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This essay explores how the identity of ‘Looked after children’ (hereafter LAC) contribute to oppression and discrimination in two specific areas of Education and Health. The essay will analyse the role of legislation and policy in combating or promoting discrimination and oppression. The history, societal attitudes, diversity, views of the children and theories underpinning LAC will also be discussed. Finally I will focus on the implications and relevance to social work practice.
Cocker and Allain (2008) identify LAC and young people as children in the care of the local authority, through a Care Order made by a court or voluntary agreement with their parent(s) to accommodate them. They may be looked after in children’s home by foster carers, or other family members. All unaccompanied asylum seeking children are deemed LAC. For the purposes of clarity I will start by defining ‘oppression’, ‘discrimination’ and ‘stigma’. Thompson (1997) identifies oppression as the disregarding of individuals or group of people’s rights resulting in inhuman or abusive treatment with dominance and power by one group over another. For Thompson (2006), discrimination refers to a process of unfair or unequal treatment of individuals or groups resulting in undermining the interests of people from a less powerful category within society. Goffman (1963) highlights that stigma is constructed through social interactions. The individual who is stigmatised is seen as below societal expectations. Similarly, Parker and Aggleton (2003) associate stigma with an instrument that maintains boundaries between those with power and the powerless. This causes social inequalities that formulate into social norms that
promote power structures. Through such power, social inequalities are developed leading to creation of social norms. From the above definitions oppression, discrimination and stigma it can be deduced that the common elements are abuse of power and privilege resulting in inequalities and disadvantage. LAC are one of the less fortunate groups of people in society who experience such treatment because of their identity.
The last three decades have experienced a huge overhaul and introduction of legislation and policies seeking to address the needs of children. The Children’s Act 1989 reformed Law relating to children and in particular set out the framework for the provision of support for children and families and for the protection of children in England and Wales. This was in line with the United Nations on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC 1989) which was the first legally binding International instrument to promote the rights of children throughout the world. (Burke and Parker 2007). The Quality Protects (1998), Children Leaving Care Act (2000), Adoption and Children Act (2002), the Choice Protects policy, the Children’s Act (2004), Every Child Matters (2004), Care Matters (Green and White Papers) and The Children and Young Persons Act (2008) are some of the initiatives and legislation introduced to reinforce safeguarding children, and also as responses to reports of abuse, neglect, harm and safeguarding children in different institutions of residential care in the UK with the most publicised individual cases such as the deaths of Victoria Climbe (2000). It was revealed that Staff working with vulnerable children was not adequately trained, rigorously checked on recruitment, no support and vigilance towards diversity and openness. This led to Laming Report (2003) which revealed significant failings within individuals and organisations which were meant to be looking after children.
The Children’s Act (2004) emerged to implement and address the recommendations. In 2009 Lord Laming was also asked by the government to provide an emergency progress report on issues surrounding safeguarding children following the death of Baby P in 2007. He reinforced his earlier findings on systematic and individual failures as the cause of the death of Baby P (Laming report 2009).
Research has questioned the effectiveness of such initiatives in reducing discrimination of LAC. Examples of such research are : “Children experience of the Children Act (1989),” “Discrimination Against Young People in Care (1998)”: “Remember my message (1993)”, “The Multidimensional Treatment Foster Care in England Project (2006),” “Barriers to change in the Social Care (2000),” “Bursting at the seams (2010)” and the recent Panorama BBC programme on experiences of children leaving Care (5 October 2010).
The UK is a multicultural society with diversity which policy makers and legislators need to acknowledge. Blaine (2007) views diversity as the presence of differences in society in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, religion, social class and sexual orientation. These differences are neither good nor bad; however some of the differences are associated with inequality and disadvantage. Social work practice is concerned with addressing these differences and disadvantages (Burke and Parker 2007).
There is no exact figure for LAC but DfE Statistics (2010) reveal that there were about 64,400 LAC as at 31 March 2010 while the BBC Panorama ( 2010) mentioned around 70, 000 LAC as of 5 October meaning the number is increasing. The main reasons of being in care were abuse or neglect (52 per cent). There were 3,400 Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children (UASC) who were looked after at 31 March 2010. This is a decrease of 12 per cent from 2009. There is a decrease in the Unaccompanied Asylum Seeker Children (UASC) (DfES 2010).
Hogg and Vaughan (2002) views identity as associated with the process an individual becomes who they are in the sense of personhood and other’s view of who they are. Furthermore a person has multiple identities which need to be seen as part of the whole individual as disregarding some aspects would be misleading and reductive of the individual’s identity. Graham (2000) highlights that identities have different meanings and are not fixed but change over time as a result of environment, personal circumstances and outside influences. These influences will significantly affect the social experience and the self image of those defined, through, for example the experience of negative discrimination.
