Thursday, March 05, 2009

Why HAS the British State got it in for foster parents?

Harriet Sergeant spent a year studying the care system and was shocked by what she found...

Foster parents are the saints of our age. A good foster parent can transform the fortunes of a child who has had the worst start in life. One woman, abandoned by her mother at birth and discovered two days later covered in rat bites, later described to me what her foster mother had done for her. 'She taught me the things that carried me through. She showed me all the really good things in this world.' So how are local councils behaving towards the foster families who invite some of the country's most troubled youngsters into their homes? Are they praising them and giving them appropriate support in their difficult task?

No. Shamefully, they are doing nothing of the sort. In fact, many councils treat foster carers with almost criminal negligence. Two recent cases make it clear where their priorities lie - and it is not with the foster parents, their families or even the child that is placed in their care. Just yesterday, it was reported that a foster couple from the Vale of Glamorgan took in a homeless teenager, only for him to rape their two-year-old son and molest their nine-year-old daughter. Scandalously, the council had failed to tell them that the 18-year-old had a history of alleged sex attacks on youngsters.

Equally shocking is what happened to another family who fostered a baby for Newham council in East London. It was reported last week that the council failed to inform them the baby was possibly infected with HIV, even though they had three young children of their own. Indeed, Baby J, who was born to a HIV positive mother, was considered such a risk that medical staff who delivered him wore protective masks, goggles, boots - and two sets of gloves. No such precautions were taken for the foster family.

There are, of course, many councils and social service departments who take seriously their duties to foster parents and the children they care for. Phil Evans, director of social services at Vale of Glamorgan council, for example, claims these tragic cases are rare. 'Such events are never repeated,' he said. But this is simply not true. As I discovered during a year-long investigation into the care system for the Centre for Policy Studies, such cases are not only commonplace, but the result of a shameful and deliberate policy.

When midwife Tricia McDaid, for example, raised 'difficult questions' with Newham council about the case of Baby J, they ostracised her. 'They tried to freeze me out as they didn't want this getting out,' she said. 'This is happening all the time, and it's putting foster carers and their children at terrible risk.'

So what is behind all this tragedy and incompetence? The answer is simple - cost. More and more seriously disturbed children are coming into care and after a spate of paedophile scandals, local authorities have closed many of their larger children's homes, putting them into specialist private care instead. And the cost of caring for a child in one of these small, private homes is eye-watering. Weekly fees in the ones I visited ranged from 3,000 to 6,500 pounds.

Compare that to what a foster family receives - as little as 50 to 200 per week. In a recent survey, six out of ten foster carers said their allowance failed to cover even their expenses. But for obvious economic reasons, councils want to keep young people, however difficult, out of private care homes and with foster parents - whatever the terrible cost to the latter.

Human rights legislation is making the problem even worse for those who volunteer to look after troubled children. Article Eight of the European Convention On Human Rights protects an individual's right to respect for one's private and family life. But councils can use this legislation to justify keeping foster families in the dark by claiming disclosure of a child's past infringes their human rights. The brutal truth, however, is that it allows councils to off-load disturbed youngsters onto unknowing families - and to save a fortune in the process.

For foster carers don't just suffer from a lack of background information. Many of the foster families I talked to told me that they received little support from social workers. They said their social workers would often disappear 'for months' on end - or turn up only for an annual review. This is a scandal, for foster families desperately need regular expert help. When a child first arrives at a new foster home, typically all goes well. It is only weeks later, as the child relaxes and begins to feel more confident that their emotional problems surface - sometimes with devastating results. To the untrained foster carer, this sudden explosion of bad behaviour is often inexplicable. If social services are absent from the scene, there's no one else to turn to and they can give up just as the child needs them most. This is often tragic for the child as, once again, they find themselves rejected, their problems compounded.

Ian and Gail (not their real names) described what happened when they took in a difficult child with no training, support or information from social services. The social worker informed them they were to receive 'a dear little boy' of six who had been attending school. This, as Gail remarked bitterly, 'was all lies'. The social worker arrived with the child, who immediately threw himself on the floor and began to indulge in frenzy of sexual behaviour. The social worker looked 'really surprised', explained Gail, and 'left us to him'. Only later did the couple discover what social services had not told them. Born dependent on heroin, the child had been through ten different foster parents in his first year alone. And things got worse.

