Two campaigns are vying for our attention this week. Foster Care Fortnight #FCF2018, meet #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.
The first is led by the Fostering Network charity and aims to recruit new foster carers at a time of record need. The second is a Mental Health Foundation initiative, with strong support across the world of mental health. This year’s campaign focuses on stress and how to manage it.
The frustration with these two well-meaning campaigns is that they will carry on with absolutely no reference to each other, competing for headlines and public attention. Yet the reality is that foster carers are frontline mental health workers, on call 24/7.
As foster carers, we share our lives with some of the most vulnerable youngsters, helping them come to terms with trauma or to manage mental health conditions that have proved difficult for their own families. Yet our voices are rarely heard, and our work is largely unrecognised. Nor is there concern for the impact it has on our own lives.
More than 65,000 children live with almost 55,000 foster families across the UK each day. Many suffered neglect or abuse for some years before the authorities intervened and have lived at the fringes of the care system. Some will remain in care until adulthood, and will likely spend time with two, three or even four families along the way.
Not every child in care will suffer from mental health issues, but many will, and the mere act of being forced apart from mum and dad to live with strangers, even if it is only for a matter of weeks, is traumatic. Many children blame themselves for what has happened, and struggle to live with the burden.
In a fairer society, all children taken into care would be entitled to an assessment of mental health needs, soon after a placement begins. The reality is very different. CAMHS is severely under-resourced for all children and young people, and there is no fast track for children in care. What’s more, the system presumes that any significant intervention cannot be effective until a foster child is placed in permanency, which usually means settled with the family they will stay with until adulthood. In theory, this is a sensible approach; in practice, it takes no account of how long the process towards permanency can take. This may be several months, or even a couple of years. This is unacceptably long for a child or young person showing symptoms of distress, which might include problems with eating or sleeping, or self-harm. Until these issues are addressed they risk undermining progress at school and the ability to make new friends, crucial building blocks towards reclaiming their lives.
So long as professional support remains out of reach, the burden of care falls on foster carers. We are committed to our role, willing to offer sanctuary to the sons and daughters of other people, for as long as it takes. But we are not mental health experts, and we receive no specialist training. We are, mostly, mums and dads. Our response to symptoms of poor mental health is rooted in our experience as parents and augmented by what we read in books.
Sometimes we know so little about a child’s history that our assessment of a problem must be based on guesswork and instinct. We hope we are doing the right thing, as we manage disruptive behaviour that is challenging, mentally and physically.
Most of the children in our care make extraordinary progress. The reasons are easy to understand. Children are removed from the risk of violence, live in a home that is warm and dry, wash regularly and wear clean clothes, have regular meals and sleep in a cosy bed. But that’s the easy stuff. What happens after that troubles us deeply, for it is mostly beyond our competence. Yet, far too often, there is nobody else.
It would be great to see organisations come together to recognise the role of foster carers as mental health champions. By raising public awareness of the challenges faced by carers and the children they look after, we may begin to receive the support we all need. That would be an outstanding joint achievement for both #FCF2018 and #MentalHealthAwarenessWeek.