All aspects of a child’s identity need to be recognised and acknowledged regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or religion. By developing a positive identity children are motivated and their self esteem is enhanced for them to feel a sense of value, belonging and worth Blaine (2007). However Cocker and Allain (2008) argue that not all environments are positive in fostering this idea. When this occur the child becomes withdrawn and shy to open up and engage. Having a LAC identity endangers a child to be different, socially excluded, marginalised and denied equal opportunities in accessing services.(Assessing Children in Need 2000). As such social workers need to adopt and work with a culturally sensitive approach and apply the balancing act to enhance the resilience concept. (Masten 1994 cited in Daniel et al 2002).
Burke and Parker (2007) highlight that the social work context and the involvement of a social worker in a child’s life apply and identify the child as different. From my experience in social care practice I agree with Burke and Parker when they note that the bureaucratic and comprehensive paperwork, regular review and educational meetings, visits, contact arrangements and procedures and guidelines are associated with the LAC; these are not experienced by most children in normal life settings. However this argument is dismissed by Garret (2003) cited in Burke and Parker (2007) when he affirms that paperwork and bureaucratic procedures are essential tools for a social worker to use in helping them identify and address important developmental needs of the child but should however encourage more one- to -one contact with the child rather than spending time on paperwork.
Because of their identity a ‘LAC’ they are disadvantaged and discriminated against at school and in matters related to Education. They most likely risk being expelled from School due to behaviour (DfE 2010).Statistics show that a third of LAC obtains a GCSE and a further fifth obtain fewer than five GCSEs. Although these figures are lower than a few years ago, they are still much higher than for children as a whole: more than half not obtaining five or more GCSEs compared to less than one in ten children as a whole (DfE 2010)
The Social Exclusion Unit (2003) published a document “A Better Education for Children in Care”, (Thompson and Thompson 2003) which highlighted five reasons for the low attainment levels ranging from instability caused by insecure placements, bullying, lack of support and encouragement at home, time out of school due to expulsion, support and encouragement and emotional, mental or physical health.
Schofield and Beek (2009) suggest that parents and people at home where the child lives need to be supportive and encouraging to the child learning success. School environment should promote learning that develops a child holistically to facilitate the self discovery method and accepting themselves as they interact with other children. They also note that this is not always the case as children are disrupted of continuity in settling and making friends if placement breaks down. Sometimes bullying at school results in low self esteem. Although most local authorities have put in place a number of inter disciplinary services looking at the physical, mental well being of children discrepancies still exist. However in Jackson and McParlin (2006) in their article “The education of children in care” professionals are seen to be making assumptions and jumping into conclusions ending up giving labels and long prescribed long term solutions to short term problems unnecessarily. This is associated with neglect and discrimination. More training and awareness of diversity, anti discriminatory practices and individualised person centred approach should be reinforced (Every Child Matters 2004).
Morgan (2010) argues that the problem of poor school performance in LAC lies in the care and education system not in the children. He argues that the care and education systems do not address pre care experiences of the child’s low attainment and also fail to address the aftermath or the impact of separation when children are removed from their families. The child may be suffering from undiagnosed post traumatic stress which can erupt in any confined environment such as school classrooms. He also contends that teachers have no knowledge of the child’s history. Teacher training does not equip teachers with knowledge of the care system and on addressing behaviour from LAC.
Jackson et al (2005) cited in Morgan (2010) carried out a research with students in Higher education who had a care background over a five-year period. The respondents experienced a high level of trauma, abuse and neglect but were placed in foster homes that were supportive and valued education. The findings revealed that foster families who support education and celebrate the child’s achievements are more likely to compensate to some level of the pre care experiences and promote higher attainment in education. It is important to place children in placements which are supportive to the child’s success in education, foster resilience and offer a safe place to grow and achieve. To support children’s wellbeing the government has put in place the Children and Young Persons Act (2008) with a commitment to promote the wellbeing of children and those who are involved in their care. Children and Young Persons Act (2008).