When he was two, he'd been moved to foster parents who sexually abused him. But his social worker had been on long-term sick leave at the time, and he had been forgotten about for four years before he was finally removed from his abusive carers and placed in a new home. The tragic effects of this soon became clear. He woke Ian and Gail at night by punching them or smearing excrement on the bedroom wall. He associated affection with sex and threw explosive tantrums. 'We felt like we had been set up,' said Gail. When they sought advice, their concerns were dismissed. As Ian remarked bitterly: 'We got virtually no support and training from social services. It has had a huge effect on our health and our relationship.' Three years on, they are still fighting an uphill battle.

To make matters even worse, foster carers are offered little stability. Children will be moved for what is perceived as the child's benefit - but also if one foster parent is cheaper than another. Children desperate for stability and a loving relationship have their cases reviewed every six months by some local authorities who refuse to sign long-term agreements with foster carers. This can go on for years.

One woman I spoke to had fostered a little girl from the age of two. The local authority promised it was permanent, but suddenly announced that it was moving the child. They had been together for five years and both mother and child were devastated. 'She called me Mum,' the woman told me. 'Losing her was like a death for me.' But two social workers arrived at the foster mother's house and dragged the child away, screaming. The foster mother hasn't heard from the child since.

The care system should be about transforming lives for the better. Instead, foster families, and the children they care for, are too often being treated disgracefully - and all in the name of human rights and cutting costs.


Once again we see that British social workers are only good at attacking decent people

Ferals are just too hard -- so are ignored

A toddler who was killed by his mother's heroin-addict boyfriend had been on social workers' files for more than a year - but was not considered to be at risk. Brandon Muir died from a ruptured intestine after an assault by Robert Cunningham, 23, at the Dundee flat he shared with his mother, who was also addicted to drugs, and sister. Cunningham was found guilty yesterday at the High Court in Glasgow of culpable homicide.

The boy's grandparents had contacted social services at Dundee City Council 19 days before his death, begging social workers to remove Brandon from the shambolic flat shared by their mother, Heather Boyd, 23, and her new boyfriend. The court was told that, less than three weeks later, Cunningham delivered a blow of such force to the toddler's stomach that it ruptured his intestine, leading to his death from peritonitis. A post-mortem examination also noted up to 40 other injuries including bruises, scratches and four fractured ribs. The boy was 23 months old. Professor Robert Karachi, a consultant paediatric surgeon, said that the injury was consistent with a child receiving a "massive blow" and Brandon would have been in "severe pain" before he died.

Veronica Boyd, 43, the boy's grandmother, said that she had called social services on February 25 and told them she and her husband were "not happy about the relationship Heather had got herself into". Mrs Boyd said: "My husband phoned social services...and was told by them we had no parental rights. It was social workers that put those children back into that accommodation. Not us."

The Scottish government has asked Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education to bring forward its report on measures to protect children in Dundee and publish it three months early. A separate investigation into the circumstances leading to Brandon's death has been commissioned by the Dundee Children and Young Persons Protection Committee, headed by Peter Wilson, a former Chief Constable of Fife.

Adam Ingram, Scottish Parliament Minister for Children and Early Years, said: "This awful case is a harrowing reminder to us all why child protection measures are so important and it's crucial that, in light of this case and the public concern it has raised, we get a clear picture of how child protection services are performing as quickly as possible."

During the trial, it emerged that there was only one bed in Ms Boyd's flat, which had no sheets or pillows. On March 15 last year, she went out with Cunningham's sister Ann Margaret to a local shop leaving him to care for Brandon. During this time, Cunningham admitted shouting at Brandon after he twice climbed on to a window ledge, but claimed that he simply told him to stay in the "naughty spot" as punishment.

The court was told that Cunningham and Ms Boyd later took the sick child to a party. He repeatedly vomited brown liquid, while the adults dranks and smoked cannabis. Ms Boyd refused to call the emergency services. She later left to work as a prostitute and earn more money for heroin. Charges against Cunningham stated that he seized Brandon, making him stand against a wall or other surface, and applying pressure to his abdomen "by means unknown" the day before he died.

Their was already being monitored by the council's antisocial behaviour team after repeated complaints from neighbours. Boyd had also failed to attend medical appointments with her son. Charges that Ms Boyd ill-treated Brandon and that she killed him by failing to get him medical help were dropped last week.


