Victims of the State
by Esther Loydall

thousands of children are lost in care - why?


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It is Valentines day.

All over the country many hearts swelled with joy while others broke. Alongside the happiness and excitement there is anguish and disappointment, disillusion and misery. The girl who lies crying and disheveled in the corner of her room feels these things acutely, but not because of a card she did not get. This girl does not want for male attention. She has, in fact, just had sex with one of her housemates. Her tears are not for him.

A warm and affectionate child, Laura first engaged in sexual relations in an attempt to achieve closeness and to create for herself the illusion that someone could actually love her. She soon discovered that this was not how it worked. It was a quick fix, a warm burst of intimacy which left her colder and more desolate than she had been before. She has grown accustomed to this, and no longer seeks love in the act. She simply does it because she can and because she takes solace in those occasional fleeting, deceptive moments in which she can still sometimes fool herself. Even now.

Much of what she does, she does unprotected. Partly because she believes she is worthless, partly because she simply does not care. If she were to get pregnant - and the statistics state that this is a distinct possibility ( according to David Brindle in the Guardian June 16th 1999, one in four girls leaving Laura's present situation is either pregnant or already has a baby) - a child would at least give her the unconditional love she has craved all her life. She does not think ahead. Even now, as she sits in her room just a few minutes after her housemate has left her, she can barely remember which one it was. It doesn't bother her, she sleeps with all three of them. In a few moments she will collect herself, scrub the streaks of mascara from her cheeks and style her hair. She will re - apply her make-up. She will push the nagging questions, her unresolved anger and her frustration to the back of her mind for yet another day, as she puts on her shoes and lets herself out of the house to begin her walk to school.

Here, she is a trouble maker. She has been told so from the day she arrived, and she has learned to live up to the expectations of adults and teachers around her. Highly intelligent, she sits out her days bored rigid - and subsequently disruptive and mouthy - in all the bottom sets. Nobody sees her potential, they are not looking for it. Laura is fourteen. Laura is in foster care. The statistics are horrific. According to David Blunkett, the education and employment secretary, 'you are 10 times more likely to be excluded from school if you are in care than if you are not.' Even more shocking is the fact that three out of every four children like Laura will leave school with no qualifications, this is compared to the mere 6% of the general population. The many bigots among us will doubtless shake their heads and say that this is just as they expected. It is narrow minded disinterested and downright ignorant people like this who hold lamentably influential positions in our society, that perpetrate statistics such as these.

Teachers, counselors, careers advisors, the legal system and social workers- all are in the position to make a difference, but many of them instead trap these children in a never ending circle of despicable discrimination, intolerance and vicious prejudgment. Adam is nineteen, with no qualifications and a criminal record. He was in care from the age of 12 until his 18th birthday, and is infinitely more intelligent than many of the individuals I have encountered at university over the years. Disarmingly pleasant and open, he has no problem explaining the underlying principles of his behaviour as a teenager. In one way, Adam is quite lucky; he had the presence of mind to stop his criminal activities as soon as he became old enough to be sent to an adult prison. Statistically speaking, he was fifty times more likely to be imprisoned than his male contemporaries who had not been in foster care. An alarming 40% of the prison population is made up of individuals who have been in care. Adam explains this simply, as he says that as he and his friends saw it, there was little if any difference between a life in prison and a life in care. The state makes an equally poor parent in either case.

He believes he committed most of the burglaries and petty crimes listed on his record partly as a release for his pent- up frustration and partly in an attempt to gain the attention he felt he so sorely lacked. Also, he is quick to add, he was told from an early age that he would end up 'inside,' and he firmly believes that you live out the life you are prescribed by those around you. The concept of foster children being the victims of self-fulfilling prophecies is hardly new. It has already been mentioned that teachers are often quick to judge the new arrivals in their classes badly if their background is found to be such a one as either Laura's or Adam's.

Unfortunately the lack of educational support and understanding available to foster children culminates in many ruined lives as a result of low self-esteem. Adam is himself considering returning to college, however before he can do this he must first overcome his fear of failure which, thanks to the teachers he has known, he feels is a certainty. Having been told he was 'utterly stupid,' that he had special needs and a low I.Q. and that he 'might as well not bother with school at all,' Adam is understandably wary. He is also very angry. The over-particular vetting of potential adoptive parents is, Adam feels, very much to blame for the unnecessarily long amounts of time that children are forced to remain in care. He is the first to acknowledge that there is no such thing as the perfect parent, but is firmly convinced that all these children want is a stable family unit.

Adam was, himself, held up at an even earlier stage of the process. He was not even placed with a foster family at first - nobody had any room for him, he was told- and was instead left in a juvenile detention centre. He had, at this point, committed no crime. He would most probably have been there a while, had he not stabbed one gang leader- who had been harassing him since his first day there - in the leg. This was his first violent crime, and it prompted his social worker to find him a home within the next two days. It is interesting to note how quickly the process could be moved along when the Social Services' reputations looked as though they might be on the line. Where was this family before, when Adam had first needed them? On his asking this question at a later date, he was calmly told that at the time he had not been priority case. Surely this is a disgusting and sobering reflection upon the treatment some of these children receive. It seems that the State must begin to accept liability for the trauma and damage it has caused many young people. It must also accept responsibility for the emotional scarring of many foster children which has been the direct result of its various policies.

Things must change. The figures a couple of months ago stood at 2500 children waiting to be adopted, with 1300 families approved for adoption. The process must be made quicker and easier. The social services must stop their ridiculously self- righteous posturing and allow mixed race adoption. Rather than sitting about self-indulgently discussing ethnic backgrounds, religious inclinations, food preferences and all the other utterly irrelevant aspects of parenthood, they should turn their attention to the actual parenting ability of the individuals offering to adopt. A child is far better off in a mixed race, mixed religion family that it can actually call its own, than in care with a couple whose skin is the right colour but who cannot be called Mum and Dad.

In addition to this, Britain should follow America's lead and introduce both a bill of rights for foster children and a limit to how long they remain in care. In the U.S. this limit is set at one year, after which the children must be adopted. Finally, there should be a vast improvement in the aftercare facilities for children who have reached the age of 18. There should be specialist support systems set up for foster children suffering the after effects of life as a child of the state. There should be more help given these young adults in areas such as vocational training. Information should be given them so that they can understand how to claim benefits. Those without National Insurance numbers should be helped to obtain them. Perhaps most importantly, grants should be made available to enable them to go back and obtain the education denied them in so many cases by a bigoted, intolerant and prejudiced system. Why should they suffer for the rest of their lives because of someone else's mistakes? Awareness needs to be raised. These children deserve a better future than the one afforded them so far.



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