Expert working group: looked after children and mental health / wellbeing

Featured article - 06 November 2017
By Kevin Williams, CEO, The Fostering Network

Head-shot of the author, Kevin Williams, CEO, The Fostering Network

When I saw that this group had been established I was keen to become involved. Not only because of the importance of the subject matter; not only because it was cross government departments, (DFE and DoH); not only because it had experts by experience central to it; not only because young people only have one childhood and we need to get it right now; and not only because this will have real influence and create positive change. Lots of 'not onlys'. Here's the 'but also': because over three quarters of children and young people in care are in foster care and as CEO of The Fostering Network I know that if we are to make the changes that are needed when it comes to the mental health of looked after children then foster carers and foster care needs to be central to that change.

I know that all young people who come into care will have had some challenges that they have had to face, often the sort of challenges that most people do not have to overcome. The very fact of having to leave one’s family can often be very traumatic and have an impact on children’s wellbeing and mental health. I also know that the current system and process of accessing appropriate support can be complicated and unwieldy. I hear foster carers exasperated on behalf of the young people that they care for at the waiting times to access CAMHS. I know that we have a system which looks for ‘experts’ to solve problems when carers through their relationships and support can be, and often are, the best resource to support young people’s wellbeing and mental health. There will always be those who need additional support and I hope the recommendations from this group will help people navigate the complex system more easily and for support to be more timely.

Caring for the carers

But if we are to support young people’s wellbeing and mental health then we also need to support their carers. Not only to support the young people they care for now, not only to build skills and knowledge to support others that they might care for, but to support carers to look after their own wellbeing and mental health. This not only helps them to be a positive role model for young people but it can provide carers, many of whom may experience secondary trauma, with the resilience and strength to continue to have the compassion to meet children’s needs. Caring for the carers is essential in caring for children and young people.

Base it on relationships

Lastly, I know that system-change is complex and time-consuming. So, alongside the recommendations that the group has made around practical change we need a change of culture and attitude. Young people and their carers are at the heart of a system, and it is vital that the ‘golden thread’ of relationships run through that system. Young people and their carers are their own experts and need to be heard and valued. Building a care system based on relationships will go a long way to supporting looked after young people’s in wellbeing and mental health.

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