(Larry’s name has been changed.)
£1,200,000 ($1,630,000) is a lot of money. It’s the cost of four average homes in the U.K. or four years at University for thirty three students or the amount needed to support a family of four for 26 years. It’s also how much one Local Authority has spent to provide residential care for fourteen year old Larry over the last seven years.
This colossal contribution from the taxpayers is typical of the expense incurred to provide safe and healthy care for Looked After Children in the United Kingdom under the existing system. I worked in a residential care home for three years where Larry was just one of the many young people who passed through. Each case is unique but his is fairly representative of more than 80,000 children currently in the care of local authorities. I’m sharing this story because it demonstrates the problems and raises many questions about the effectiveness and wisdom of our current child care system in the U.K.
Larry was placed in care under a Section 20 agreement, of the Children’s Act 1989, where the Local Authority has “a duty to provide a child with somewhere to live if his home is deemed unsafe.” This duty can arise for a variety of reasons and means that the parent(s) are agreeing for their child to live elsewhere for a period of time. In Larry’s case, his parents were divorced, his father was in prison and his mother was unable to cope with his behaviour and needed time to rest and sort herself out. She lived on a run down council estate and before going into care Larry had experienced trauma, abuse and neglect and was at risk of violence, absconding, child sexual exploitation, gang activity, drug running, radicalisation and self harm.
Our home was Larry’s ninth placement, all the others had given up on him, and after short stays they typically requested he be moved on. He was a very angry and confused kid. He hid his head in his hoody constantly for the first few weeks with us, verbally abused all the staff with the most vile language imaginable and had no postive interactions with the two other resident young people. We quickly discovered why he was perpetually getting evicted from care homes.
For many years his only education was developing expertise in care home disruption, destruction and derangement. In the fourteen months he spent with us we tried our best to develop respectful relationships with him while fulfilling our primary care duty which was safeguarding – to keep him alive and as healthy as possible. We succeeded to a certain extent but it came at a huge cost.
Larry was almost always belligerent, refusing to comply with even the most basic of house rules like keeping his room tidy, staying out of other bedrooms, not manipulating other young residents or doing daily chores. I had to replace every single regular screw in the house with star heads because he would remove them even after we removed the butter knives. He would take off door handles, locks and anything with screws. He continuously discarded the door alarms and we had to take the tops off all the radiators because he used them as weapons. He emptied two fire extinguishers, never went to school and refused to attend meetings with the youth offending team or other social workers unless they bribed him with money or clothes. Larry only wore top of the line Nike shoes and other expensive brand clothes including Armani jeans refusing to wear anything else.
Every single week he would want to go home to stay with his mother, sister and brother for his approved two nights visit. Larry innately knew what was best for him but, because of his behaviour, it was not always agreed by his mum or permitted by his social worker. This was the biggest problem for us and the biggest trigger for him. A refusal always had serious negative repercussions.
The following events cover a six week period a couple of years ago and provide examples of Larry’s level of dysfunction.
11th October: Larry cheered as one of his peers threw a rock breaking an office window. He shouted encouragement and seemed very excited when the police arrived and arrested her for criminal damage. After she was taken away he picked up a large shard of glass and took it to his bedroom. Staff demanded it back and he threatened them but eventually gave in. His mum was informed of his behaviour and said she didn’t want him visiting as planned. He was verbally abusive to her on the phone then got very loud and threatening towards staff. He claimed that his demands to get moved to another placement were being ignored so he planned to smash up the house until he got his way.
He became agitated, waving his arms around and moving fast, looking for something to destroy. I followed him outside the house trying to calm him down. He found a ball racket and beat on the office window with it until it smashed shooting shards of glass into the room with explosive force. Next he picked up a concrete block and threw it at the windscreen of the company car completely shattering the glass before it bounced down damaging the bonnet. He tried to smash the side window too but the rock kept bouncing off frustrating him further. I was doing my best to de-escalate the situation talking with him caringly. He threatened the other staff with violence so they backed off leaving just me to try calming him down. I stayed close by, as he climbed through the broken office window before smashing his fist on two computer screens. I told him that the police had been called and his level of damage was already enough to get the attention he craved. He appeared to listen and slowly the situation de-escalated so that when the police arrived he was calmly waiting for them at the roadside. He was arrested and his social worker later talked with him about getting a new placement. We all knew that the trouble was, with his level of extreme behaviour, no-one wanted to take him.
14th October: Larry’s social worker explained he was unable to find a new placement and Larry threatened to kick off again. He went missing with another young person and returned, stoned and carrying suspected stolen goods. In the early hours of the morning he absconded once more with his peer and after returning was reported to the police for smoking cannabis in the house.
20th October: Larry absconded and after we called his phone repeatedly to no avail it was eventually answered by a police officer who said he had been arrested for stealing a car the previous night. When his mum was told she was distraught saying he was going to end up in prison like his dad and he didn’t appear to care at all.
25th October: Larry started throwing kitchen items around the living room, threatening staff and encouraging another young person to get violent. They later left the house together and were reported missing. The police located them smoking cannabis and brought them home.
28th October: Larry showed us messages he’d received from an Algerian man named Ahmed who wrote, “Are you religious?” “I can show you warmth, love and life.” “Allah is the true God.” “Open your heart to Allah.” Ahmed asked to meet up with Larry who told us he knows what radicalisation and grooming is and would never meet him. He said he was just winding Ahmed up in a group chat with his friends and “taking the piss.” While talking with us about online dangers he said that a lot of females his own age and older used to send him ‘nude’ images through Snapchat but he’s stopped it now.
