27,000 UK children need not be in care

In her book “Behind Closed Doors” (2022), journalist Polly Curtis reports on her extensive investigation of children in the UK removed from their families into care – foster care or care-homes. She says that with better support for the families 27,000 children need not be in care.

Removal may have been unnecessary for as many as 27,000 of 80,000 children in care had the right support been in place at the right time.

Polly Curtis, Behind Closed Doors

Among many who praised the book, the Transparency Project said she brought together the published evidence with what high level people say, and also what “low level experts by experience” say. They’re the children and families. The book is full of her actual interviews. Part Four is where she puts it all together and comes to some conclusions.

Nigel Richardson was leader of childrens services in Leeds UK. He told her: “Children [are] best served by being brought up in their family networks. Family is the most important, but the most forgotten utility of the twenty-first century. If anything happened to my kids I would want an exhaustive look at our family network, people that the kids knew. I would not want strangers. Yet that’s what we do.”

Bailey Burger is assistant commissioner with a huge budget for prevention services in New York. She said they prevent “[1] increased incidence of child abuse and neglect, [2] worse harm to children, and [3] removal of children. Four out of five families complete the programmes they start. Of those, only one in thirty-eight families have another child welfare investigation within six months.”

Adversarial courts: “A conveyor belt to care”

Polly Curtis says, that, in order to build a better way of doing social work so that children stay with their own families, maybe we have to start again. She summarizes the multiple complex and contradictory factors that would improve the system.

She describes the social worker system as a sticking plaster where radical intervention is in order. She suggests re-setting social work into two separate sections: community support officers and child protection officers.

Pretending they can be ‘fixed’, that children can be rescued from their own parents, denies the complexities of the human relationship and the profound need for love and belonging that they are built on. … We are getting to children too late, leaving them in terrible circumstances, then ‘fixing’ the problem by separating them from parents who, despite everything, they still love. … As soon as the [family court] ‘conveyor belt to care’ has been switched on, relationships break down. Once in the courts, the adversarial nature of the system makes it harder for families to work their way out.

Polly Curtis, Behind Closed Doors

We’re all on the ‘good enough’ parenting spectrum. This isn’t happening to other people; it’s happening to us. This isn’t the fault of social services, or the courts or other authorities; it’s our collective responsibility. Because looking after the most vulnerable children is what a society does.

Polly Curtis, Behind Closed Doors

And we know that separating the children from their parents into care with strangers may (also) end up being a poor, sad and even harmful time for the children.

You punish children when you remove them

Early intervention services and local family hubs are developing fast across England. All these admirably aim to respond better to families in trouble as soon as it happens. But that’s still after it happens. Polly Curtis’s analysis of the problem goes way further than once trouble starts.

Children love their flawed, broken and sometimes useless parents. You punish children when you remove them … [Everyone blames everyone else – and the parents; and of course: The] children feel it. They see the impact of a separation on their parents, they understand themselves to be the cause of it. It is a crushing, painful outcome.

Polly Curtis, Behind Closed Doors

A sustained culture change campaign is in order if we want society to take collective responsibility and offer more than belated sticking-plaster help. That means creating a culture and systems that will make the ‘conveyor belt to care’ redundant. We could find that even more than 27,000 children need not be in care.

Click here for fuller edited excerpts from Part Four. Read the whole thing: Behind Closed Doors. Why We Break Up Families & How to Mend Them. In her Author’s Note, Polly Curtis describes the innovative ‘slow-news’ approach of Tortoise media who gave her months of support to do this new kind of old-fashioned investigative journalism.

The truth is always messy and more complex. Just like there are no real ‘baddies’, there are no pure ‘goodies’. Our rush to judgement and to put people in boxes eats away at what makes this story so fascinating – the interplay between people and society.

Polly Curtis, Behind Closed Doors