Is Michael Gove in danger of fixating too much on adoption?

While fostering and adoption are undeniably important, focusing on them at the expense of early intervention is a false economy, say charity leaders.

Earlier this month, Anthony Douglas, chief executive of Cafcass (the Children and Family Advisory Support Service), said that record numbers of children are likely to be taken into care this year, due to the effects of benefits changes and public sector cuts. He warned there could be an increase of 8 per cent, putting more strain on an already-stretched system. Michael Gove tacitly acknowledged this would be the case in a speech last year. In response, he was keen to focus on one aspect of care

The most important thing is to find adults equipped to care, in circumstances that provide stability. Sometimes that will mean fostering – and if there are one group of people who rival social workers in their unselfish commitment to helping our most vulnerable young people then they are foster carers…But more and more often it should – must – mean adoption.

And this has become the overriding priority. Last week he announced that authorities which are failing to find adoptive parents could be stripped of their powers, which would be handed to the voluntary or private sector – the latest in a raft of measures designed to increase adoption rates.

Behind this policy, an assumption appears to have been made about mental health: the idea that all that is needed is stable, loving family, and that, in the long term, this is the best treatment for all children from a traumatic background. (“My experience of adoption has shown me how – whatever your start in life – being brought up by adults who love you, who are now your parents, is transformative”). Gove’s not afraid to admit that his own personal history – he was adopted at four months – has informed this belief.

And there have been a number of recent stories about residential care which suggest it is no place to send a child who may well have suffered severe trauma. One of the details about the recent Rochdale abuse cases which slipped under the radar concerned a victim who had been moved from Essex and placed in a one-to-one home, where she was the only resident. It wasn’t a foster placement: she never woke up with the same staff member in the home who had been there when she went to sleep. It wasn’t unusual for members of staff to be charged with her care who had never met her.

Providing stable, loving care is clearly critical to supporting children in care; all the evidence says so. But is the situation as simple as all that? Is residential care failing so badly, is adoption so infallible an option? Before we even consider that question, we need to think about what’s happening beforehand, Tom Rahilly, the Head of Strategy for Looked After Children at the NSPCC, tells me. “We've seen a sustained rise in the numbers, with over 28,000 children entering care in England last year. The evidence shows that care provides a safe environment for most of these children – indeed the majority say they think their care is good. But for many the support comes too late. Most children are known to social services before they enter, but far too many children and families on the edge of care don’t receive the support that they need. They’re left bumping along the bottom without the support needed. We need to get better at both identifying which children need to enter care, and at providing effective early help for families at risk.”

He points out that the latest policies are being implemented at the expense of preventative work: “Parents don't receive enough help to stop problems such as drug or alcohol abuse or mental health difficulties. This puts children at risk of harm and we're worried that this will get worse. The government has just announced a cut in funding for early intervention, to fund increased support for adoption. We welcome support for adoption, but it simply doesn't make sense to take money from early intervention. It's a false economy: this support helps stop family breakdown and address problems which can lead to children needing to enter care in the first place. Improving early help was a key recommendation of the Munro Review, which ministers supported just 18 months ago.” Clearly we need to improve our preventative work, and it seems a cruel irony that it's instead being jeopardised by a focus on adoption.

However, there will always be children for whom there is simply no safe option other than to take them away from their families, a view clearly supported by the NSPCC. Many of these children will have suffered horrific abuse, and have mental health, and emotional and behavioural difficulties as a result of their experiences before care – four to five times the level for all children, and even higher for those in residential care. Even with reform, adoption will remain the option for a minority of children. We have to ask whether we – and the government’s reforms – are doing enough to support all children in care.

Three quarters of children in residential care will have a diagnosable mental health difficulty (a figure that rises to 95 per cent for young offenders). But believe it or not, the mental health of children and young people upon entry into state care is not systematically assessed. There is an obligatory health assessment, but in practice it often only focuses on physical health.

