Script for Thought for the Day, BBC Radio 4, 11th June.
By what measure do we judge our society’s character? Last night, BBC Two broadcast the televised version of ‘My Name is Leon’, a novel by Kit de Waal about a young mixed-race boy who gets separated from his white baby brother after their mother has a breakdown. As we follow his longing to be reunited with his brother, Leon also finds loving mentors in the Caribbean community on a local allotment. The transformative power of their friendship sustains him even while the care system fails to understand his needs. It might be set in the 80s, but its message about the trauma faced by vulnerable children – and their longing for community – feels just as relevant today.
Yesterday the BBC reported that the number of child cruelty offences in England jumped by a quarter last year. And on Thursday the news broke of allegations that children in care were being groomed and sexually assaulted in homes run by a firm making double the profits of other big care providers. These headlines come just weeks after an Independent Review of Children’s Social Care has called for a ‘radical reset’ of the entire care system. It described the current outcomes for children as ‘unacceptably poor’, in part due to sometimes trying to quote “replace organic bonds and relationships with professionals and services”. If, as Nelson Mandela put it, there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children, we are due for a major wake-up call.
Mandela’s observation draws on a much longer tradition of judging a community by its care for the most vulnerable. In Jewish and Christian scriptures, protection for the orphan and widow is seen as the benchmark for a holy and just society. The prophet Isaiah tells the people of Israel that God rejects their religious ceremonies in part because they do not defend orphans and widows. In the New Testament the Book of James insists that true religion must include caring for these most vulnerable groups. In the scriptures, the sacred responsibility of protecting a child in danger is not just given to a few specialised carers. It is the job of the whole community. If we want to keep children safe from harm and ensure parents and carers can love and support them, our collective priorities must be revisited. Our deepest spiritual roots prompt all of us to look first to the most vulnerable, imagining our society around meeting their need.