Children in Care – A Personal reflection. By Ed Nixon

A spiral of inter-generational failed attachments

I am not a therapist and have no expertise in that field but I do know, as a social worker and former manager of fostering and residential services that simply caring for children without a therapeutic base is both pointless and in my view shameful.

This piece is based on my experience of the ‘Care System’ as one of those employed in it for some forty-four years.

To be clear at the outset – The Care system is full of as many wonderful children as any other institution/group/sub culture/class or whatever cohort you select. It’s just that they are often expected to fail, labelled by others, blamed by yet others for things they didn’t do and frequently overlooked by our society which still tends to prefer not to know the truth when it hurts.

Let me offer an example of how Looked After Children can be demonised:

The Company for whom I worked (until my partial retirement some three years ago) used to operate a small children’s home in Shropshire, near Wem. Four children lived there. For a range of reasons – primarily because we did not receive enough referrals to operate it viably we closed down the home and the two children who were living there transferred to live elsewhere. Some six months later I received a telephone call late one Saturday night from the local police station and the duty sergeant told me in no uncertain terms that three of ‘your children’ have been vandalising cars in the village and the staff were nowhere to be seen. I asked the police officer how he could be certain that it was ‘our children’ and he said that several villagers had identified them. With a combination of sadness and smugness I told him that the children’s home had been closed for many months and that clearly, he and all of the witnesses were mistaken.

Many Children and Young People do emerge from the care system to go on to have successful lives, many are happy enough during their time in care, some positively thrive. My contention is, though, that this is not typical. Those who successfully ‘graduate’ from care tend to do so because they are remarkable individuals and or have encountered a person or persons who have worked with them, encouraged and supported them in their ambition and eventual success. Frankly, it remains the case that the Care System fails children. It is not enough that it no longer institutionally abuses them but this is nothing for those of us associated with the system (and that is all of us, ‘Corporate Parents’) to congratulate ourselves about

Children in care when taken as a whole do not ‘live happily ever after’….. and the ‘crime’, dereliction of public parenting, in my opinion, is that nothing much has changed in terms of outcomes for looked after children in the (almost) 40 years that I can speak of from personal experience.

In this reflection, I will deliberately avoid the ‘high profile’, ‘sensational’ cases. It would be and indeed is very easy to create a stir when it comes to arousing public interest in the child care profession simply mention of any one of a number of high profile abusers – but this is entirely unhelpful when considering the services given to looked after children, tens of thousands at any given time (and rising), who will never feature in headlines. Yet it is most of these children who our society fails.

Given that this is a personal reflection I will indulge in offering a brief description of how I became a social worker.

I graduated with a degree in Economics from the LSE in 1974; perhaps with an inevitable mandatory left wing leaning so I went into social work. It was a great time to do so.

We had just stopped exporting ‘surplus’ poor children to the ‘Colonies’. On this subject, I implore you to read ‘Empty Cradles’ by Margaret Humphreys to discover how desperately close and dark our shameful child care past really is.

Margaret Humphreys is or at least was a social worker who came across the fact that Britain was until the 1960’s still exporting children in care to the colonies to a better (?) life. No-one ever asked those children or their parents – many of whom were said to be missing or dead, though in fact generally neither was true – if they wanted this different life, they simply packaged them onto steam ships and sent them to families or institutions in Commonwealth countries where the obvious abuse was of a physical or sexual nature and the hidden abuse was simply the wrenching of a child from all he or she had ever known and displaced them.

For those who remained in the UK my entry into social work broadly coincided with the introduction of the Seebohm report which some might interpret as the defining moment in the creation of the profession of social work.

There had been this marvellous idea that instead of perhaps a group of professionals including Welfare Officers; Mental Health Officers; Children’s Welfare officers, Almoners and more ‘we’ could create this prototype thing called a ‘social worker’. He or she – but basically it was ‘she’s’ job (unless of course you were identified as being ‘management material’{!}) would go out and meet the whole family; elderly, disabled, mentally ill, abusive, abused, learning disabled – the whole lot of them and give them all “a good talking to”. Fortunately to do this you didn’t need any qualifications you could just be, as I was initially, an ‘unqualified social worker’.

