Atkinson warns against using international evidence to reform UK care system

By Gabriella Jozwiak

| 25 October 2012

Central and local government should be cautious about modelling provision for vulnerable young people on international examples, the children's commissioner for England has warned.

Atkinson told delegates that decision-makers must be "really careful" when using international comparators

Speaking at a debate about children in care at the National Children and Adult Services Conference, Maggie Atkinson told delegates that decision-makers had to be “really careful” when analysing the merit of international comparators.

Her comments came in reponse to Andrew Webb, vice-president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS), who suggested that approaches used in Finland and Sweden could potentially be applied to children and young people in the UK.

“We are, as a nation, brilliant by being seduced by what they’re doing in Finland, Sweden and elsewhere,” Atkinson said.

“No, they don’t put their children behind bars in Sweden, they put them in secure mental hospitals. Talk to my commissioner opposite number – she’ll tell you. They drug them, they restrain them and they lock them up. 

“They only have five million children in Sweden, but there are 1,000 children on remand. They take far higher percentages of their children into the care system, they have rubbish fostering and adoption systems, and they keep them in care. So let’s just be really, really careful which bit of international comparators we actually buy.”

Webb defended his position, arguing that international approaches should be used as evidence to inform policy, rather than being directly imported.

“Looking at the evidence isn’t the same as adopting what’s going on,” he said.

“If there are different models of doing things, we need to understand what the consequences of adopting them might be and look at potential unintended consequences, but we should never close our lines to what’s going on elsewhere.

“International systems are very different and they wouldn’t necessarily translate or be transported to England or Britain. But they do ask different questions and come up with different answers.”

Earlier, Webb told delegates that ADCS is planning to commission research into international evidence on interventions with vulnerable adolescents.

He suggested that Finland and Sweden’s approach leads to fewer adolescents being put into custody.

“In Finland, virtually no children end up in custody,” he said. “In Sweden a few more do, but nothing like the numbers that do here. Yet both those countries have a completely different way of intervening in families where adolescents show oppositional and antisocial behaviour.”

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