Dunnett et al (2006) acknowledged the initiatives by Government such as the improvement of health of LAC as important and the proposed Care Planning for LAC and Care Leavers to be implemented April 2011. However according to research a number of health deficits still prevailed such as ill health, poor diagnosis, and dental neglect, neglect of routine immunisation screening, poor diagnosis, limited attention to chronic ill health and limited attention to mental health problems. A study carried out by Loughborough University for the Department of Health (2006) revealed inconsistencies and concerns on consultation and treatment. Also studies revealed that teenagers in care found it difficult to discuss sex education due to fear, lack of privacy and trust. They wanted a significant trustworthy person to confide in. As such most of their health needs are overlooked and not met as they are labelled, stereotyped and marginalised. Axford (2008) in her article exploring social exclusion noted this difficulty as more prevalent among children from Black Ethnic Minority background who face a cultural, language and racism within organisations that are meant to support and look after them especially asylum seekers. In the article LAC experiences of the Children Act (1989) highlighted that there are continuing myths about the Act which are still disadvantaging LAC. The children still feel they are not fully aware of their rights under the Act as they face day to day regulations and successive barriers. Children still feel they do not receive what the law says they should. A typical example was in socialising with restrictions on risk assessments for overnight stays by teenagers in care. This has brought a sense of discrimination and marginalisation as it is for normal teenagers to do overnight stays. Prout (2000) cited in Glenny and Roaf (2008) further picked up another conflict and tension among within government departments and targets when he mentions that control and self realisation are both present in legislation and policy but in tension. On one camp there is the idea of viewing children as individuals with a capacity for self realisation within a safe societal environment while in the other camp there is the idea of viewing children as vulnerable and requiring control, regulation and surveillance. One example is the “Youth Matters Four Challenges” to help teenagers achieve the Every Child Matters outcomes. ( DfES 2005)
Social workers need to listen, engage and work in partnership with looked after children. In a research by Holland (2010) exploring the ‘Ethics of Care’ as being
marginalised, not being implemented and recognised, it was evidenced that lasting relationships are disrupted by placements as children often acknowledged their links to their past and significant people in their lives. This highlights the importance of their individual pathway in promoting their wellbeing and interpersonal relationships and future achievements. Clarke (2010) emphasises the need to sustain and promote lasting care relationships with formal carers and social workers to avoid the consequences of loss, neglect and worthlessness by listening to their story, exploring and putting their needs and choices first. Oliver et al (2006)’s “Briefing Paper Advocacy for LAC” unveiled that research has highlighted that there were some ambivalence within professionals as to what extent children must be involved in decision making to matters concerning their care as well as resource barriers. To overcome these constraints Winter (2009) suggested regular contact, feedback, advocacy and putting the needs of the child first need to be priority as children value being listened to and having their wishes fulfilled by active participation in matters concerning their wellbeing.
In a consultation exercise with young persons leaving care as part of my coursework, they highlighted that sometimes they did not receive any satisfactory feedback from social workers when they need it. Also they mentioned that there was a lot of bureaucracy such as reviews or educational meetings which made them feel treated differently. Social work regular visits at school made them feel stigmatised. The respondents felt they wanted to be treated as normal children not service users. Barriers to Change in the Social Care (2000), a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, supports that there should be a human rights approach in working with LAC.
Glenny and Roaf (2008) suggested early Intervention is essential to support children and families before problems either from within the family or as a result of external factors, which have an impact on both the child and family. Statutory and voluntary organisations have an obligation to work in partnership for the success of early intervention agenda. Teamwork will establish protocols which will help to ensure early indications of being at risk of social exclusion are addressed and receive proper attention.
McLeod (1998) highlighted the need to acknowledge Child development which enable children accept and discover themselves through stages and exposure to promote self awareness, confidence, self esteem and positive attitudes. McLeod highlighted Freud’s psycho-analysis theory (1859-1939), Erickson’s psycho-social development theory (1950) and Bowlby’s attachment theory (1969). This view is shared in the literature review by Hunt (2003) cited in Ritchie (2005) which highlights that although there is no concrete evidence of kinship care over non kin foster care there are indications that chances are the former promotes the child’s wellbeing and welfare than the latter. It is important for social workers to be aware of child developmental needs and how valuable family ties are. Schofield and Beek, (2005) cited in Shaw (2010) affirms that past relationships with family and professionals has an impact on the child’s wellbeing and ability to cope with life on their own. Active parenting focusing on the child’s needs and positive engagement with the child will help and promote skills to deal with difficult situations in life. Social workers need to promote resilience to empower children to face challenges and deal with their past and future (Daniel and Wassell 2002) .
Bates et al (1997) suggests that assessment framework should foster identity and acknowledge diversity in order to promote a child’s perception of themselves and their environment. Social workers need to employ anti-discriminatory practice with opportunities and resources for self discovery through interaction (Assessment for Children in need Practice 2000). The Children and Young Persons Act (2008) also emphasises its commitment to promote a child’s well being and the people involved in the care of the child.
This essay discussed a particular aspect of discrimination and oppression among LAC and extent to which legislation, policy, practice and services relevant to social work exacerbate or assist in overcoming negative experiences of LAC. Although there has been notable initiatives in addressing the needs of LAC for the past ten years a lot still has to be done in terms of societal attitudes, resources and safeguarding. To achieve the every child matters outcomes all the stakeholders need to work together by putting the needs and act in the best interest of the child. By listening and engaging with LAC practitioners will be able to improve Children’s quality of life. Anti discriminatory practice, empowerment, diversity and equal opportunities practices are part of the answer.
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