Now, whilst this was not necessarily an altogether bad thing can you imagine in our society in the mid seventies you had been referred to an unqualified doctor, or perhaps an unqualified dentist ?

It’s true supervision, line management if you will, of social workers didn’t seem to have been invented but then again it seems that neither had sexual abuse – or if it had been nobody talked about it – certainly no-one I ever came across.

Physical abuse of children was often more or less tolerated unless we were talking about serious injury or death – which sadly we sometimes we were.

As an extremely naïve 21-year-old it was obvious where my skills (what skills you might reasonably ask yourself had a degree in economics given me?) lay – Well it was to my boss anyway. On the morning I arrived in an inner-city office of a newly created Metropolitan Borough I was given my caseload. Not an induction, not an embryonic Personal Development Plan not even, unless my memory fails me, a word of advice.

None were, it seems, deemed to be necessary. It all seemed so simple then –

I was male and therefore I got all the ‘naughty’ boys!

Yes, this was indeed my introduction to children in care. If I am honest I can’t actually remember the actual number but it was certainly over 100 – boys who were in the recently created CH(E)’s – Community Homes with Education on the premises.

You may not recall CH(E)’s but they were essentially re-worked Approved Schools accommodating up to about 100 boys in dormitories, where it was all too frequently discovered many years later they were being systematically physically and sexually assaulted and raped by their carers.

Some three years after my entry into social work, when I was undertaking my Certificate of Qualification in Social Work, I spent three months on a placement in a CH(E) in Formby, Merseyside called St. Vincent’s. I spent my time with boys aged between ten and sixteen years of age who were placed in there primarily because of their criminality or failure to attend school. I started work at 7.30 a.m. and finished at 10.00 p.m. dependent on which of two shifts I was working. I believed that I had pretty good relationships with all the boys – we talked in between them doing their jobs and education, I played football and other sports with them and I even took them home at weekends for their leave with their families. None of them told me and I was too blind to see what I was horrified to discover six or seven years later when Merseyside Police announced ‘Operation Van Gogh’.

This investigation uncovered years of systematic abuse of the boys at St Vincent’s and other similar homes operated by Liverpool Catholic Social Services. It seems that after ‘lights out’ the Deputy Principal and some of his colleagues selected boys to rape. Do I feel ashamed of my failure to protect? Of course I do. It didn’t even occur to me that such things could happen. There is no excuse but perhaps part of the explanation lies in the expectations placed on young, naïve and ignorant social workers like me at the time.

So, what was my job and that of so many other social workers and others with these boys? At the time, I thought (and now I am certain) that the expectations were that we should ’warehouse’ them; keep them from committing crime; incarcerate them; make them engage in education and do all that we could to ensure that they did not offend society by their anti-social behaviour until they:

  • Grew out of crime – or at least got better at it thus avoiding detection.
  • Graduated to detention centres, borstals or prisons.
  • Got lucky and met someone who demonstrated sufficient faith and belief in them for it to become contagious and was prepared to devote time to the young person. Someone who could see past the presenting image and appreciate that these were children who were not pathologically criminal; they were not destined to go on to a life on the edge of society or be outcast entirely from it but who were, in fact, marvellously ‘normal’ apart from their personal history. Of course, even then there was an impediment that didn’t occur to me until many years afterwards. Imagine, given the abuse that was surely known to many children if not the adults who were supposed to be protecting them, how might one (as a child or young person) respond to a social worker or carer who showed a special interest in you, gave you time, was willing to know you as a person not a case? Perhaps many opportunities were lost to help children because of their fear that this person who appeared to want to help them simply wanted to abuse them.

Social workers like me were being asked to ‘process’ these boys. In my case given the number and that they were placed around a region from Liverpool to Blackpool in the North, Manchester in the East and Shropshire and North Wales in the South and that I had to see them minimally every 3 months there was barely time to do anything else. Social work, such as it was, appeared confined to ticking boxes compiling evidence that a child had been seen. Or it seemed so.

