My role is to advocate for all children, with a specific focus on children in care. I feel honoured to hold this position as it allows me to speak up for children who are too often overlooked. One group of children that I worry about most of all are those children, over a thousand a year, who are deprived of their liberty because that is the only way to keep them safe. But these children do not live in one of the specialist secure children’s homes in the country. Instead, they are often placed in deeply inappropriate placements.
Of course, I don’t want to see any child deprived of their liberty, or living in an institution. We need more support for families and children early on, so that these crises don’t develop. But for those children where it is necessary, who can only be kept safe in this way, the settings must feel as familial as possible, and provide love and care.
Too often now this is just not happening. My team have met children who have been placed in a caravan in the middle of winter, constantly supervised by agency staff with no training in healthcare, and no real education offer. Or in a rented house where the doors are locked, with no other children, and nothing to do nearby.
These children are falling between the gaps of different statutory services which are under immense pressure, and working with different thresholds for support. As a whole system we haven’t worked out how we should be meeting the needs of these children. I know there are some areas trying out new approaches, with homes that specialise in supporting children with high levels of need, and intensive therapeutic support in place. But there are not enough such places, and often structural barriers in place to creating more.
This experiences of this group of children are perhaps the starkest argument that can be made for the urgency of reforming children’s social care. For a child to end up in this situation means that too many things must have gone wrong along the way – with missed opportunities to intervene early, provide loving and stable care placements, and appropriate mental health support.
It is clear that we need to develop a new model of care for these children. One where mental health services and children’s services are working hand in hand to meet children’s needs, and these children can get the local, caring provision they need. I will be carrying out work this year to reimagine what this care could look like, learning from the children who have experienced what happens when the support they needed just wasn’t there.
If you are a child in care, or someone working with a child in care, and are struggling to get the right support please contact my Help at Hand team who can offer advice and assistance.