The patchiness of provision extends on from the moment the child first enters care. I spoke to a number of professionals who work in children’s services for a deprived London borough. One of them, Sarah (name changed), said: “If you’re in a local authority and place the child in another one, then actually accessing the services can be difficult depending on what the health trust’s care arrangements are. Working with young adults, if you want to make a referral to a community mental health team they have to be registered with a GP. Just having the money to get from A to B or to get a foster parent to take time out can be a barrier. And there are less practical barriers. I was trained in America – where there’s much more openness in our culture about accessing therapy. Here there’s much more of a stigma – if you break your arm there’s no shame in going to the doctor. It can be hard for social workers to talk comfortably with young people about their mental health.”

What she says is borne out by a 2009 study which showed that 49 per cent of children with an “apparent mental health problem” were not receiving or accessing a service from district Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). These services are often characterised by limited provision, strict referral criteria, significant local variation in health care planning, and long waiting lists. Research has found only those children or young people with a diagnosed illness or easily identifiable mental health problem tend to be prioritised, meaning that the majority of children and young people who have been affected by neglect or abuse are often overlooked. This isn’t just a problem with residential care. Around three-quarters of looked after children in England and Wales are in foster placements and foster carers frequently report that the most common difficulty for the children or young people in their care is their mental health.

But as Rahilly says: “Problems often have to get worse before the threshold for accessing services is passed. In some cases children aren’t able to access support until they’re in stable placements, but this can prevent support being provided to some children with significant needs. It creates a vicious circle where children can't access support because they’re not in a stable placement, but the difficulties they face contribute to the instability of their placements. This can't be right."

And as he adds, this a problem across all facets of the care system: “Even where mental health difficulties are identified, we hear too many stories of foster carers having to fight to receive the support that children in their care need; the assessment and identification of need doesn't necessarily result in support. The help that we give children in care should be based on their need, not on the ability of their carer to fight for it, often in the face of repeated failure to access necessary support.”

Few understand how exactly difficult the task of caring for a traumatised child can be, and how much specialist knowledge is required. Kim Golding, a clinical psychologist based in Worcestershire, is a member of a mental health team that offers support to foster carers, adoptive children’s homes, parents on special guardian orders, and others. She tells me about the state these children will be in: “Developmental trauma – domestic violence, drugs, sexual abuse – causes neurological damage. It affects the way the way the brain is wired. On top of that, you have the trauma of removal from their families – and sometimes of multiple placements after that.”

These problems end up being transferred onto the carer: “A child who has suffered sexual abuse can end up acting sexually towards the carer, because that’s the only way they know how to get comfort. It can put the carer in a very difficult situation – we have to teach them how to provide comfort but remain appropriate. It’s a similar job with children who only know how to get attention through aggression. Parents get drawn into patterns of relating – we try to spot them so they offer a different way of being.”

Golding’s service may sound invaluable, but it’s not required by statute. In fact, research shows foster parents who receive similar support are in a minority around the country. You’d be amazed at exactly how little help they get. They often get a limited amount of background information. As Kate (name changed), another local government worker says: “We don’t necessarily give them the whole story with all its nasty details. I think sometimes we can hide some of the realities. That’s an issue. It’s not to say we’re being dishonest – it’s just that sometimes we can make it sound better than it is. If the child’s behaviour is causing issues in a placement which can mean it’ll break down, we take the child out for therapy when we should actually be teaching the carers how to deal with that behaviour. Actually they end up being the sponge for a lot of negativity. It’s about preparing them for what that reality looks like.”

Without Golding’s service the local foster parents would still receive help from social workers, but this specialist knowledge would be missing. Whilst Golding’s own service is not at risk, others around the country are facing the axe. Sarah says: “Local government has been squeezed with little bits of money continually taken away from services – salami slicing – and there’s a limit before the service is viable. You end up having to take whole services away – that’s better than having a bunch of services which can’t do their jobs because they’re poorly staffed and resourced. A lot of the supportive services aren’t statutory, and because the voluntary sector’s had a role for years, that makes them more vulnerable to cuts. We’re trying not to cut out anything that’s preventative or supportive because we know that in the long run it’ll increase demand for statutory services. At the same time you have to provide the statutory services.”

