Half way through my term as Children’s Commissioner, I am as ambitious and aspirational for children as I ever was. This role is a constant reminder that a childhood that is happy and full of love is the best springboard to adult life that any of us could have; that children are resourceful, and achieve great things, even in adversity; and, sadly, that many children live in such difficult conditions that the state has to step in to help.
The report I produced last year into the experiences of teenage girls in custody told a tale of woeful childhood experiences: children born into chaotic families where drink, drugs and sexual abuse were rife, raised by relatives or in care, bereaved, abandoned, excluded from school.
“Like when my Mum would overdose and then I’d have to deal with it from like the age of 6, like picking her up off the bathroom floor, having to call ambulances, bullied quite a lot at school because of wetting the bed, always smelt like wee, was going to school smelling so was bullied by the other kids. Was never really in a clean house, was constantly running from the police, social service and moving around a lot …
“…and the woman said ‘your Mum was found dead this morning’… They told me that T (younger brother) had been with her body for a number of days. So he was found by someone, it could have been 1 or 2 days … I think I cried for 1 or 2 seconds…” (Zoe)
These experiences – of children who told me they welcome being jailed because it’s the first time in their lives they have felt safe – should worry all of us. It is a truism of course that ‘children are our future’, but it should make us all pause to think nonetheless: difficult childhoods become difficult adulthoods. They ricochet down the generations, not only wrecking the lives of the children but carrying huge social and financial costs with them.
In that context, the findings of my work with the Institute for Fiscal Studies to be published later this spring – showing a steep reduction in benefits spend per child and a 20% fall in spend on all children’s services over the decade to 2020, including a 60% reduction in spending on Sure Start services – is extremely worrying. We know that families will try to protect children from the effects of poverty, sacrificing their own needs for those of their children, but the impacts on a child’s experiences and opportunities cannot always be covered up or smoothed over. Local authorities are reporting to me that children are coming into care because they are homeless or poor – not neglected or abused, just poor.
I want to build a national consensus for fair funding for services for children and for families with children, in the children’s interests but also in the country’s interests, and I will campaign for a better deal for kids in government spending.
Our work on vulnerability last year showed how many children are living with high risks in their lives, which wreck their childhoods and will damage their life chances; often unseen and unheard. Our second wave of the Vulnerability Study this year will seek to identify the vulnerabilities and risks which criss-cross children’s lives. In isolation, each one might not be a concern, but the interaction between them can be devastating. These are children who may fall through the cracks in the system at the moment, one problem on its own not deemed sufficiently serious to warrant help: kids living with parents with mental health and substance abuse problems, for instance, or young carers in overcrowded accommodation, or the learning disabled child who is unofficially excluded.
Behind all the numbers are real stories such as Beau Broomfield’s, a little boy who featured in the Evening Standard coverage of our Vulnerability study last year, beaming from the front page. The main carer for his sick mother, 8 year old Beau was preparing his own meals, calling for ambulances when his mother had fits, and constantly worrying about her:
I am struck repeatedly in this job by the extraordinary resilience and creativity of children such as Beau. I meet them all the time: the self-harming teenagers campaigning for better mental health services, children in care building support networks for younger kids, children looking after sick parents but not telling anyone for fear they’ll be taken into care. Children of such defiance against the odds with which they live that it takes your breath away. It is my enormous privilege to represent children such as these in Parliament and Whitehall.
Too often in our local and national structures, children’s needs are overlooked as adults build systems in adult or bureaucratic interests, ignoring the child in the centre by default. Children often appear to be an afterthought or a second priority in the development of policy or services. We saw it last year in our CAMHS work, which showed the massive discrepancy between both spend and accountability in children’s and adult’s mental health.
Nowhere is the afterthought more apparent than in the design of digital services for children. I have campaigned long and hard to rebalance the power between the digital giants and kids. Last year we shone a light on the experiences of children aged 8-12 growing up amidst the whirlwind of social media; chasing ‘Likes’ and trying to emulate the lives of the rich, famous and glamorous. That’s why I’m so pleased the Government has agreed to include digital life skills in the RSE curriculum, and has introduced laws to force social media companies to consider children’s development when they design online services; to help address the problem of irresponsibly addictive platforms aimed at children, and those that may be a danger to them such as Snapmaps or Instagram Live. Our work on children’s digital lives continues: I will not leave this office without addressing the imbalances of power that exist between online titans and the children whose data they mine.
Where something needs changing, I will fight for it. Where it needs funding, I will campaign for it. Where it needs to be seen and understood, I will shine a light on it. I want to place children centre stage – no longer an afterthought, but at the heart of policy-making, their views and interests able to shape the world around them.