Leading British school is first to ditch all government middle-school exams for tougher rival

Dumbed down government curriculum being abandoned

A top independent school has become the first in the country to ditch GCSEs wholesale in favour of a more 'challenging' international alternative. Manchester Grammar is to drop the GCSEs from September in almost all subjects and switch to the International GCSE, which is modelled on the old O-level and takes the focus away from coursework. The switch will heighten fears that a two-tier national exam system is emerging as new qualifications challenge GCSEs and A-levels.

Other private school heads are considering a similar move, with one describing GCSEs as 'pap' and 'baby food' for the most able pupils. The trigger for Manchester Grammar's decision was a Government overhaul of GCSE courses starting in September, which will split courses into bite-size modules that pupils can resit as they go along.

Dr Christopher Ray, Manchester Grammar's high master, said the heads of individual subject departments at his school had almost unanimously decided to move to IGCSEs. 'The difficulty that we have got is that the entire GCSE syllabus, if you want to use a metaphor, is rather like getting able students through a combination of dressage and a low hurdle race,' he said. 'You have to explain to them how they put their feet very carefully over low hurdles so they will not irritate the examiner. It's not challenging at all.' He added: 'The vast majority of time spent on coursework is at best unhelpful and at worst it's destructive to creative intellectual capacities. The whole thing is misconceived.'

Manchester Grammar, a 9,000 pounds-a-year boys' day school whose alumni include former England cricket captain Michael Atherton and Oscar-winning actor Ben Kingsley, has offered the IGCSE in Maths for the past four years, and the sciences for the past three. From September, English Language, English Literature, History, Religious Studies, Latin, Music and Modern Languages will move to the IGCSE, with Geography following in 2010. Art is the only subject for which there is an IGCSE alternative which will not move away from the domestic GCSE exam.

The decision means the school - described in the Good Schools Guide as a 'premier league academic powerhouse' - will slump to the foot of official GCSE league tables because the Government does not recognise IGCSEs. But Dr Ray said the tables were 'totally irrelevant'. Other well-known schools are moving to the IGCSE in some subjects, including Winchester College and St Paul's School in Barnes, West London.

Dr Martin Stephen, high master of St Paul's and a former high master of Manchester Grammar, said: 'The new GCSEs are appalling for the most able students. They are simply pap, they are baby food, they are examination rusks in too many subjects, and they do not stretch and challenge the most able.'


Schizophrenic stabbed four people after NHS ignored his pleas

A schizophrenic killer who murdered four people in three days was failed repeatedly by an ineffective NHS, an inquiry has found. The treatment of Daniel Gonzales was full of missed opportunities that could have prevented him stabbing three pensioners and another man to death. Despite nearly 60 appointments with doctors and psychiatrists and his own pleas to be admitted to a hospital, Gonzales was free to fulfil his ambition of becoming a serial killer resembling the film character Freddy Krueger, from the Nightmare on Elm Street series.

Gonzales's mother, Lesley Savage, had written to her MP begging for help, saying that she feared her son would only get the treatment he needed if he killed someone. An independent investigation found that the work of Surrey and Borders Partnership NHS Foundation Trust had been hampered by human errors, a lack of funds, system failure and bad luck. Doctors had concluded that Gonzales was either making up claims of hallucinations and self-harm or was suffering from the effects of illegal drugs.

A report said that it was not possible to predict the murders, but that good practice was not followed. "Responsibility for this has to be shared by many of those who worked with, or were responsible for, Mr Gonzales." It said that doctors had not overlooked his capacity for serious violence and there were no "missed clues" that he would carry out the knife attacks.

Brenda Cutmore, Gonzales's grandmother, welcomed the report's findings and said that his care was catastrophic. Gonzales was sentenced to six life sentences for four murders and two attempted murders. The killings took place in London, Hampshire and Sussex in 2004. He was held in Broadmoor top-security hospital and was found dead in his cell in 2007 after slashing his wrists with broken CDs.

Fiona Edwards, chief executive of Surrey and Borders trust, said: "The trust accepts that more should have been done to engage Mr Gonzales while he was being cared for. We offer our profound apologies to the victims, their families and Mr Gonzales' family for the missed opportunities revealed in the report."


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