A Thousand Days Of Missed Chances

The fate of thousands of children's mental health now rests in the lap of the Lords. Let us hope that they take that responsibility seriously and don't allow another 1,000 days of missed chances.

Today, the House of Lords will debate the Children and Social Work Bill. Tucked into it is a tiny amendment that will have a titanic impact on thousands of the UK's most vulnerable children - an amendment that ensures that every child, when going into care, is given a mental health assessment by a professional.

Yet despite the NSPCC leading a chorus of calls from charities, health professionals, and peers to implement an assessment that would flag up whether a child needs some help, Government is still dawdling over what to do. Instead of introducing this rudimentary assessment, the government has instigated a 'working group' that will explore this possibility - meaning we will have to wait three years for a decision.

Three years for the government to make up its mind. A thousand days of missed chances to protect some of our most vulnerable children who have already experienced terrible trauma. Must these children be forced to wait for three long years, when we already know that these children really do need help?

The answer is evidently no.

Barely a week goes by without more evidence about how our young people are battling anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Last year one in three calls to Childline was about mental health problems. The NSPCC's It's Time campaign handed Number 10 a petition earlier last month, with more than 30,000 signatures demanding government action.

It is well documented that children in care - who have often come from upsetting and chaotic environments - are more likely to develop mental health problems. So you might think it goes without saying that a baseline mental health assessment is essential in enabling professionals to identify issues and tackle them before they spiral into problems that can crush a life.

If the arguments as to the importance of this amendment are not clear, is it worth noting that from every angle the case is solid. From a financial perspective, intervening in mental health issues early on stops them from developing into even more serious conditions that cost a lot of money, time, and resources to treat - hardly something that a buckling health system can cope with.

In terms of employment, helping a child overcome mental health issues early on helps them perform better in school, making it easier for them to achieve the skills and confidence to gain a job - benefiting them, their employers, and society.

From a moral perspective, it is crystal clear that these tests must be introduced - a child has been pulled from their home, often in very upsetting circumstances. So not only do they lack a security blanket of a loving, settled family, they have to face an intimidating new way of life alone. How on earth can we, as a society, fail to show an interest in their wellbeing at this point?

Why are these children not deserving of early intervention? The government is essentially the parent of these children in care. Would they accept such a delay for their own children? It seems unlikely; they would demand the best support available and so that is what they must ensure is available for these children. And, it is why action is needed now.

We offer health assessments to various groups within British society; cervical cancer vaccines for teenage girls being just one - why aren't we offering a screening for young people who we know are particularly vulnerable to debilitating mental health problems? Last year nearly 32,000 children entered England's care system - most of whom are being denied a basic assessment to check if they needed any support.

Yet, with the government seeming to have kicked a decision into the long grass, this call to give these children a better chance in life appears to be falling on deaf ears.

But the Lords can fight on the behalf of all of those thousands of children who enter our care system every year. They can demand that those in need so early on in life are not abandoned again. They can ensure that this amendment becomes law now, rather than allowing government to waste time for another three long years.

The fate of thousands of children's mental health now rests in the lap of the Lords. Let us hope that they take that responsibility seriously and don't allow another 1,000 days of missed chances.


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