Kate also questioned whether the sacking of Tim Loughton – the former children’s minister – was down to the fact he was prioritising the wrong things: “I went to the All Party Parliamentary Group meetings for looked-after children and children leaving care, and he was fantastic, regularly meeting young people, clear about his direction. I was disappointed the Prime Minister took him off that position. It can’t be a coincidence that he was identifying a lot of things we need, all of which cost money. At the moment the pressure on us is coming from Ofsted – it’s not unhelpful but it’s not right that’s the only pressure. We should reduce the number of children that are looked after, but it should be so that it’s the right children that are looked after.” Might Loughton's undoing have been the fact that he took a less one-eyed view of the care process than his boss?

And as Rahilly says: “Too many people still talk of children "languishing in care", thinking that what we need to do to support children is to remove them from care. We need to ensure that all children in care have loving, stable, long terms homes. But we also need to dramatically improve the support to address the mental health and emotional difficulties faced by many children in care. Until we do this we cannot ever say that we're doing enough for our most vulnerable children.”

Does a single-minded focus on adoption really meet the needs of all children in care? It seems the Government is looking for a quick fix. The issues described above are serious, and dealing with them does not run counter to Gove’s aim to provide more children with a stable upbringing through adoption. Indeed, they're complementary: if they're not dealt with adoption is unlikely to be the magical happy ending Gove envisages. This is not an either/or choice: the care of our most vulnerable children must be seen a continuous process. Yet his statements and policies thus far suggest one element is being prioritised at the expense of the others.

 

If care is failing children, it doesn't necessarily follow that adoption is an infallible solution. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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After the defeat of Hillary Clinton, what should the US left do next?

For disappointed Bernie Sanders supporters and others on the left, the big question is now: should they work within the Democratic party?

For the majority of the US left, Hillary Clinton’s electoral defeat came as a surprise. Sure, they’d had doubts about her candidacy from the start. They’d expressed disgust at her platform, history, priorities and dubious associations – not least, at her campaign’s focus on cosying up to wealthy elites, courting the support of billionaires such as slum landlord Warren Buffett, at the expense of trying on to hold on to the party’s core working-class vote – but the general belief was that, however undeservedly, she’d still manage to pull it off.

After all, polling suggested she maintained a fairly consistent lead in key swing states even as Trump somewhat narrowed the gap, and there was reason to think that demographic trends would work against her competitor, who openly courted white supremacist votes.

Hindsight is 20/20, but many now feel they took their eye off the ball.  Leslie Lee III, a writer from Louisiana currently residing just outside Washington DC, argues that people “got so worn down by the polls that we forgot our message, that Clinton was the worst possible candidate to put against Trump”. For him, identifying what went wrong is simple:  “Trump promised people something, the establishment candidate was telling people America was already great. It doesn’t matter if he was doing it in a dishonest, con-artist, racist, xenophobic, sexist way – he said he’d fix people’s problems, while Clinton said they didn’t have problems”.

Leslie isn’t alone in believing that a wonkish focus on polls and data distracted from what was really going on. Everyone I speak to feels that the supposed ‘experts’ from the liberal mainstream aren’t equipped to understand the current political landscape. “We are witnessing a global phenomenon,” suggests writer Amber A’Lee Frost, who first got involved with the Democrats to support the Sanders campaign but voted Obama in 2008. “The UK offers the most clear parallel to the US. Nationalism, racism and xenophobia are festering.” Student and Democratic Socialists of America activist Emily Robinson agrees: “All across the world we’ve seen massive right-wing upswells, from Trump, LePen and May in the West to Modi and Erdogan in the East.” Whatever differences exist between these respective politicians, it’s hard to argue with the contention there’s been a widespread shift to the right.

