The Times

March 12, 2003

Young tearaways may be taken from parents

By Alexandra Frean, Social Affairs Correspondent
The Times

YOUNG people who are a serious disruption to their neighbourhoods are to be taken from their families and held in a new type of foster home as part of an attempt to tackle antisocial behaviour, the Government is expected to announce today.

In a sharp departure from current practice, which is based on leaving children with their natural families if possible, the White Paper on Antisocial Behaviour is expected to recommend the introduction of compulsory intensive foster placements.

These would provide young troublemakers with paid, trained foster parents who can provide a stable family environment and round-the-clock supervision.

The White Paper is also expected to recommend placing entire problem families in residential centres to teach them better parenting skills.

Experts said that the moves were unworkable and that “intensive” fostering programmes could lead to a drain on the already inadequate pool of foster parents.

The White Paper is expected to deal with the imposition of spot fines on vandals, truants and hooligans, making begging a recordable offence, and the introduction of police powers to shut down crack dens for three months.

Ministers are also keen to emphasise the importance of providing the parents of problem children with intensive family support and not using just the threat of greater punishment.

Beverley Hughes, the Home Office Minister, will use a speech to a conference organised by the Family Nurturing Network in Oxford today to argue that the parents of tearaways, whose behaviour can disrupt entire communities, need to be given the skills to control their children and be provided with support.

The Home Office floated the idea of intensive fostering for children as young as 10 a year ago and originally suggested that it might be included in its Criminal Justice White Paper published last year. The proposal was dropped after some critics said that it could contravene the Human Rights Act.

The idea behind it is to provide difficult children with specialist help and support and an opportunity to grow up in stable conditions, sometimes for the first time, before being returned to their birth family.

At present, those aged 10 and 11 can be remanded to secure accommodation only if they are suspected of, or convicted of, crimes punishable by sentences of at least 14 years. This allows many young children who commit lesser crimes to go unpunished.

Pam Hibbert, of Barnardo’s, said that the idea of intensive fostering was contrary to the spirit of the 1989 Children Act, which says that children should not be removed from their families unless there were serious grounds of risk to the child or others.

“If the aim of intensive fostering is, firstly, to change criminal and antisocial behaviour and, secondly, to provide good parenting experience, then the breaking of strong familial attachments will be counter-productive,” she said. “Children respond to such detachment by ‘acting out’ and if they are already engaging in criminal behaviour it is likely that this will increase.”

Reintegrating children into their family after they had been in foster care was fraught with difficulties and often did not work, Ms Hibbert said.

It was wrong to assume that criminal or antisocial behaviour was always the result of poor parenting, she said. However, where there was evidence of neglect or poor attachment, children should be dealt with by the welfare system, not the criminal justice system.

Ms Hibbert said that while she supported the notion of working with families together to help improve children’s behaviour, the idea of placing parents and children in residential centres for help and parenting classes was impractical. “You may improve the behaviour of the family but you are unlikely to change the attitude of their neighbours towards them. When they come back into the community, the hostile reaction of others could undo all the good work done with them,” she said.

Copyright 2003, Times Newspapers Ltd.