Dr Jane Callaghan, Associate Professor in Psychology, gives her opinion on the gap left in children’s services following the demise of charity Kids Company.
“This week has been a bad one for UK children’s services. Two major organisations providing services for some of our most vulnerable children and families – Kids Company, and the British Association of Adoption and Fostering – closed their doors. The implications of their closure are massive, emphasising the risks posed by an increased privatisation of services for vulnerable children and families. We heard the news last week, too, that the English College of Social Work is also closing down. One has to wonder what kind of seismic changes are under way, and what the implications are for the future of children’s and social services in the UK.
One of the key roles of third sector organisations has always been to provide not just direct services to individuals and families, but also to provide advocacy and to be a voice of social critique. As services become more and more dependent on competitive commissioning from the very structures they are supposed to be critiquing this vital advocacy role becomes significantly undermined. What remains is a considerably weakened voice in the third sector, as organisations tailor their offer fit with the dominant political trends of the moment to ensure funding streams are sustained.
Kids Company operated within a philosophy that fitted well with the principles of ‘Big Society’, the reduction of the state and the increasing of privatisation and volunteerism to meet the needs of the population. However, in the end, it is those very neoliberal principles that undermine charitable organisations and social enterprises. On the one hand, public services are increasingly handed over to such organisations, who are encouraged to compete with each other in commissioning processes that are demanding, costly and labour intensive, and that undermine local cooperation between third sector organisations (Moriarty, Manthorpe, & London, 2014). This produces services that are fragmented, overstretched, and unable to plan (because of the short termism of commissioning processes). On the other hand, local authorities are required to cut spending, resulting in many organisations having to shut their doors, creating ever more pressure on the remaining third sector services to meet demand with less and less resource. The result is both a shrinking public sector and an overstretched and strained third sector. Casualties are inevitable. Kids Company was, perhaps ironically, one of those casualties.
The model of work used by Kids Company also fits political discourses that individualise complex social problems – effectively underscoring the notion that there is ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families’. Children’s vulnerability to social, educational and behavioural challenges is understood in this model as being primarily a function of poor parenting and dysfunctional family life. While we know that the single strongest predictor of children’s difficulties is in fact poverty – which in turn produces family stress – (Raver, Roy, & Pressler, 2015), the notion that it’s all down to “bad mummies and daddies” offers a stronger appeal to a political establishment that prefers simple solutions to complex social problems, and reduced public spending to strategies of poverty reduction. Early intervention in the family is certainly an effective strategy. However, intervening at the family level is doomed to fail, if not embedded in social support focused on reducing poverty and improving social conditions. When the family intervention model is promoted in a context of reduced public spending, increased competition, loss of collaboration and fragmentation of services, it is not surprising perhaps that third sector organisations increasingly fail.
We need to think carefully about the implications of the relentless forward march of privatisation in relation to social services for children and families. Proposals to privatise child protection and other elements of children’s social care have moved forward largely unopposed, and in some local authorities, such processes are already well underway. But privatising such services remove both the financial safety net afforded by central state or local authority support, and the accountability that attends the location of such services within structures that are directly answerable to the electorate. The loss of Kids Company and BAAF this week highlight that taking support and protection for vulnerable children and families out of state hands is a risky strategy, and one that already seems to be backfiring. The failure of Kids Company leaves a group of already vulnerable children and families further stripped of the support they need. The failure of Kids Company highlights how the current political landscape fails those who most need our help. “