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This Children’s Mental Health Week I want to draw attention to a specific group of children – children who are living away from home in care. Many children in care and care leavers have experienced traumatic and complex challenges in their lives.  As Children’s Commissioner for England, I have a particular responsibility to promote the rights of children in care and those who have left care. 

Yesterday my office attended the Care Leavers’ Ministerial Board and listened to care experienced young people speak powerfully to Secretaries of State and Ministers about their ambitions for their future. These young people were deeply inspiring, and keen advocates for care leavers today as well as future generations of children in care. Central to their ambitions was the need for the right mental health support, throughout childhood and for as long as it is needed into adulthood. 

It is down to us to meet these ambitions. It is vital that every child in care can access the right mental health support when they need it, and before problems escalate. Yet my independent advice and advocacy service ‘Help at Hand’ has encountered too many children who are struggling to access the help they need. Earlier this month I was glad to see the Government’s implementation strategy, ‘Stable Homes, Built on Love’ recognise the need to review the level of mental health training for key social care practitioners. In my response to their consultation I will be setting out how I think they can go further in ensuring every child gets the right mental health support.  

During Care Leavers Week in October, in my Vision for Care Leavers report I called for greater mental health training for Personal Advisers – a dedicated support person designed to help care leavers access the help there are entitled to. It’s vital that PAs and the wider children’s social care workforce is equipped with the knowledge and skills to support children and young people.  

While mental health services are a vital part of the picture, what is equally important is ensuring that all children are living in placements where they can form stable, loving relationships which can help them recover from any previous trauma. The Government strategy rightly recognises the importance children having access to loving and nurturing relationships that can support them throughout their lives.  Sometimes these relationships will be with carers and professionals, but they may also be with siblings. In my recent Siblings in Care report, children talked about how their sibling relationships being a central pillar of their support network,  

As one care leaver said: 

‘You don’t even need to speak. You just know. When it comes to Mum, or certain situations, there’s something where you comfort each other’ – Male, care leaver. 

I was very worried to discover that 37% of children in care with a sibling are separated from their siblings, often because too few homes are available. 

This is part of a wider picture – there are too few of the right kind of loving homes for children in care. One particularly pressing issue that my team has observed is that children with complex needs and challenging behaviour appear to be falling between the gaps between secure mental health settings and secure and therapeutic children’s homes. As research from Nuffield today shows there have been an increasing number of children being deprived of their liberty in settings which are not appropriate, and will not help them to recover and rebuild their lives.  

I am committed to deliver on the ambitions of those young care leavers I heard from yesterday. I will shortly be publishing my annual mental health briefing that will highlight how many children are waiting for the right mental health support, and making recommendations to government. And I will be formally responding to the consultation on the Government’ social care strategy, raising the need to urgently address the sufficiency challenges, particularly for children with complex needs, and the need to make sure the workforce is equipped to support children when problems arise.  

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