We can't miss this chance for children in care

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Looked-after children are four times more likely to experience mental health issues than others their age.

Most have experienced neglect and abuse that can have terrible, long-lasting effects.

Yet, looked-after children aren’t getting the support they need to recover so they can go on to live happy, fulfilling lives.

We now have the chance to do something about it.

Tomorrow, the House of Lords will properly debate the Children and Social Work Bill for the first time. The Government is proposing a number of ways to improve how it supports and protects some of our most vulnerable children. There are some good ideas, but the Bill should go further and do more.

It should start with a care system that promotes children’s emotional wellbeing and recovery from past trauma. With a clear aim like this, far more would be done to ensure that the best care is provided to children everyday. We know that this is the most important thing when it comes to preventing children from experiencing mental health difficulties. 

Today, the Alliance for Children in Care and Care Leavers is relaunching A New Vision. Action for Children is Co-Chair of the Alliance, and together with other children’s charities we are calling for a rethink of the care system.

And it’s necessary, because we know there’s a problem.

The Education Select Committee recently highlighted the fact that too many local authorities don’t pick up on children’s mental health difficulties when they first enter care. Not only that, mental health services are turning away vulnerable young people if they’re in unstable care placements or fail to meet high diagnostic thresholds. 

Some of the new proposals in the Bill are about corporate parenting. This sounds technical and you may be wondering what it has to do with helping children recover from abuse and neglect.

The answer is a lot. 

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Simply put, a corporate parent is any organisation or person who has special responsibility for children in care. They are supposed to carry out many of the roles that any parent would, so that children and young people in care get the best support.

If our aim is to achieve recovery and healing from past harm then lots of different services have a role to play – and they should all act as corporate parents.

Take health, for example. If the principles of corporate parenting applied to health agencies, it would give them greater responsibility for the needs of children in care and care leavers. They would become partners of the local authority in this. 

And, the Bill could introduce a lead health professional in each area, who would coordinate support for looked after children’s mental health. This could work in a similar way to the Virtual School Head (VSH) in education, who is appointed in every local authority to champion looked after children’s educational achievement. This has already helped boost grades, increase attendance and improve young people’s stability and emotional wellbeing. 

This would be a huge step forward – a number of important agencies with different responsibilities for children in care all pulling in the same direction.

And what about once young people leave care? It can be really difficult to adapt to adult life and the skills to do so don’t develop overnight.

The Bill rightly takes account of the needs of care leavers and the Alliance has long called for personal advisers to be made available to every care leaver up to the age of 25. However, the Government must ensure that this offer is accompanied by sufficient provision of wider services around health, education, employment and accommodation – and local authorities need to make sure that all care leavers are aware of what support is available to them.

Fortunately for the Government, the Children and Social Work Bill is the perfect opportunity to listen to the sector and the experts. The solutions are there. Now it is time to act on them. 

 

You can read the Alliance's briefing for parliamentarians ahead of Second Reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday 14th June here.