The Sunday Times

July 8th, 2012

A girl’s life wasted for £250,000 a year and they dare to call it care

Charles Dickens had a great deal to say about a system of care for troublesome or unwanted children that shipped them up north, out of sight and out of mind, regardless of the outcome, to take their chances among wicked adults.

He invented — or rather he revealed under the guise of fiction, since such places existed — Dotheboys Hall in his novel Nicholas Nickleby, which remains an icon of cruelty to children to this day. In those days children were sent to places such as Dotheboys because they were illegitimate, disabled, financially inconvenient or unwanted.

These days problem children are sent up north for different reasons, supposedly in their own interests, but the outcome all too often seems remarkably similar. I wonder what Dickens would say today about a system that condemns children to a care home in Rochdale to be preyed upon by vicious men because nobody seems able to stop it and protect them or even know where they are.

All this is hardly believable in Britain, in the 21st century, after more than 50 years of welfare state promises to care for the most vulnerable. It has taken many years, and a revolting sex grooming scandal in Rochdale, for the political establishment to wake up and begin to believe it, but the facts are finally emerging about the neglect and abuse of supposedly “looked-after” children in residential care homes.

Two all-party parliamentary groups, one for runaway and missing children and adults, the other for looked-after children and care leavers, published a report of their inquiries last month and it’s now no longer possible to ignore what is going on. Some of these homes are doing an excellent and often extremely difficult job. But the way the system works, or rather doesn’t work, means that all too many are a disgrace and perhaps even worse than useless.

A similar report by Sue Berelowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, published last week concludes that the care system is not fit for purpose: its author said she had never before come across the scale of violence and sadism that she had discovered when writing it.

Lamenting this, Tim Loughton, the children’s minister, has admitted that to know the extent of the problem is impossible because the data collected by police, care services and Ofsted are “raw and erratic”. As David Simmonds, chairman of the Children and Young People Board, has said, the issues are obscured by a “statistical fog”.

That means nobody knows how many children go missing or for how long: the education department thought the number for last year was 930, while police estimate that there were 10,000. This is astonishing. It also means that Ofsted reports are frequently inadequate, failing to note low qualifications or signs of abuse.

It means, too, that police have not been told about care homes in their manor. The lack of good staff and training means that some professionals, rather in the brutal spirit of Wackford Squeers, perceive these children as “troublesome” , “promiscuous”, “criminals” or “slags who knew what they were getting themselves into”, as if they were doctors blaming underfed children for having rickets.

In the midst of all this Dickensian horror there is a shocking fact that isn’t Dickensian at all. In the 19th century there was no public money, apart from charity, for unfortunate children. But today the average amount of money spent by the state on each “looked-after” child in a children’s home is £200,000 a year — a huge sum.

In fact a single-person home in Rochdale charged a local authority £252,000 a year to care for one girl, offering “expert” 24-hour care and supervision. Despite this payment she was regularly drunk, disappeared often for weeks at a time and was persistently sexually abused by countless men near the home, while Ofsted gave the place a clean report.

All this for a mere £252,000. The waste of public money is nothing in comparison with the waste of this young girl’s life and chances. But, in its lesser way, it is a national scandal as well. The cost of keeping some 5,000 children in care homes, excluding associated costs such as council administration, social services deliberations, public inquiries, policing and so on, is close to £1 billion a year. So much money and so much misery.

I have checked with some leading voluntary sector providers of high-quality social care and asked how much money is needed in their experience. They reckon that to provide a single person with 24-hour one-to-one care, including trained staff, pleasant accommodation and food and other expenses such as transport, entertainment and clothing, would cost £140,000-£145,000 a year, tops, even in the south of England.

In practice many individuals may not want to live alone; they may benefit from sharing staff support and may not need staff who are awake at night. If so, the total costs could be significantly lower. It is my experience, too, that good residential social care can be provided for such sums, although it does not include profit.

There is nothing wrong with making a profit out of any useful service. But when experienced and reputable voluntary sector organisations can offer such a service for £140,000 or so, it is odd that local authority commissioners feel obliged to hand over an extra £100,000 on top to private care home providers. How is it that public servants are so reckless with public money? Why are they bamboozled by greedy private providers? It is obvious that a child could go to a top private school — and there are plenty of nice, comfortable boarding schools for rich misfits, where their problems are dealt with using as much enlightenment as possible — and still have plenty of change from £250,000: about £220,000 in change, to be precise. This would pay for three highly qualified 24/7 carers at £30,000 a year and still leave well over £100,000 for accommodation and all other expenses.

While nobody wants to penny-pinch on the cost of looking after the most troubled and unlucky children, £100,000 net of round-the-clock care seems excessive. When £250,000 is carelessly thrown at a personal disaster without solving it or even containing it, one can only say that public sector commissioners are not just deeply incompetent but also irresponsible. Why have there been no public sackings or public humiliations? The culture of childcare agencies is clearly much worse than useless.