One of the biggest changes in working with looked after children over the 30 or so years that I have been working within the sector is the recognition that we must take their mental health as seriously as their physical health. This is a hugely welcome change and one that I have personally been very passionate about. That's why, when I was asked to sit on the Department for Education's expert working group with a focus on looked after children and mental health and wellbeing in England, I jumped at the chance.
We're talking about OUR children
That group has now published a report which, in turn, we anticipate will lead to a governmental Green Paper. The title of the report is Improving Mental Health Support for our Children and Young People. For me, the key word in the title is the little word 'our'. The looked after children and young people we are talking about are the responsibility of the state, their corporate parents. They are OUR children and as such we must do all that we can to ensure their wellbeing, just like any good parent would do. A good parent would pull out all the stops, do everything in their power for the good of their children, and the corporate parent should be no different. The government must take the key messages and recommendations of the report seriously and there must be a sincere commitment to invest in fulfilling the recommendations - the mental health and wellbeing of our looked after children and young people depends on it.
I am particularly pleased to see the recommendation of the introduction of a virtual mental health lead (VMHL). Rather like a virtual school head, this post will have oversight of the mental health of looked after children in their area. They will help ensure the consistency of the quality of assessment and support children in care receive to meet their mental health needs and emotional wellbeing. The report recommends that this is a health-based post and while I understand the need for this role to challenge health professionals, it is essential that the postholder is able to work across all organisations especially local authorities. As well as helping looked after children get consistent access to mental health services, the VMHL must also play a strategic role in monitoring outcomes for looked after children and providing data on a local authority level.
Supporting carers to care for themselves
The VMHL role should also be an extremely useful resource for foster carers who will be able to draw on their expertise and connections. This is important as three quarters of looked after children live with foster families, so if we want to see an improvement in mental health provision for looked after children we must properly invest in and support foster carers. I am also pleased to see that the mental health and wellbeing of foster carers being highlighted in this report. Too often this is an area which is overlooked by fostering services and foster carers themselves as their focus is on the wellbeing of the children in their care. Foster carers must be a positive role model for the young people they are looking after when it comes to demonstrating how to care for your own wellbeing. However, foster carers often experience secondary trauma and must be encouraged and supported to take time to prioritise their own mental health. Caring for the carers is essential in caring for children and young people.
Foster carers are key members of the team
The report also highlights that carers often feel they cannot get the support they need for their child or young person due to high thresholds or being excluded from vital meetings. Foster carers are a key member of the team around the child and often the one who know and understands them best. Yet we find they are too often excluded from important meetings and their views are not sought. Foster carers must be recognised and valued as the experts who best know the children they care for; their views must always be invited and take into consideration.
This report and the subsequent Green Paper provide an excellent opportunity for the Westminster Government to set out its stall as one which takes the mental health and wellbeing of looked after children - OUR looked after children - extremely seriously.