This government-backed review seeks an urgent solution to the problem of children and young people ending up in institutions in England. The children are those with disabilities, challenging behaviour and complex mental health needs. Christine Lenehan of the Council for Disabled Children was an ideal choice to lead the review with her long strong commitment to disabled children.
The review looks at what government and national bodies can do to create: better human rights; better understanding; a model of care; professional responsibility; alignment of national programmes and local commissioning; and better commissioning of services. All good stuff. There is a link to the review at the end of this piece.
But I have been reading these reviews and reports since the 1960s and 70s! Lenehan, like me, has long seen children “condemned to a life hidden from society, away from their families” and she makes suggestions for remedying the situation because “These children are part of our community, not external to it.” This last assertion leads me to another analysis of the problem and then another attempt at a remedy.
In the locality where you live, who is in ‘the community’? Who speaks for it? When we say ‘our community’, which people make up the ‘our’? References to these so-called communities, often described as close-knit, are trotted out by police, government officials and press at the drop of a hat. But can they be relied on? Do they exist? Or are they the product of sloppy and sentimental thinking? Where is ‘our community’ when half a town wants to welcome immigrants while the other half wants them out? Where is ‘our community’ in a city where racial prejudice and religious persecution are rife?
In any town, city, region or country there are surely some people higher up on the acceptability scale and some people lower down. In the West, white men are always high up especially if they are middle class. White women struggle to join them. Black people and those of ethnic minorities usually find themselves lower down. Long experience shows that people with disabilities have a hard struggle to move up from the lowest layers. Success in the Olympics helped but in the end there was more novelty value than real change. Within this disability group, children and adults with intellectual disability are even lower down and destined to stay there if they cannot articulate their feelings, needs and aspirations.
My life experience tells me that this low ranking of people with intellectual disabilities plays a very large part in reducing their life opportunities and getting them holed up in institutions. I used to think things were improving but it seems a hardening of hearts is the new trend in England.
If ‘our community’ is exposed as a nonsense and therefore not to be relied on for a solution to institutionalisation and if appeals to governments have to be repeated for ever, we need another way forward.
My answer, or part answer, is Caring Activism. Each neighbourhood has caring citizens who work with commitment, kindness and energy under the radar and emerge into the light when there is a local crisis or calamity. The concept of Caring Activism brings citizens together into local forums to watch over vulnerable people on their patch. For instance, they can concern themselves with frail elderly people, with vulnerable teenagers leaving care homes or with disabled young people stuck at home, lonely and bored after leaving school.
Caring activists form small teams around individual people, develop helping relationships with them and offer practical support. When a vulnerable person goes into hospital or a home or an institution they watch out for neglect or abuse. All of this happens below or beyond government influence and takes care of groups of vulnerable people that governments ignore or fail.
The teamwork in the concept of Caring Activism has grown out of the Team Around the Child (TAC) approach for infants and young children with disabilities. While each infant’s TAC is made up of professionals and parents, the Caring Activist team is made up of caring citizens and, ideally but not essentially, concerned professionals.
Responsibility for vulnerable young people with these disabilities cannot be handed over to governments. That has been tried and has failed badly. ‘Our communities’ are a fiction and so no solutions can come from them either. But citizens can help fellow citizens and we see examples in the media every day.
Caring Activism and Lenehan’s review both have a part to play in keeping vulnerable kids out of institutions. One difference is that caring citizens can act now while government officials are slowly reading, digesting and responding to the review during the next few years – until the next review comes along.
By Peter Limbrick
Peter Limbrick is author of Caring Activism: A 21st century concept of care, edited by Professor Hilton Davis and published by Interconnections in 2016.
To learn about Caring Activism go to: www.caringactivism.com
To read These are our children go to: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/lenehan-review-into-care-of-children-with-learning-disabilities
Life feels good is an intelligent movie from Poland about institutionalisation. For a preview go to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dMk65RjZBxQ
 Quotes from the Review.