Would you open your home to a migrant child? If the reaction to the drowning of three-year-old Alan Kurdi is anything to go by, thousands of families across Britain are ready to welcome Syrian refugee children — including an impressive number of politicians. Bob Geldof has offered space for three families in one of his spare houses. Walking past the two empty beds in my spare room, I felt the same tug: why couldn’t those beds have two little heads nestling on the pillows, safe after years of horror? It’s the same instinct we feel when a toddler tumbles over on the street and his face crumples up into tears: we want to help, we want to hug.
But there’s something odd about the rush of offers to help Syrian children. I could have filled those two beds in my spare bedroom long ago with needy children who hadn’t crossed continents to reach safety. The Fostering Network, a charity, says it needs to find 8,370 families this year alone to look after vulnerable children in Britain. There are 80,000 children in state care on any one day in the UK, about 63,000 of whom live with foster families. The shortage of homes means desperate social workers can end up placing children with families who aren’t quite right for them. So placements break down, and the cycle of damage continues.
Foster parents are paid a small weekly allowance to look after children who still keep their ties with their birth family; adoption transfers all legal rights from birth parents to adoptive parents. There’s no shortage of people coming forward to adopt newborns, but these couples are often disappointed: unwanted babies tend not to make it to the maternity ward nowadays. The number of adopted children has fallen by 80 per cent over the last four decades and just 4 per cent of children adopted in the 12 months to March last year were under a year old. Most — 76 per cent — are between one and four years old. Children aged five and over are much harder to place.
So here’s the paradox: I find myself thinking approvingly about the 21st-century Kindertransport while breezing past an ad from the council pleading for more people to come forward as foster carers for abandoned British children. And why? Truthfully, because I’m scared I’d be hopeless at fostering a British child, and I suspect all the people offering to take on Syrian children feel that too.
A British child up for adoption or fostering has often suffered at least two years of neglect and abuse and the damage that can do is often irreparable. Through voluntary work, I’ve met adopted and fostered children who have taught me that even in a new loving home, their troubles don’t melt away. I’ve seen six-year-olds in Thomas the Tank Engine T-shirts making sexual gestures; little boys who can’t cope at parties when sweets are handed out as prizes because their birth mothers starved them as a ‘punishment’.
So it’s not the people announcing they’ll take on Syrian children who are the real heroes so much as those who take on our own abandoned children. They’re the ones with hearts big enough for the pain and joy of raising a difficult child.
But even those who’ve volunteered to house a refugee child should make sure they know quite what they’re signing up for. Who’s to say a child from Homs who has suffered years of bombing won’t be traumatised for life? And what about the young girls who have been abused by Isis?
Before that, of course, there’s the whole bureaucratic nightmare to navigate. Many of those inspired to take in Syrian children will find that, after a process lasting months in which they are asked about everything from their daily timetable to whether they and their partner have a healthy sex life, the authorities will anyway rule them out. If prospective parents don’t speak Arabic or Kurdish, and if they don’t have much experience of dealing with what Barnardo’s describes as ‘unimaginable’ trauma, they may never get the chance of taking a Syrian child home, instead finding they’re being offered a child from closer by.
A moving Save the Children video about a Syrian child tells us that ‘just because it isn’t happening here, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening’. But children are scared and lonely and in need of a loving family here too, all the more so because people like me shy away from the challenge. It shouldn’t take a crisis thousands of miles away to make us realise that.