By Matt.Ross

11 Nov 2009

This week’s interviewee works with young people leaving residential care, and is based in the social work department of a deprived, inner-city local authority in England.

I started out working for charities and in finance, then began volunteering as a youth mentor. That led to a job providing careers advice, and a few years ago I moved to a council social services department. I also volunteer on a community panel with a Youth Offending Team: we set restorative justice penalties for first offenders, helping to keep them out of the criminal justice system.

A lot of the trouble these young people get into involves relatively petty disputes that escalate. Kids have got into disagreements since time immemorial, and tribalism is almost instinctive – but it doesn’t necessarily have to be violent. Yet there’s huge growth in the use of knives. We see the tip of the iceberg in the papers; underneath the surface, there’s a much bigger problem.

As a personal adviser on the social work department’s ‘adolescence and aftercare service’, I befriend, advise and support young people leaving residential care at age 18; we help them until age 21, or 25 if they’re in higher education. We try to provide a safe environment and support, enabling them to flourish.

However, expectations are constantly rising about what social work can achieve. Politicians say: ‘We won’t leave any child behind; where the parent can’t parent, the state must parent’, and civil servants dolefully implement these ideas in half-baked legislation – but we can’t really parent these children or act like a real family; we can’t give them a hug, or be there for them 24/7. We give children the message that we’re a corporate parent, and they think we should do everything for them; but it’s not possible, and young people get doubly disappointed.

So central government has cultivated an idea that can’t be realised. They act as if we could ensure that no child ever dies of abuse, but the reality is Baby P: kids die in our communities every week. We need to be more honest about what we can and can’t deliver.

To shape what I do deliver, central government sets targets. And I’m all for targets: you need to measure what you’re doing, and I agree targets with my manager for our goals with particular young people. But the government targets measure my activity, not how good a job I’m doing. For example, I have a target to see my young people in their homes every quarter. Maybe they don’t want me in their home; maybe instead they want to be accompanied to court – but that’s not a target. So the target nudges me towards fulfilling a process, rather than meeting people’s needs.

In other ways, though, the state goes well beyond meeting people’s needs. We’ve created a welfare net which a lot of people consider to be a hammock – and they want to hang out in that hammock all day long. The ill-thought-out good intentions of the welfare state have incubated dysfunctionality.

Look, say you’re doing badly at school, living in cramped accommodation, your prospects aren’t good; if you have a child, you get your own place and loads of money. Bingo! I was working with a 21-year-old girl; three kids from two guys, neither still around. She’s got a house by the park, with her rent and council tax paid, plus benefits and tax credits of about £240 a week. If she was working, she’d need to be on £29,000 to have that lifestyle – and she’s never worked a day in her life.

This is about people being responsible for their actions: this girl is not being held accountable for bringing kids into the world. If a young person comes into care, why don’t we bill their parents? Why does the housing benefit system encourage single occupancy, when it’s so much more expensive? And why do we fund 16-year-old single parents to live independently, when so many adults struggle to do the same? In Holland, single parents don’t get any benefits below the age of 21, and they have lower rates of teenage pregnancy; parents make sure their kids don’t bring home any screaming babies. But here, the state can even undermine the family’s ability to sort out its own affairs.

We recently had a case where a young person had been thrown out of his house because of bad behaviour; the council refused him accommodation, but his solicitors launched a judicial review and the courts said he must be accommodated. So the mother’s attempts to set boundaries and discipline her child were completely undermined by the state, which is now going to house him with a full leaving care package – which offers a lot more than many hard-working parents could provide.

Legislation and court rulings ask social workers to do more without more capacity, and to pretend that we can do impossible things. But we don’t make individuals accountable for their actions; we’re clear about what citizenship means for people who are coming to live in the UK, but we don’t expect the same behaviour of our own citizens. We need to tell people up front that they’ll be held accountable for their actions, and that if you’re on benefits that’s poverty and it ain’t nice – so if you don’t want to live a depressing life, you’ve got to get qualifications and a job.

Above all, people need to be accountable for the children they have, because there’s no more important thing you can do than to bring another life into the world – and if you’re not prepared to be accountable, then you have no business getting involved in it.

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