Girls it seems were either

  • Perfect
  • Unproblematic
  • If abandoned by their parents placed in foster homes – often what we would call children’s homes these days because there were frequently four or more children living there
  • Pregnant – in which case they went to Mother and Baby homes.

It is perhaps unsurprising in this context that the idea of offering these children ‘therapeutic support’ was conspicuous only by its absence. But that was forty years ago surely things have changed?

Actually, the situation continued with little change until the latter part of the 1970’s and then something seemed to change. I am not sure precisely how, when or why but the children in care population began to change – superficially at least.

It was in the late 70’s and early 80’s that Child Abuse began to raise its profile, at least where I was practicing, and as far as I can gather elsewhere too.

It’s not that it was a new phenomenon:

In 1945, Dennis O’Neil a 13-year-old boy had been murdered by his foster carer in rural Shropshire having endured years of neglect and abuse – buy hey, there was a war on so it’s hardly any surprise that no-one noticed a little boy being tortured and starved to death is it?

Maria Colwell was murdered in 1973 by her step father in Brighton if he hadn’t kicked and beaten her to death she would, according to the Pathologist’s report have starved soon enough afterwards. To summarise her life and death in a paragraph, she had been in foster care for some time and she was returned to her mother because the Local Authority couldn’t “find a good enough reason” not to do so. In between returning home and Maria dying there had been 50 recorded visits to the home by a selection of social workers, health visitors, police officers and housing officials – it seems none of them could find a good enough reason to do anything to save her life.

Darryn Clarke – was murdered in Liverpool in 1978 by his mother’s partner. He had told members of various agencies that his step father was violent and sadistic – though obviously not in so many words. His murderer, his mother’s partner had (to quote the enquiry report into events surrounding his death):

 “Charles Courtney came from a severely deprived background and had a history of violence, Approved School and Borstal.” (HMSO November 1979)

As we are all only too aware the list is alarmingly long and continues to grow.

I raise the issue of child abuse because it seems to me that there was a different focus in children’s social care as a consequence of the increasingly and rightly high profile ‘avoidable’ deaths that did at least lead to greater levels of intervention by Social Services Departments which in turn led to children being removed from their parents care at an earlier age in the lead up to the Children Act 1989.

What happened to all the naughty boys, truants and teenage mothers I have no idea but certainly they stopped coming into care in any great numbers. Unless, of course they happened to have been abused or in some way poorly parented in their early years and not picked up by the 20th century child catchers who went by the title social worker.

On the basis of my personal knowledge but with neither empirical basis or evidence-based research findings to support my hypothesis I suggest that the children who come into care now are exactly the same children who came into care in my professional youth – they are merely differently ‘labelled’.

In essence, the vast majority of these children simply do not receive ‘good enough parenting’.

My belief is and there is a substantial evidence base to support me that the children who I used to work with in my early career and those entering the case system now have precisely the same backgrounds and parenting deficits. Primary among these deficits is the fact that they have poor, inadequate or at times totally dysfunctional attachments.

So what is good enough parenting?

Within the confines of this brief paper and my limited knowledge it would be impossible to provide an adequate answer to this question. But the most stunning demonstration of the ease at which a child’s attachment can be dislocated can be seen in Dr Edward Tronic’s ‘Still face’ experiment.


Imagine then being a child whose needs are rarely, if ever, met and their impact that this can and does have on the development of that child. I am not qualified to preach on ‘attachment’ but as a mere social worker I know that all children who come into care have an attachment difficulty. Minimally it will be a consequence of being removed from their primary carer (no matter how poor that carer may have been or perceived to have been). If that child comes into care and ‘enjoys’ a successful first placement then some of that damage will be mitigated – though not addressed. But for those children ‘looked after’ who have two, or three or perhaps sixty placements the problem will be compounded and yet still so many receive no therapeutic support whatsoever. How dare we be surprised that these children are ‘challenging’ or ‘disruptive’ or develop mental health conditions? I have used the analogy before (though I suspect it’s not original) of a child breaking a leg. Would we remove that child from home, feed, water, clothe and care for it and then expect the leg to have miraculously healed?