US left-wingers argue that liberals fail to understand their own role in the current situation. From a British perspective, it’s hard to disagree. Repeatedly, I’ve seen discussions shut down with the claim that even acknowledging economy policy may have contributed to the resurgence of ethno-nationalist ideology amounts to apologism. Nor can faulty data be held entirely responsible for any complacency. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, polls suggested that the result would be too close to call; nonetheless, within the liberal bubble almost everyone assumed we’d vote to remain. The fact the value of the pound rose on the eve of the referendum was seen as evidence for this belief, as if currency traders have some sort of special insight into the mind of the average UK voter. Looking back, the whole thing is laughable.

Over in the US, the disconnect seems to be much the same. “People in the street weren’t following that stuff,” Leslie says of the finer details of both the Trump and Clinton campaigns. “Trump said he would fix their problems, Clinton said they didn’t have any. If we’d stayed focused on that it would have been obvious.” Instead, many of her supporters believed that it was Hillary’s turn and consequently dismissed substantive criticisms, sometimes claiming the vast majority of opposition was simply latent sexism. Even the campaign slogan “I’m With Her” seemed to be about what voters could should for Clinton, not what Clinton would do for them. As polls narrowed, party insiders continued to insist that Clinton was the rightful heir to Obama’s voting coalition, however little she actually did to earn it. 

A lack of message simplicity definitely seems to have been part of the problem. When I speak to Christian, who currently works in outreach and recruitment for the Democratic Socialists of America’s national office, he admits he was barely aware of the platform Clinton was campaigning on. “I’d ask my friends, and sometimes she’d talk about stuff, but it’s so vague,” he explains. “The average working-class person shouldn’t have to go to a website and read a 30 page policy document. It feels like it’s written that way for a reason, it’s muddled, neoliberal bullshit that lobbyists have written.” It’s true that media coverage probably didn’t help, with reporting frequently focuses on gossip and overblown scandal over substantive policy issues, but an effective political communicator must ensure their core messages cut through. Obama managed it in 2008, and however abhorrent we might find it, pretty much everyone heard about Trump’s wall.

It’s also hard to ignite excitement for the continuity candidate when many people don’t believe that the status quo actually benefits them. “I think neoliberalism no longer works as an electoral incentive to voters, especially working-class voters,” argues Amber. Emily tells me that prior to this election she’d worked on two Democratic campaigns, but before Sanders she’d been ready to give up on the party. “When they had the power to, the Democrats failed to implement policies that helped the working class, Hispanic, Black and Muslim communities, and women.”

She explains her disappointment during the early part of Obama’s first term, when the Democrats held the House, Senate and Oval Office. “They jumped away from the single payer option for healthcare, which would have helped the entire American population. The implementation of the DREAM act would have helped immigrant communities. There’s also a lot they could have done on policing and carceral reform, repealing federal use of private prisons, for example, and labour rights, by introducing federal protections for trade unions and effectively repealing so-called ‘right to work’ laws in many states. They did not mandate free, universal pre-kindergarten nor did they even attempt to work forwards free collect – or, at the bare minimum free community college.”

For Douglas Williams, a graduate student at Wayne State University, it was Obama’s relationship with labour unions that caused him to drift away from the party. “In 2013, Barack Obama appointed a union buster to a federal judgeship in the District of Columbia. I started to think, labour gave $1.1 billion to national Democrat party politics between 2005 and 2011, and labour got literally nothing from it.”

One left-leaning activist, who prefers to be identified by his blogging pseudonym Cato of Utica, campaigned door-to-door for Clinton. He explains in visceral detail his disillusionment with the party he’d worked within for roughly a decade: “I was heavily involved in North Carolina in places where the recovery never even touched. These were working poor people, and the doorbells didn’t work. If the doorbells are broken, what else is broken inside the house? What else isn’t the landlord taking care of? I looked at our candidates and none of the people I was pushing were going to address the problems in these people’s lives.”

