuclear family - and eventually, the wider family that often steps in when couples break up - what will we do with all the "vulnerable children" when we run out of loving, intact families to take them in?

The Duchess of Cambridge is right to speak about the importance of the early years in child welfare, but the elephant in the room is the broken family, and all the signs are that we are heading for a catastrophe to rival the Coronavirus pandemic - and with little if any money left to throw at it.

However, if we are no longer able to conceal the problem with shedloads of cash, we may be finally forced to confront this monstrosity of our own making rather than covering it up. Sadly, if it was a real elephant someone would ask us to adopt it.