If we are to make a difference now and in the future for these children by bringing them into care then we cannot delay and secondly, if we do bring them into care then we must provide them with the service (and this absolutely includes therapeutic intervention) that they need. To fail in either of these areas – and I would suggest that we fail consistently in both – ensures that nothing changes in the future. Why? It’s fairly obvious really. Children who have inadequate parenting experience are more likely to become inadequate parents this probably accounts for the fact that the children of adults who were, during their childhood, in care are some seventy times more likely to end up in care than children whose parents had no experience of the care system – a figure that has changed only marginally in the course of my almost 40 years’ experience. But surely this must be the case in 2018? No, it is not.

I believe and can call a massive body of evidence that we are still ‘warehousing children’. Certainly, I hope and believe that the prevalence of abusive placements has been almost eradicated but this does not mean that we are ‘treating’ children as we should. We are fortunate that we have a considerable knowledge in how to address attachment difficulties and crucially how to minimise the impact that these have. There are many interventions from the relatively simple techniques of offering ‘Here and Now’ and the more sophisticated ‘Life Story Work’ with children to more complex interventions such as Play, Art, Filial and Cognitive Behavioural therapies but there is a massive reluctance to do so because of the cost involved. Actually, this is marginal in financial terms but massive in respect of these children’s futures and that of their children in future generations.

I freely acknowledge that residential care and increasingly, good foster care is expensive (both in the public and independent sectors) and I must declare an interest insofar as it is one of the services that was responsible for in former employment. We initially offered a therapeutic service as a bolt on to our placements but commissioners generally declined this so eventually we simply provided the service at no extra cost (and with no increase in the former placement price.

We are still, all too often, doing ‘social work by numbers’ and not by need. Let me offer a real example of a fostering referral that I received in October 2012. My judgment was that within our service the child would have been best placed, initially at least in a small residential home that we operated specifically for children with attachment disorders.

It is my highlighting but the Local Authority social workers written comments.

J.’s age is a major issue.  At 8 he is not of an age of criminal consent, which denies him access to further services, and means that his case is not deemed appropriate for discussion in certain arenas.  I recently completed the Vulnerability Checklist for J. in an attempt to have his case discussed at RMG.

(I was told that he had ‘wrecked the house, stabbed and killed a pony, kicked a pet pigeon to death, that he frequently and violently assaults his mother, father and siblings; that he is permanently excluded from school – I could go on……Ed Nixon)

“However,  due to his age and his none involvement in sexual exploitation, hard drugs or overnight absconding for example he only scored at 49 and the referral would not have been accepted.”

This score meant that the social worker could only seek foster placements – even though she had been extremely taken with exploring the idea of the children’s home I had suggested. If only he could have killed someone perhaps he would have ‘qualified’ for the help he so clearly needed.

It is the case that most Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services teams are massively over-subscribed, that they close referrals if children or young people are not brought to or for some other reason fail to attend two appointments.

Children in care are consistently ‘moved on’ after their sixteenth birthdays. Imagine that anyone could think this is the right thing to do at any level. I seem to recall a government minister saying that young adults into their ‘twenties’ should realistically remain living with and being, in part at least, the financial responsibility of their parents. Not, it seems if ‘the government’ – local or national – is one’s corporate parent.

I have enjoyed the privilege of working with countless remarkable children in care during my career. Sadly, in many ways, because I worked in the same area for so long at the start of that career I have experienced working with the children of some of those who I knew when they were in care. There is a cycle and it seems to me that as a society we really don’t care enough to consistently do anything about it. I have known and been proud to know dozens, no hundreds of amazing children in care who have thrived despite, not because of the care system. I leave you with a final thought – the thought is mine but inspired by a comment made by a little boy many years ago and captured with others in a lovely book compiled by Eric Marshall and Stuart Hemple. Sadly, the particular comment seems to have been edited out of the most recent edition so I have copied it from my rather ageing original.


If I were Paul’s God I would have written back to him:

“Dear Paul

Not exactly, but it’s a bloody sight better than being in care!”


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