Much ink has been spilled trying to pin down exactly what motivated people to vote Trump, whose campaign rhetoric was more explicitly xenophobic, racist and sexist than any other recent presidential candidate. Most of his supporters also voted Republican in previous elections, but two other groups are more interesting from a left-wing perspective: those who previously voted Obama but opted for Trump this time round, and non-voters who were inspired to make it to the polling booth for the first time. Overwhelmingly, both groups are concentrated in lower income categories.

“I think people voted for Trump because he acknowledged that there is something very wrong with America,” suggests Amber. “I obviously disagree with Trump voters on what is wrong with this country, and the fact that his campaign was fuelled by nationalism and racism certainly gave it a terrifying edge, but I know why they voted for him, even though he will ultimately betray his most vulnerable supporters.”

It would be absurd to discount racism as a factor in an election where the winning candidate was endorsed by the official newspaper of the Ku Klux Klan and its former leader David Duke, but Leslie disagrees with those who claim it was the primary motivation for the most Trump voters. His earliest political memory is from around 4th or 5th grade, when David Duke was running for Governor of Louisiana. “As one of the few Black kids in your class,” he recalls, “it really makes you realise how important politics is early on”. One of his closest friends was a previous Obama voter who opted for Trump this election, and the common factor seems to have been a message of optimism.

“Obama offered something more important than these people’s prejudices: hope and change, basically. He didn’t deliver it but he offered it. Romney was seen as the establishment. Obama said, ‘I’m an outsider and I’ll bring something new to the table’. There’s a line between Trump and Obama in that vein – and my friend will tell you the same.”

At a time when many people have a strong desire to kick out at the political establishment, Clinton was the ultimate establishment candidate. Leslie is scathing about the extent to which she actively highlighted this in her campaign: “She talked about being experienced – what does that mean? It means you’ve been part of the establishment. She attacked Obama with her experience in 2008 so I don’t know why she thought it would work. It’s not like being the local dog catcher, you don’t turn in your resume and if you have the most experience you get it. You need to have a message and get people inspired, and she didn’t have it.”

Most of the people I speak to believe that Sanders would have had a better chance of beating Trump, and many poured significant time, effort and money into his campaign. They note that polling showing Sanders had consistently higher approval ratings amongst the general public than Clinton throughout the primaries, and argue that people citing recently released unused opposition research as evidence he’d have lost don’t understand voter motivations. The idea that Sanders’ experience of being poor and unemployed would have worked against him is seen as particularly mockable. Whatever the truth, the more relevant question now is what the left does next.

Opinion is split between those who think working within the Democratic Party is the best approach and those who believe its unaccountable, bureaucratic structures make it a lost cause. Emily is in the first category. “I think leftists should, in a limited capacity, be running within what is now the desiccated carcass of the Democratic Party, rather than naively attempting to build a party from the ground up and risking splitting the left-liberal vote,” she tells me. “They should be prepared to run for elections with a (D) next to their name, even if they refuse to bend at the knee to the neoliberal, imperial tendencies of the Democratic elite.”

Particularly exciting right now is the work of the Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation which aims to shape the future of the party in a leftwards direction. Membership had increased by a third since the election – aided partly by support from celebrities such as Killer Mike and Rob Delaney. “We’re planning on Trump being a one-term president,” DSA representative Christian tells me. “We have a 50 state strategy, but right now we only have chapters in 31 states. It’s not just about elections, it’s threefold: electoral, workplace and community organising to win on all counts.”

Douglas is sceptical about whether it’s possible to restructure the Democratic Party in the way he considers necessary, but he agrees with the DSA’s focus on community organising: “Why can’t an organisation be like ‘we’re going to sponsor a little league team’? Why can’t we open a soup kitchen? We’re making noise, we’re out here, but we heard your aunt is having trouble with her roof. We’ve got guys who can fix that, and then we’ll leave a little sign saying it was us.” Cato of Utica references something similar that happened in Flint, where the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union visited people’s homes to make sure their water filters were properly fitted.

