Looked after children and mental health. Making things happen, not creating a dust-gathering policy document.

Featured article - 10 January 2017
By Alison O’Sullivan, co-chair expert group mental health children in care.

Head-shot of the author, Alison O’Sullivan, co-chair expert group mental health children in care.

“The NHS’s biggest failing.” The words of Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt back in October. He was referring to the mental health of children and young people. Well, just imagine what it must be like to be a child or young person with experience of the care system needing this help. And, at the time of writing, the Prime Minister has made a major speech on mental health. So it’s certainly on the agenda.

We know that children in care are often at greater risk of developing mental health and wellbeing needs. They do not always get the support they need and can face barriers in accessing services. So I’m delighted to co-chair an expert group looking specifically at the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people in care together with Professor Peter Fonagy. The expert group started meeting last year and the SCIE-led project will end in October. SCIE was been commissioned by the Department of Health to manage this ambitious initiative.

Everyone in the expert group wants to make sure the project makes a difference. We all feel strongly that it mustn't end up being a policy document, sitting on a shelf gathering dust. We want to see recommendations making a real difference on the ground. The group includes lots of people with direct experience of care services, who are experts in their field, and that’s really important when discussing how we can improve the experiences and outcomes of people who are care-experienced.

We’re specifically looking at:

  • Children and young people in care
  • Those adopted from care or under a Special Guardianship Order
  • Care leavers.

The project will involve developing care pathways. These focus on the journey that a child or young person in need of support might make and forms a description of the help someone can reasonably expect to receive – an ‘entitlement’ if you like. It will also involve developing models of care; making sure that appropriate, evidence-based interventions are achieved. And we want to have quality principles; clear statements and measures that set out an achievable marker of high-quality and effective care. We will then produce implementation plans and products to support the use of the care pathways, models of care and quality principles.

We hope that in the future, children and young people in care will have access to high-quality services, based on a clear assessment of need, from a range of professionals working across agencies.

It is good that this long-neglected area of policy is finally in the spotlight and through the work of the expert group we are determined that the needs of children in care will not be lost in the wider focus on mental health support for all young people. But our success will be judged by the future experiences of young people and their carers, which is why it is so vital that their voice is heard loud and clear throughout our work. We are all determined to ensure this happens!

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