While much of last week’s news agenda was dominated by, among other things, the Conservative leadership battle, Chilcot and Brexit fall out, an important report by Sir Martin Narey went largely under the radar.
Sir Martin’s review of the children’s homes estate in England may not have got the publicity it would have during a less busy news week but it made vital observations about the care of thousands of vulnerable children.
The report’s recognition of the important role children’s homes fulfil in providing security and care to those who have been through so much was very welcome and long overdue. Children often tell me that the first time they felt safe was when they were taken into care – and no longer had to find ways to cope with the chaotic, disruptive and sometimes dangerous situations that living with their parents placed them in.
Children often enter the care system traumatised by their experiences, which typically involves abuse or neglect. Intervention by children’s services is just the start of a difficult journey as children try to make sense of their situation and find a path to a brighter future.
It was beyond the scope of Sir Martin’s review but it is important to reflect on the support children receive on this journey. Many are deeply psychologically and emotionally traumatised by abuse or neglect and we must do more to address their needs. Recent research undertaken by my office found that more than a quarter of all children referred to local Child and Mental Health Services (CAMHS) were sent away without help – including some who had attempted suicide.
Sir Martin’s report acknowledged that all children are different and that, for some, children’s homes must remain the preferred option not least because of the ‘stability they can deliver, and the high-quality care they can extend to children who have had terribly fractured lives.’ We need to listen closely to children’s preferences when important decisions about their care are being taken, including where they will live after they have been removed from harm.
13 We need to ensure all children’s homes offer this and look at the creation of smaller children’s homes with lower ratios of children to staff, that promote a sense of belonging and friendliness.
As Sir Martin rightly points out, this support should not stop just because a young person has reached 18. Most young people outside of the care system rely on their parents to help them make important decisions about their education, careers, where they live and the day-to-day challenges they face, well into their twenties. The Government’s Staying Put initiative, brilliantly, is now allowing young people in foster care to stay past their 18th birthday. Young people in children’s homes – whose needs are often more complex – undoubtedly need something similar. This is why Sir Martin’s recommendation that young people in residential care should be able to stay in touch with their old children’s home and get advice and support, makes so much sense.
‘Staying Close’ has the capacity to help young people move on without being left behind.
These policy ideas have the potential – along with other reforms outlined in the DfE’s new strategy document Putting Children First – to help create the stable, caring environments that young people in care crave and need to find their way in life and reach their full potential.