“We need to rebuild the labour movement,” agrees Emily. “Not only to carry out all the normal functions of unions, but also to provide a community, and spaces for education, child care and other forms of support. If we don’t build solidarity among the working class – not just the white working class, but the Hispanic working class, the Black working class and so on – we risk allowing another reactionary movement caused by cleavages promoted by the ruling classes.”

Left-wing organisations traditionally target places like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, where it’s easier to build support. Christian argues that the Democratic Party, and the DSA specifically, need to “focus on the Rust Belt, where the Democrats lost, and the South, where Bernie lost”. There’s a widespread belief that Southern states which have been Republican for decades now could be winnable in future presidential elections, partly because of demographic trends pointing towards increasingly ethnically diverse voting populations. As for the Rust Belt, it’s hard to argue with the claim that a different candidate could do better than Clinton – who didn’t even bother to visit Wisconsin, which swung Republican, in the months preceding the vote.

The DSA’s 50 state strategy involves creating a national framework, but with devolved power allowing local chapters to focus on the issues most relevant in their area. “In Texas our chapter is really strong and we do a lot of work on immigration reform, working with undocumented communities, whereas Boston obviously doesn’t have to deal with that so much,” Christian explains to me. “In places like Kentucky and West Virginia, coal country, Republicans like Trump will say coal is coming back. We say we actually need to transition to a new economy and create green jobs, and places where people live where they don’t get cancer from coal.”

Christian believes that the unexpected success of the Sanders campaign indicates there’s an appetite for the kind of politics the DSA is offering, and that a similar candidate could gain the Democratic nomination in four years time. “Having a candidate announce earlier than Bernie did, and with a good ground game in place, we could have 50,000 volunteers ready to go. We wouldn’t be scrambling around this time, we’d be ready to go to war with [Trump]”. Like many on the left, he thinks that Keith Ellison’s selection as DNC chair is a crucial part of the puzzle. Ellison was the first Muslim elected to Congress and is chair of the Progressive Caucus. “He’s a way better politician than Bernie,” Christian contends. “He understands the intricacy of talking about labour, poverty and unions very well.”

Others I speak to argue that focus should be on working from the ground up. “I’m not even talking about state legislatures,” explains Douglas. “I mean city councillors, school boards, things like that. This is going to be a long-term project and has to start at the absolute lowest level and work its way up. People don’t even realise, in some of these cities you can get elected to the city council on 500 votes. We want to start on the big stuff but it has to be an independent, left local movement. We can run all the candidates we want, but unless we’re out here informing people ‘it’s not actually about Mexicans or Muslims, it’s your boss, it’s his fault you can’t afford to save the money to send your kids to college,’ what’s the point?”

Whatever disagreements about strategy exist, the US left seems to be united by two things: fear of Trump’s presidency and a determination to succeed. Many members of the DSA are worried about their involvement with the organisation being publicly known. Unsurprisingly, this is more acute for members of groups attacked in Trump’s rhetoric. “We see apprehensiveness with some of our Latino membership,” Christian tells me. “People don’t want to out themselves because that's risking your own livelihood. We’re a working class organisation and most people have other jobs.”

With Trump associates making noises about recreating the House Un-American Activities Committee, some fear left-wingers could be targeted as dissidents as in previous decades. However realistic the threat of government persecution, there’s already a far-right website, KeyWiki, that keeps tabs on members of socialist organisations. Everyone I speak to agrees that groups particularly vulnerable to being targeted by Trump and his supporters – including Muslim, Latino and African American communities – must be defended at all cost. “The aim of the left should be to make it impossible for Trump to govern,” says Cato of Utica. “Establishment Democrats are already making conciliatory noises. If the Democrats aren’t going to do it in the Senate, the people have to do it in the streets through direct action.”

When I ask Amber what happens next, her response seems to sum up the mood amongst the US left: “To be honest, I have no idea. I’m terrified but I am ready to fight.”