2nd November: Larry wanted to go to the cinema to see a movie about gangs and violence but this was refused. He proceeded to threaten one of my colleagues after refusing to hand in his lighter claiming that he’d thrown it away in the woods. He accused my colleague of vexing him adding that, “if you keep on I’ll smash your face in.” His room was searched and nothing was found until he walked into the kitchen and a lighter fell out of his trousers onto the floor. He laughed and said he had six others. He later absconded, refused to answer his phone but returned voluntarily and apologised for his previous behaviour.
3rd November: He was unsettled and was overheard talking loudly about cocaine and his favourite alcoholic drinks. He got out butter knives and tried unscrewing various parts of the kitchen door saying he would not allow it to be shut at night any more. He absconded once again and was reported to the police but returned himself a few hours later.
11th November: After going to court in the morning Larry was unsettled and decided to abscond again. I followed him to the local railway station, watched him get on a train then reported him to the police as missing. He later returned by sneaking in the back door and we suspected him of bringing home cannabis. He agreed to a search of his bag but not his clothes so got away with it.
16th November: Late in the evening he complained that another young person had drunk his orange juice and insisted on being driven to the store to get more but we declined. He kept demanding things from us and got more agitated when he was refused. He threatened if he didn’t get his way he would cause trouble and began by dumping gravy on the back of Tim, my colleague. He then grabbed a broom and started poking Tim who took the broom off him but got pushed in the chest. While I gently got Larry to walk away from the scene and tried to calm him down Tim went to lock up the kitchen and lounge. When he discovered this Larry fully kicked off pushing and punching Tim in the back. When Tim turned around Larry hit his face a few times and spat at him while screaming obscenities at the top of his voice shouting, “I could really deck you in the nose you pussy.” As he ran out of the house he bellowed, “I’m leaving before I deck this nigger again.” We called the police but he returned before they found him. We wanted to press charges and have him arrested but they refused saying he was home and safe and only 14 years old. When we protested they said, “This is his home and besides the custody sergeant would not agree to arrest him, it’s Saturday and we have more serious offences to deal with!”
21st November: Larry spent much of the day antagonising a new young resident. He was verbally and physically abusive and his behaviour escalated. It culminated with him hitting the much younger boy with a clenched fist on his head. When we severely scolded him he called his mum speaking in a loud, anxious and angry voice. On speaker phone his mother was heard to say, “I have always told you Larry if someone hits you then hit them back much harder.” He continued to intimidate the boy shouting loudly until Tim and I finally managed to get them both settled in their own rooms.
27th November: When I turned off the internet wifi as usual he accused me of being a dickhead and shouted abusively saying. “things are going to get really bad.” In the evening he manipulated the younger boy to go out with him even though we told them both it was not allowed. While my colleague called the police, I followed them, urging them to settle down and come home. Larry was boasting about the car he had stolen and how he’d got caught without any consequences so they should take another one. After returning home his control over the youngster turned to bullying with Larry making dangerous suggestions. He trapped the boy in a bathroom and initially made out it was a joke and very funny. I asked, every way I knew how, for Larry to move away from the door and let the boy out but as time went on the energy shifted from humour to fear. He shouted for the boy to sit on the toilet and continued to torment him until he peed in his pants. I finally managed to get Larry to back off and got the boy safely to his room. When the police arrived he was rude and disrespectful to them as usual. After they left he played gangster music extremely loud and refused to turn it down. I had to turn off the electricity to his room in order to bring some peace and he eventually settled.
28th November: Larry’s mum explained that when he was young he had been bullied and touched by another boy before being moved on. She added that he had witnessed incidents of domestic abuse and always had difficulties making healthy friendships. He had another disruptive day, absconding from the house and annoying the younger boy. When he finally settled in his bedroom he played loud gangster music again until I turned off the power once again. The following morning I found that my bicycle had been taken from the back garden and thrown in the local woods destroying the front wheel. Larry denied any knowledge of the event telling me he respected me and blamed neighbourhood boys.
A few days later I read a news story that the children’s care system cases had hit a ten year high amid ‘unprecedented’ and ‘unsustainable’ demand. Many professionals spoke out with the same belief I had that the cause was a problem with families not just with young people and that a government review of the children’s care system needed to be launched as soon as possible. The Children’s Commissioner for England urged for better early interventions to ‘stop children and families reaching crisis point in the first place’.
The Department of Education’s response has been to boost the number of foster and adoptive parents and offering $45m in support to these families. But what is there for the families of the children in care? What was there for Larry’s mother? Having been a parent and educator living and working with children for over 40 years I am convinced that the single most important factor for the healthy development of young people is the building of strong family and relationship connections, something sadly lacking in today’s children’s homes. What Larry and others like him need is government support for their birth families and the building of consistency in relationships through the care system. He’s suffered from a long standing practice of pass the parcel.
All young people especially those in care need adult guidance, mentoring, love and protection. This cannot be achieved with any degree of success unless there are meaningful and consistent connections established and maintained. Looked after young people today are subjected to dozens of shallow, temporary and unpredictable relationships during the average stay in a care home. Dozens of care officers, support staff, managerial staff, social workers and even legal aid workers come and go through the lives of these fragile and damaged individuals. No wonder the first question asked by so many young people is “who is on duty today?”
Young people need close connections in order to develop self-esteem and a sense of self worth and to feel respected and loved. Without a functional family and with a lack of any viable substitute they will never establish connections and the system is doomed to failure. Do we have to wait for the collapse of the system before changes will be made? It’s understandable that care homes are at increasing risk of going under because cash-strapped councils can’t afford their fees when it costs over £150,000 a year to accommodate each child under the present system.
Surely with the huge amounts of money being spent already and with such abysmal results our society can create a new system, one that provides the depth of connection that will provide looked after young renegades like Larry with a real opportunity to live healthy, happy and productive lives. I believe it should all begin by building strong families in healthy communities, something that I’ve been committed to doing my whole renegade life.